South Asia | Pakistan's ‘City of lights’ Karachi now an arena of nationalist struggle

Pakistan’s ‘City of lights’ Karachi now an arena of nationalist struggle

Salman Rafi September 10, 2016 6:17 AM (UTC+8)
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Muttahida Quami Movement,  ‘the Mohajir identity’ has strong sociological, political and nationalist roots. Militancy in MQM stems from Mohajirs’ tussle with other ethnic groups who have migrated to the city from Pakistan’s frontier province as well as from neighboring Afghanistan over the past 30 years. The ethnic divide and marginalization that had originally given birth to MQM and helped transform it into a phenomenon continues to be as relevant today as it was in the late 1970s.

While the crises in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi is linked to Muttahida Quami Movement’s (MQM) involvement in militancy, there is more to it than meets the eye.

Policeman stands guard at an entrance gate with wax-sealed padlock, beside a poster depicting Altaf Hussain, leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) political party, after paramilitary forces sealed the headquarters in Karachi
A policeman stands guard at an entrance gate with wax-sealed padlock, beside a poster depicting Altaf Hussain, leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) political party, after paramilitary forces sealed the headquarters in Karachi, Pakistan, August 23, 2016. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Where the crisis signifies an ethno-national struggle of the Mohajir community, it also underscores that MQM cannot be done away with through military and police operations. The ‘Mohajir identity’ has strong sociological, political and nationalist roots and provides the MQM the much needed breathing space.

The crisis in Karachi, known as the ‘City of lights’, is a reflection of Pakistan’s still unresolved ‘national question’ that cannot be understood by boiling down the issue to militancy.

Militancy, on its part, stems from Mohajirs’ tussle with other ethnic groups who have migrated to the city from Pakistan’s frontier province as well as from neighboring Afghanistan over the past 30 years. This explains MQM’s anti-establishment stance and the paramilitary forces’ consequent operations against the party.

In the past few days alone, at least five major party offices were razed while 196 sector and unit offices in the city were sealed after the arrest of three suspected hit men belonging to the ‘MQM London secretariat’. The party’s leader in exile, Altaf Hussain, incited his supporters to attack channels that don’t cover his speeches triggering violence and subsequent arrests and shutdowns.

Although there is no evidence to disprove that ‘Mohajirs’, over the years, have virtually hijacked Karachi where a phone call from Altaf Hussain is enough to send the ‘city of lights’ spiralling into an orgy of violence, it cannot still be gainsaid that MQM and its ‘defectors’ continue to politically use the crisis to project their “nation’s” plight in Pakistan.

A local MQM source informed Asia Times on the condition of anonymity that the crisis, as also the divide among the Mohajir community, has strong ‘nationalist basis.’ The ‘national question’ is important here not merely because ‘Mohajirs’ have suffered a downfall in their erstwhile position but also because both MQM and its rival parties continue to exploit the ‘national question’ for gaining political power.

MQM members are being ‘targeted’ for their anti-establishment stance and their struggle for the emancipation of their “nation.”

No wonder, MQM’s opposition against charges of terrorism and militancy is largely based on a grand historical narrative which traces the ‘persecution’ of their community and the ‘sacrifices’ they made at the time of India’s partition in 1947.

As such, Altaf Hussain’s huge support base in the sprawling metropolis remains intact as does, sadly, the ethnic divide which he had previously exploited so skilfully to propel himself to power. This divide, cutting across provinces, reflects Pakistan’s intricate ethnic and social structure.

Of all the ethno-linguistic ‘nations’ that reside in contemporary Pakistan, the Mohajirs occupy the most contradictory cultural and political position. Internal class differentiation aside, Punjabis constitute a dominant majority, while Baluchs, Sindhis, Seraikis, the various communities in Gilgit-Baltistan — and many others — can be seen as underrepresented and less privileged.

There is no doubt that millions of ordinary people sacrificed much in choosing to leave their places of birth in India and coming to settle in what became Pakistan in and around 1947 (although it should be borne in mind that the majority of those who traveled across the border were Punjabis rather than Urdu-speakers).

However, a great many of these migrants never graduated into the ranks of the elite and their humble origins continue to be apparent today, providing the MQM, which basically emerged as a students’ movement in the universities of Karachi, the basic linchpin to evolve into a ‘national movement.’

Sources in Karachi say that while MQM still uses the ‘nationalist’ narrative for political survival, its descend into a ‘militant movement’ is largely due to the economic pressure Mohajirs has had to face due to the arrival of people from other provinces to Karachi and urban areas of Sind.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, a Pakistani academic who has extensive knowledge of the nation’s ethno-national movements, said: “The Mohajir narrative became more complicated when upcountry Pakis­tanis hailing from various ethno-linguistic back­grounds started to descend upon Karachi (less so other towns in Sindh) in the 1960s. Economic opportunities now had to be shared.

“The situation went from bad to worse following the accession to power of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto which promoted Sindhi culture and affirmative action for Sindhis generally. By late 1970s, the re­­la­tive privilege of Sindh’s Urdu-speaking com­munity had been whittled away considerably.”

Waseem Akhtar, mayor of Karachi and member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), speaks after the oath-taking ceremony in Karachi
Waseem Akhtar, mayor of Karachi and member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), speaks after the oath-taking ceremony in Karachi, August 30, 2016. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

While MQM’s nationalist narrative has strong political and economic basis, its militancy has strong ethnocentric basis and thrives on the sense of competition with other ethnic groups, particularly the Pashtuns, and consequent marginalization.

Although paramilitary forces’ extensive operation led to an end of MQM’s militant politics, the party is still strong.

MQM’s imprisoned leader, Waseem Akhtar, has recently taken the oath as Karachi’s elected Mayor, beating his rival candidate with a comfortable margin. That  the MQM, despite suffering extensive defections, is still going to lead Karachi municipality points to a core constituency that looks to the party to represent its interests.

While it may look good and well to curse the MQM and Altaf Hussain for making Karachi a living hell, an explanation for Altaf Hussain and the MQM’s resilience that ignores popular and nationalist support is insufficient and reductionist at its best.

The ethnic divide and marginalization that had originally given birth to MQM and helped transform it into a phenomenon continues to be as relevant today as it was in the late 1970s.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

Salman Rafi
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com
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