THE Muttahida (formerly Mohajir) Qaumi Movement (MQM) has had a love-hate relationship with the army.
There is enough anecdotal evidence to show that General Ziaul Haq and the “agencies” — the catchall word most commonly used in Pakistan to denote the grim underworld of army intelligence — had a powerful hand in the birth of the MQM, the purpose of this benign exercise being to build, in Sindh, a counterweight to the Pakistan Peoples’ Party.
Did the agencies know what they were doing, what genie they were letting out of the bottle? Outstripping the goals of its mentors, the MQM soon grew into a powerful organization in its own right, the uncontested voice of the Mohajir under-privileged in Karachi and Hyderabad.
The MQM’s theme, with its echoes of fascism: the victimhood of the Mohajir under-class. The MQM’s message: emancipation through collective self-assertion. Its leader: a firebrand orator, Altaf Hussain (soon a Pir to his followers), possessing to an uncanny degree the power to whip up the passions and frenzy of his followers.
In a famous speech, Altaf Hussain called upon the party faithful to sell their TV sets and buy guns instead. Mass mobilization and tactics aimed at instilling fear in the hearts of opponents — I am choosing my words carefully — became hallmarks of the MQM’s politics.
From 1990 when Nawaz Sharif became prime minister for the first time, until mid-1995 when Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister Naseerullah Babar launched a vicious crackdown against the MQM, Karachi remained in the grip of a reign of terror, far more sinister and all-embracing than any terror generated by any martial law. Dissidents went in fear of their lives. Armed gangs collected protection money across Karachi. Newspapers, including the most well-established, bowed before the prevailing winds.
General Aslam Beg, who became army chief on General Zia’s death, had an unmistakable soft corner for the MQM. Well-founded rumour had it that he helped pitch the MQM into the ranks of the opposition to then prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
General Asif Nawaz who stepped into Beg’s shoes had other ideas. Not long after his installation he decided to crack down on the MQM. Marked by half-measures, this move came to nothing, the MQM bruised but by no means incapacitated. In any event, the situation was sufficiently fraught to persuade Pir Altaf Hussain to leave Pakistan and take up self-exile in the United Kingdom.
As part of the anti-MQM campaign, the ubiquitous agencies, encouraged a splinter faction to break away from the parent body and challenge Altaf Hussain’s leadership.This splinter faction was known as the Haqiqis, or the real ones.
Naseerullah Babar’s mid-1995 crackdown, marked by a spree of extra-judicial killings of important MQM workers by the police (workers suspected of terrorism but convicted by no court of the crime) brought the organization to its knees. The Haqiqis ruled Karachi’s urban sprawl unchallenged.
This state of affairs continued until General Pervez Musharraf’s political requirements, allied perhaps with his intrinsic sympathies, brought about another turn of the wheel. At the time of the celebrated referendum in 2002 — an event famous for its long lines of phantom voters, voters spotted miraculously by no one except the eagle-eyed Chief Election Commissioner, Justice Irshad Hasan Khan — and the general elections in October the same year, in which the clear military interest was to manufacture a pro-Musharraf majority — Gen Musharraf needed all the political support he could get. One of the sources of that support was the MQM and its mercurial chief in London.
The basics of a deal settled, the rest fell into place swiftly. Overnight the agencies abandoned the Haqiqis, leaving them to their fate, while shifting their fickle favour once more to the mainstream MQM. The police and other security agencies helped physically evict the Haqiqis from their strongholds in Landhi, Korangi, etc. This change of favourites was carried out with all the ruthlessness and lack of sentiment typical of such turnarounds
The MQM’s share in the federal cabinet, and Ishratul Ibad’s appointment as Sindh governor, are part of this (informal) deal between the MQM and the powers that be.
The chequered history of MQM-military relations thus makes for interesting reading: the MQM mid-wifed by one army chief, General Ziaul Haq; awarded medals of patriotism by another, Gen Beg; pursued and hunted by yet another, Gen Asif Nawaz; and in the pantheon of patriotism rehabilitated once again by another military benefactor, Gen Musharraf. Viewed from any angle, Altaf Hussain owes a lot to Gen Musharraf.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that he should have chosen to air views and utter sentiments during his recent trip to India which can only confuse and alarm many of his countrymen. Any individual is entitled to his views and if Altaf Hussain questions the wisdom of partition or the continued relevance of the two-nation theory as an individual it is nothing extraordinary. Not long ago, such views would have unleashed a firestorm in Pakistan. Not any more, perhaps because we are more blase about such talk than we used to be. Or perhaps as a nation we have become more mature, at ease discussing questions and propositions once considered heretical.
But Altaf Hussain is not just an individual. He is the head of a major political organization which, for good or ill, also happens to be a coalition partner of the military-dominated government. Any controversy he ignites, especially one which questions the very basis of the creation of Pakistan, is bound to rub off on his military patrons.
The military prides itself on being the guardian of the country’s ideological frontiers (never mind its less than complete success in safeguarding the country’s geographical frontiers). And here a leader basking in the warmth of military favour, pours honey and balm into the ears of his Delhi listeners by scoffing at the very idea of Pakistan.
There is already enough confusion in Pakistan, much of it spawned by the politics of this military government (its civilian facade no more than a facade). The nation probably can do without more confusion. Pakistan-scepticism on the part of habitual Pakistan detractors is one thing. But emanating from the heart of one of Musharraf’s core constituencies, it is bound to sow misgivings in the minds of ordinary Pakistanis. Where are we headed? they are likely to ask.
In this mounting confusion, it is relevant to ask: after five years of Musharraf-inspired nation-building, where does the nation stand? At the crossroads of violence, terrorism, the rise of mullah power, the squeezing of the mainstream parties which for all their failings and blunders represent the cause of democracy, and now, from an important quarter, doubts about the basis of Pakistan.
To crown everything is the insistence on the president continuing also as army chief, the implication being that otherwise events are likely to spin out of control. This is not a very flattering impression of Pakistan and fostering it is no service to the nation.