Jan 18, 2010

Karachi burns, again

The challenge remains to fashion an alternative politics, something that the myriad progressive political and social forces in Karachi are capable of doing

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

For some months before the horrific attack on Ashura mourners, Karachi had surprisingly acquired the reputation of being the safest of Pakistan's metropolitan centres. Islamabad and Lahore were the primary targets of suicide bombers and the ethnic tensions that have blighted the city for decades appeared to be at least temporarily under check.

Unfortunately for Karachi's teeming millions, the respite was short-lived. The dust had barely settled on the Ashura carnage that the fires of ethnic hatred were stoked in Lyari. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has since taken the predictable public stand that it is committed to repairing the mistrust between Muhajirs and Baloch, but the suspicions about the MQM's role in instigating the violence run deep.

The latest episode is simply another illustration of how years of divisive conspiracies have ravaged Pakistan's biggest and most diverse city. It was not an accident that Karachi became the site of unheard of levels of ethnic and sectarian violence during the 1980s. Through the 1970s the city was the heartbeat of the country's working class movement, a melting pot of cultures that, despite the odd incident, never experienced the kind of parochial violence that became commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s.

Working-class militancy was anathema both to private industrialists and the state, and it was thus necessary to sow the seeds of division within working people. By the late 1970s it was clear that the more progressive trade union formations were being weakened and "pocket" unions that were linked to establishment parties, such as the Jama'at-e-Islami (JI) and later the MQM started to become major players. Sadly, it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's regime that set the stage for this subsequent degeneration by undermining the autonomy of the trade union movement.

This is not to suggest that there was no ethnic tinge to the working-class movement before the 1980s. Until the late 1960s, most of the industrial working class in Karachi was muhajir, and the skilled sections of the labour force remained primarily muhajir even afterwards. Sindhi-Muhajir tensions simmered for much of the two-decade period between partition and the popular movement of the late 1960s.

Subsequently, however, with the influx of large numbers of Punjabi and Pakhtun migrants into the city, the composition of the working class changed substantially. Even at the peak of labour struggles in the 1970s, ethnic tensions were latent. It was these tensions that the state proceeded to deepen; the end result was the fragmentation of the labour movement and the politicisation of ethnicity and religion in previously unimaginable ways.

Karachi burned through the 1990s as the real impacts of the state's policies were brought to bear. However, the MQM only established a complete political monopoly over the city after General Musharraf came to power. It was through the suspect local government plan that a formal power-sharing arrangement was fashioned, but despite the gains made the MQM has maintained a commitment to vigilantism as a means of countering the various threats that it faces from both exclusivist and more expansive political formations operating in the city.

The sub-plot of the violence that has gripped the city in the past few weeks has to do with the formal abolition of the local government system. The PPP's slogan of reconciliation notwithstanding, the recent history of Karachi politics suggests that it will be difficult to keep the various power centres in the city happy, largely because the MQM insists that it is able to keep a vice-like grip on the city.

So, for example, even before Muhajir-Baloch tensions erupted, the MQM had been openly baiting the city's Pakhtun population, especially in the wake of the military operation in Malakand which resulted in the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Swat and its environs into Karachi. However, the MQM's provocative politics has not succeeded in cowing Pakhtuns (and other groups) into submission. A party that continues to espouse a clearly racist posture towards non-Muhajirs will necessarily continue to face challenges from those who it vilifies.

The question, however, is not whether the MQM's tenuous monopoly over Karachi should be challenged, but under what guise. The reality of the deliberate politicisation of ethnicity and religion by the state is that anti-establishment struggles are increasingly particularistic in nature. The Baloch struggle is a case in point; there are many strands of the Baloch nationalist movement that are now narrowly anti-Punjabi rather than anti-establishment.

This is not to suggest that exclusivist tendencies are dominant but only to point out that it is necessary to explicitly counter such exclusivist trends and build a broad and expansive politics that challenges proto-fascist organisations such as the MQM without alienating all Muhajirs per se. It goes without saying that this is a formidable task but very little in Pakistan is easy these days.

The PPP has always presented itself as the one political party that is capable of bridging the gaps between the various ethnic groups that comprise Pakistan. And compared to other mainstream parties, the PPP does indeed enjoy the most broad-based support. However, underlying the PPP's politics of conciliation is an unwillingness to tackle the big fish, or in other words, those power brokers that are an impediment to a genuinely democratic dispensation. So, if the PPP placates players such as the MQM, it alienates those who want to challenge status quo and evolve a new political settlement that excludes bullies and bigots.

And so the challenge remains to fashion an alternative politics, something that the myriad progressive political and social forces in Karachi are capable of doing. Even if it is not possible in the current conjuncture to build a mass organisation, it is possible to exert pressure on the elected government to stop ceding ground to those who claim to be at the frontline of the fight against terror even though they themselves were the original perpetrators of terror in the 1980s and 1990s.

The fact of the matter is that ordinary working people, whether Muhajir, Pakhtun, Punjabi, Baloch, or hailing from any other ethno-linguistic group, want peace in Karachi. They want a peace that is based on the guarantee of justice to all people regardless of their nationality. If such a peace can be forged in Karachi, then we will prove that we do not need guns to beat those who use violent means to force themselves upon us.

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