What message for Karachi?

March 06,2016

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What a roller coaster week this was. It began with the execution of Mumtaz Qadri and it is ending with the political turbulence that has been set alight by the sudden appearance of Mustafa Kamal, another estranged leader of the MQM, to challenge the leadership of Altaf Hussain.

Almost overlapping these potentially momentous developments are issues that relate to the status of women in Pakistan. They were prompted by the Oscar award for a short documentary on honour killing and the passage of the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence law.

These are developing stories that we need to interpret carefully to make some sense of the changes that may be inducted in the policies and sense of direction of the present ruling arrangement. The decision to go ahead with the execution of Mumtaz Qadri and to manage its repercussions is significant. Does it indicate any fresh resolve to deal with the prevailing religiosity and fanaticism of the Pakistani society and can we expect more actions in this direction?

Similarly, the manner in which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government celebrated the Oscar recognition of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary on a subject that our activists have been aware of for a long time would suggest that there is a plan to improve Pakistan’s liberal credentials. The initiative of the Punjab government to empower women through a legislation that has provoked the religious lobby and the Council of Islamic Ideology may reflect the same approach.

We will, though, need more evidence to be convinced about the resolve of our rulers to forthrightly confront the forces of religious extremism, obscurantism and fanaticism. We do not know if there been a serious review of ideas that have steered our national security policies. Unfortunately, the obsession with India, though mutually fostered, tends to irrationally influence our judgement. And this has a direct link with the dominance of religious and social conservatism at the domestic level.

Where does the political upheaval triggered by Mustafa Kamal belong in this scenario? Though the dramatic entry of the former mayor of Karachi has direct implications for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and thus the politics of Sindh, it is bound to have some impact on the national scene as well. It also has some bearing on the operation that was launched in Karachi more than two years ago – an operation that really gained momentum with the launching of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and then the induction of the National Action Plan.

In many ways, Karachi is where the country’s struggle against terrorism, extremism and violent crime will be resolved. It is historically the engine of our economic growth. Its shadow, often dark, falls across the entire country. It is truly defined as ‘mini-Pakistan’ – and so it is also in terms of our antagonistic contradictions and political incongruities. Karachi is also a manifestation of our crisis of identity.

Against this backdrop, it has never been easy to understand Karachi and how it has constantly remained in a state of flux in a political, demographic, economic and cultural context. As one of the world’s largest cities, it presents an instructive illustration of urban disorder. It is in this setting that the MQM built its citadel of power on the potentially divisive foundation of linguistic and ethnic identity. This divide superimposes the urban-rural demarcation of Sindh, with its own deadly consequences.

How Mustafa Kamal’s brazen revolt against his own party will affect the politics of Sindh and the state of affairs in a city where he had earned his reputation as a builder of flyovers and underpasses is an important question that has presently been overshadowed by turmoil within MQM. This will remain the focus of the nation’s attention in the coming days. There are reasons to believe that Mustafa Kamal’s arrival with another prominent MQM leader is part of a minus-Altaf plan that may have been conceived by the establishment. We know how the MQM had survived the past operations against it in the 1990s, launched by the same establishment that later adopted a party that is wedded to violence.

But let us not be distracted by the complexities of the MQM’s history. Here we are in a new situation, and Altaf has become vulnerable in the wake of developments that have taken place in Karachi as well as in London. In his press conference on Thursday, Mustafa Kamal made a direct attack on the person of Altaf Hussain. This was clearly a strategic move.

The MQM has been held together by the cult of Aftaf’s personality. Hence the slogan that anyone who betrays the Quaid is deserving of death. One shudders to think that it was meant literally and a number of defectors and dissents had to pay with their lives. Mustafa Kamal, who had escaped to Dubai three years ago and was lying low, has chosen an opportune moment to attack his former Quaid. He did so with a touching – and tearful – rendering of how two generations of Urdu-speaking youth of Altaf’s followers had been brutalised.

As would be expected, the present MQM leadership rejected Mustafa Kamal’s allegations and protests were held in Karachi on Friday to express love and respect for ‘Altaf Bhai’. Altaf himself is banned from appearing on the electronic media and so we cannot hear from him. But his appearances in the past would certify the allusions made by Mustafa Kamal about his physical and mental state.

In his extended press conference, Mustafa Kamal also announced the formation of a new party he said has yet no name. He and Anees Qaimkhani unfurled the national flag as the party’s flag, which made little sense. The idea, manifestly, is to rescue the MQM from its leader. This would not be possible without many other things happening in different spheres. Some defections, though, are readily expected.

Mustafa Kamal comes with his own baggage. Irrespective of how credible his performance as mayor may have been (and his exploits were only possible because of the resources provided by the Musharraf government), he did not show sufficient remorse for his past affiliations and was not very candid about what he must surely know about the party’s activities.

But can the MQM – or its reincarnation – be as relevant now as it was in the past? What has Mustafa Kamal learnt about the role of identity politics in an essentially plural constituency? Mustafa Kamal must know that he has not returned to the same city of which he was a mayor. Karachi’s new realities cannot be dealt with the rebirth of an old party. And that is what Mustafa Kamal has to think about.

The writer is a staff member.

Email: ghazi_salahuddinhotmail.com


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