ABOUT 100 yards from our old family home in Karachi, 20 or 30 workers can be seen sitting in a line every morning. They include carpenters, plumbers and labourers, waiting for somebody to hire them for odd building jobs.
Not far away from them are food vendors next to Tariq Road, selling snacks consisting of chaat, dahi baray and chohlay. What these two groups of men have in common is their Pakhtun origins.
These are the people hardest hit whenever Karachi is shut down by one of its unending strikes or ‘days of mourning’. While they have nothing to do with the city’s vicious ethnic wars, they are the ones to suffer yet another day of income lost. While industrialists estimate total losses of these lockdowns at Rs4bn a day, labourers and small vendors count their losses in their inability to feed their families.
Last week was a prime example of just how dysfunctional Karachi has become. In tit-for-tat killings and ‘days of mourning’, the MQM and the ANP between them shut down the city for three days. Many people were killed, dozens of cars, rickshaws and buses were burnt. Children couldn’t go to school, workers failed to turn up to work, and life across the city was at a standstill.
While both parties were seeking to demonstrate their power, ordinary people from the communities they claim to represent were the hardest hit. Ironically, both parties are members of the ruling coalition in Islamabad, and the MQM is a partner in the provincial government in Sindh. One would have thought their role in the administration would have injected a sense of responsibility into their politics. One would have thought wrong.
The MQM was formed as an ethnic party in 1984, and was publicly launched by Altaf Hussain in Nishtar Park in 1986. The first wave of violence between the Pakhtun and Mohajir communities was witnessed in 1985. While the MQM had no public role in those riots, since then the city has been subjected to repeated bouts of urban warfare.
Back then, the major Mohajir-Pakhtun clashes in various localities involved the Irfanullah Marwat-led Punjabi-Pakhtun Ittehad.
The MQM has maintained that in those days it started encouraging its supporters to take up arms to defend themselves from other heavily armed groups that included Pakhtuns, elements of the PPP and later, the Pakhtun-led ANP. The latter then acquired additional weapons to counter the MQM threat.
Today, the ANP’s Karachi chapter is a force of such strength that areas under its control are no-go areas for ‘outsiders’.
Meanwhile, according to the WikiLeaks papers released through this newspaper, the US consulate in Karachi estimates that out of all the armed groups in the city, the MQM has the largest group of around 10,000, with another 25,000 in reserve. If true, this makes it amongst the most potent forces in Karachi.
But despite its electoral clout and armed might, the MQM remains an insecure party. The reason for this lies partially in demographics: while the number of Mohajirs who support it is subject to natural increase, other communities in Karachi such as the Sindhis, Baloch, Pakhtuns and Punjabis are being reinforced by migrants, and in recent times displaced people from the northwest tribal belt, from other parts of the country.
The MQM tried to expand its area of influence and politics beyond ethnic margins, but the integration process has not really gone forward — hampered in part by groups such as the Sindhi nationalists.
Yet as the numbers of non-Mohajirs increase, they want more land, opportunities and, above all, greater political representation. To finance their operations, these various political parties and their armed gangs engage in land grabs and extortion on an expanding scale. Many of the battles being fought on Karachi’s streets today are turf wars over the city’s resources.
One of the main complaints the MQM has voiced over the years has been about the lack of jobs for urban youth. But ever since its rise as the city’s biggest political party, it has contributed to acts that have only added to investors’ insecurity.
Logically, one would have thought that as the MQM, the ANP and the PPP were coalition partners in the federal government, they would have been able to hammer out a formula which would allow Mohajirs, Pakhtuns and Sindhis to coexist peacefully.
But sadly, logic is trumped by local ambitions and greed. Whatever the verbose interior minister might say, a single incident can spark off days of violence.
And since these parties are in government, the Karachi police are helpless in cracking down on the criminals who operate with immunity under their flags. As soon as they are arrested, they are released by orders from above. Meanwhile, the death toll keeps mounting: according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, over 1,100 people were gunned down in Karachi in 2011. The way things are going, this number may well be exceeded by this year’s death toll.
Another problem the MQM faces is that it is doomed to be a junior partner in any political arrangement at the federal and provincial levels. Despite its many attempts, it has little support outside urban Sindh where the vast majority of Mohajirs live.
Like any ethnic or sect-based party, it is forced to keep a firm grip over its vote bank; hence the many allegations of the MQM’s strong-arm methods in virtually every election it has contested.
Both the major mainstream parties mistrust the MQM, but must cut deals with it to keep a semblance of peace in Karachi. Even Imran Khan has been forced to accept this harsh political reality. But the MQM’s edifice is precariously balanced.
Ultimately, the MQM’s destiny lies in demography: according to previous census data, the percentage of Mohajirs in Sindh is declining, and is expected to fall below 20 per cent in the next census report. Meanwhile, the ranks of other communities are swelling; in terms of Pakhtuns alone, an estimated one million people have so far relocated to Karachi following the start of the conflict in the north-western parts of the country.
To remain relevant, the MQM must break out of its self-imposed brand of ethnic politics. Above all, it needs to free itself from its image of a violent, out-of-control party seeking narrow political advantage through political blackmail.
And just for the record, I am a Mohajir myself, even though I cringe at having the label applied to me.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.