MQM: Has the machine begun to creak?

Published June 5, 2014
The future of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement is at best uncertain, but not necessarily bleak.
The future of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement is at best uncertain, but not necessarily bleak.

Ever since the late 1980s, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has aptly been described as ‘a well-oiled electoral machine’.

In Karachi – the country’s largest city and an MQM stronghold – the party’s electoral dynamics have evolved in such a manner that during national and provincial elections, most of what is required to run a successful campaign and contest an election begins to almost automatically fall into place.

Same is the case now with the protest aspect of the party’s politics. The city of Karachi begins to shut down even before (or any) call for a shutdown or a strike is given by the party, and when Karachiites believe that an event has occurred that might ruffle the party’s feathers.

In both circumstances, the MQM operates like a machine that automatically gets switched on to do the needful during an election or a protest. Much of the city of Karachi falls in line, as if instinctively.

Unlike the populist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), that has always had an overriding degree of spontaneity and an impulse in its ranks and support, the MQM is quite the opposite.

The MQM is a highly structured and well-organised unit that, ironically, is a counterpoint to the chaotic nature of the sprawling metropolis it draws a bulk of its support from.

The party’s edifice and inner-workings reflect the psychological and emotional disposition of the man who formed it – first in 1978 as a student organisation and then in 1984 as a mainstream political party: Altaf Hussain.

For long most of the people who worked closely with Altaf Hussain have considered him to be a ‘control freak;’ a man who is obsessed with maintaining discipline and order in the party – two things that for more than three decades now have eluded the city in which his party is a major political force.

Altaf Hussain: Obsessed with discipline?
Altaf Hussain: Obsessed with discipline?

But Karachi’s topsy-turvy and edgy nature is not entirely missing in the party’s temperament.

The constant flux that this city’s politics, economics and sociology are always in, has often seen the MQM use its strict disciplinary and organised aspects to systematically swamp, encircle and then absorb anything emerging from this flux, whether as a political and economic advantage to be gained or as a perceived threat to the party’s supremacy in the city.

Karachi: Edgy and chaotic.
Karachi: Edgy and chaotic.

In the first few years of its existence or between 1984 and 1992, its rise as a Mohajir (Urdu-speaking) nationalist party was so dramatic and sudden, that it’s early electoral sweeps in Karachi and the consequent political and economic resurgence of the middle and lower-middle-class Urdu-speakers of Karachi, left most of the party’s potential detractors shell shocked.

Since Karachi’s resources and ethnic balance had begun to come under great stress due to the unchecked influx of a large number of Afghan refugees in the early 1980s who had begun to pour in after Pakistan hopped into the Afghan Civil War, the crime rate and incidents of sectarian and ethnic violence in the city witnessed an almost three-fold growth and jump.

By the mid-1980s, Karachi, once called the ‘city of lights’ and ‘gateway to Asia,’ and a popular destination to do business in and seek out all kinds of modern pleasures, had become acerbic.

Its once radiant and famous cosmopolitan veneer began to erode, giving birth to a rumbling dark underbelly feeding on an anarchic black economy that revolved around guns, drugs, kidnapping and murder.

Suspicion and paranoia gripped the city’s populace, as one ethnic group began to accuse the other of trying to marginalise them and steal the city’s dwindling economic resources.

It was during this creeping malaise that the MQM was born.

A party that claimed to look after the economic and political interests of the Mohajirs in a city where they were the majority ‘ethnic’ group but supposedly being sidelined through violence and economic malpractice by the Punjabis and the Pukhtuns.

It was thus only natural for the party to get infected by certain side-effects of the malaise that it was born into. That’s why the party’s highly disciplined and organised electoral popularity and presence ran parallel to a more elusive and darker manifestation of its agenda.

The MQM’s sudden popularity also came with a heightened sense of paranoia; a feeling that the party had to grow a militant wing as well if it is to retain its political gains in an environment where the state and the government seemed helpless to contain Karachi’s changing rules of business.

These rules did not emerge from the parliament, a court of law or from a government’s cabinet. They had evolved from the city’s new underbelly.

In 1992, the state finally decided to step in.

By then, the MQM’s street power, electoral supremacy and militancy had all become willing hostages to the power plays between the country’s two major parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the moderate right-wing, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

The MQM thought it was being clever by extracting economic and political influence for itself by jumping to and fro between these two parties as they, apart from fighting each other, were also locked in a complex tussle for power with intelligence agencies trying to influence electoral politics in Pakistan.

Altaf Hussain with PPP Chairperson, Benazir Bhutto, in 1989.
Altaf Hussain with PPP Chairperson, Benazir Bhutto, in 1989.

With PML-N leader, Nawaz Sharif in 1992.
With PML-N leader, Nawaz Sharif in 1992.

Throughout the 1990s this complex wrangle saw the fall of two PPP and two PML-N governments, the ouster of two ‘establishmentarian’ Presidents, and a growing rift between the military and the politicians.

It also saw Pakistan reeling from a collapsing economy, ethnic violence and a more intense and ferocious rise of sectarian and sub-sectarian violence.

But did the MQM benefit from a tactic that it thought was a clever ploy?


Instead, between 1992 and 1999, it faced at least three full-fledged operations by the military, para-military and police forces.

Its legitimate electoral rise, as well as its many illegitimate militant attributes began to be seen as parasitic and problematic by the government and the state and they set out to clear Karachi from this freakish political anomaly that, interestingly, was still an awkward enigma and hard to understand outside of Sindh and beyond the province’s troubled capital, Karachi.

A grandmother of a slain MQM worker wails over his body during the first operation against the party in 1992.
A grandmother of a slain MQM worker wails over his body during the first operation against the party in 1992.

Contributing to this lack of understanding was not really the fact that (during the three operations against the MQM), the PPP and PML-N governments and state agencies had constantly highlighted only the more militant dimensions of the MQM through state-owned media.

What was more confusing to understand for those living outside of Sindh’s two largest cities, Karachi and Hyderabad, was the whole notion of ‘Mohajir nationalism’ upon which the MQM was founded and due to which it attracted support in the Mohajir-majority areas of Sindh.

After all, unlike the country’s four major ethnicities (Punjabi, Sindhi, Pukhtun and Baloch), the Urdu-speakers were not an ethnic whole with a shared history, culture, myths or, since a majority of Mohajirs had migrated from India to Pakistan, they were not ‘people of the soil.’

The two greatest waves of Mojairs (which in Urdu means refugees), that migrated to Pakistan after its creation in 1947 came from various parts of North India and East Punjab.

The Urdu-speakers among them mostly settled in Sindh, whereas the Punjabi-speakers entered the Pakistan side of Punjab.

The Urdu-speakers came from various parts of India that were distinct in their respective cultures. That’s why conceiving them as an ethnic whole was problematic and even improbable.

During the first two decades of Pakistan’s creation, the Urdu-speakers rose to become an integral part of the country’s initial elite classes (along with the Punjabis). But from the early 1960s onwards they were nudged out by the Pukhtuns in this respect and found themselves feeling scattered and lost.

Though socially their disposition was liberal, in the absence of having a cohesive ethnic identity in a country where ethnic politics was gaining strength, the Mohajirs politically aligned themselves with the conservative groups that were repulsed by ethnic politics and explained Pakistan as a united national entity held together by a common majority religion.

This arrangement lasted till the late 1970s and it was also the reason that had created the contradictory anomaly in Karachi that saw the liberal and cosmopolitan city of Karachi vote for right-wing religious and conservative parties in elections.

But all that began to change with the emergence of the MQM.

The Mohajir dichotomy between social liberalism and political conservatism was dissolved and replaced with a new identity-narrative concentrating on the formation of Mohajir nationalism that was socially and politically liberal but fiscally conservative and provincial in outlook.

The project was a success; first expressed in the manner the MQM broke the electoral hold of religious parties in Karachi and the subsequent invention of the Mohajirs of Sindh as a distinct ethnic group.

By 1992, the MQM had become Sindh’s second largest political party (second to the PPP).

A 1990s poster.
A 1990s poster.

But as the city’s economics and resources continued to come under stress due to the increasing migration to the city from within Sindh, KP and the Punjab, corruption in the police and other government institutions operating in Karachi grew two-fold.

The need to use muscle to tilt the political and economic facets of the city towards a community’s interests became prominent.

Thus emerged the so-called militant wings in the city’s prominent political groups.

These cleavages saw the MQM ghettoising large swaths of the city’s Mohajirs in areas where it ruled supreme.

The results were disastrous. It replaced the pluralistic and enterprising disposition of the Mohajirs with a besieged mentality that expressed itself in an awkwardly violent manner attracting the concern and then the wrath of the state and two governments (in the 1990s).

In 2002, the MQM began to regenerate itself after the crises of the preceding decade when it decided to end hostilities with the state by allying itself with the General Musharraf dictatorship (1999-2008).

The party now added two more dimensions to Mohajir nationalism.

It began to explain the Mohajirs as ‘Urdu-speaking Sindhis’ who were connected to the Sindhi-speakers of the province in a spiritual bond emerging from the teachings of Sindh’s ‘patron saint’, Shah Abdul Latif.

This was MQM’s way of resolving the Mohajirs’ early failures to fully integrate into Sindhi culture.

The other dimension that emerged during this period among the Mohajir community (through the MQM), was to address the disposition of the Mohajir identity in the (urban) Mohajir-majority areas of Sindh.

This dimension explains Mohajir nationalism in the context of Pakistan’s status of being a Muslim-majority state.

It expresses Mohajir nationalism through a version of socio-political liberalism based on the modern reworking of 19th century ‘rational and progressive Islam’ (of the likes of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan). It sees spiritual growth as a consequence of material growth (derived from modern free enterprise, science, the arts and the consensual de-politicisation of faith).

An MQM rally in Karachi.
An MQM rally in Karachi.

On the ground, MQM’s success as a constructive party during the Musharraf regime saw the party largely neutralising its so-called militant wings. But whereas this helped Karachi to enjoy a much-awaited spat of progress and peace during this period, it also opened up spaces for various other political groups to replace MQM’s hegemony in the city’s underbelly.

When the country’s economy began to slide again in 2007, the economic boom of the early 2000s in Karachi had already attracted an unprecedented number of migrants from the Punjab, KP and from within Sindh.

The gloss of Musharraf’s regime began to evaporate and Karachi’s resources once again came under duress.

A struggling legitimate economy again gave way to the dictates of the underbelly that was now populated by those who had begun to nudge out the MQM factor and hold over those instruments and businesses that the underbelly uses to draw money and political patronage in a collapsing economy.

The MQM’s response was one of panic and of a sudden realisation that the Mojair majority in Karachi had shrunk from being 51 per cent in 1981 to 48 per cent in 1998 to approximately 41 per cent in 2008.

Though the MQM was part of the PPP-led coalition government that followed Musharraf’s ouster, its street-power in the city had begun to be usurped by the more clandestine militant arms of the PPP and the Pukhtun nationalist party, the ANP. The ANP had become a minor force in Karachi because the Pukhtun population in Karachi now stood at about 20 per cent.

Desperate to regroup itself to retrieve what it had lost in the city’s underbelly during the Musharraf regime, the MQM behaved rather erratically as a coalition partner.

Then, after 2010, the situation in Karachi became even worse when sectarian and extremist organisations began to set up their own shady shops in the city.

The ANP’s influence was almost wiped out by the strong-armed tactics of these groups and the PPP’s elusive militant group began being ripped apart by vicious infighting.

As the more aggressive new entrants in Karachi’s underbelly continue to strengthen their hold over whatever assets and profits the city’s illegitimate sides have to offer, the MQM has gone into a tailspin.

Cracks have begun to appear within the party’s leadership. Some want it to continue evolving the way it was during the Musharraf regime, whereas some want it to revive itself as a purely Mohajir nationalist party.

The future of the party is at best uncertain, but not necessarily bleak. Because not only did it survive a decade of crackdowns in the 1990s, its electoral machine still seems well-oiled and highly functional.



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