Whither MQM?

Published March 13, 2016
The writer is a lawyer and academic.
The writer is a lawyer and academic.

THE Muttahida Qaumi Movement is again under attack, this time from within and by two former key leaders — the iconic ex-nazim of Karachi Mustafa Kamal and Anis Qaim­khani, the ex-deputy convener of the Rabita Committee. The allegations — that Altaf Hussain and the top leadership had connections with the Indian spy agency RAW — are not new. But this time they are accompanied by graphic details and come from a source perceived as credible by many. Expectedly, matters have taken a sombre, if not menacing, turn for the party, raising questions about its future and peace and stability in Karachi.

Unlike most other parties, MQM members and supporters comprise the urban, educated classes; but similar to other parties its leadership is cultist, and located in Altaf Hussain. From the outside, it looks like a tightly packed composite structure. But from inside it shows well-honed layers, lateral wings and vertical formations.

It has two sets of leadership, one in Karachi and another in London, but none is elected; and both enjoy their status at the pleasure of the ‘Quaid’. The local leadership, the Rabita Committee, is supposedly the highest governing body, but it is the heads of several sectors and hundreds of units that run party affairs at the grass roots, ensuring its electability, the capacity to mobilise supporters against local or central authorities, and even to flex muscles.


Disgruntled youth are being wooed by Mustafa Kamal.


It has evolved into a ‘national party’, yet it easily slips back into ethnic, ‘Mohajir’, politics, to protect its Urdu-speaking constituency that is concentrated in the urban areas of Sindh, and more importantly in Karachi that hosts the largest commercial, industrial, financial and labour markets in the country. No wonder, no government, central or local, can afford to alienate the MQM, as the city could see bouts of instability and violence if they do.

It would be unjust to affix the tag of muscular politics to the MQM alone. Our political culture over the years has turned violent thanks to the state that has expediently employed non-state outfits to help achieve its various agendas, local and regional. The religious right in particular has played a key role in ‘militarising’ politics.

The MQM’s initial resort to violence was also more in the nature of protecting itself against the Jamaat-i-Islami’s ‘militant’ student wings that operated in Karachi’s educational institutions where the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation, the MQM’s precursor, was born. True, later the MQM was also seen to adopt violent ways to deal with its adversaries, particularly the Pakhtuns, Baloch and Sindhi-speaking communities.

That was done also in connivance with, or for the convenience of, the state/government, be it the dispensation of Gen Zia or Gen Musharraf.

Indeed, the MQM’s rise in the early 1980s owed to the decay of the state ideology, ‘two nation theory’, which had been espoused by the first generation Urdu-speaking community through their representative religio-political fronts. However, a new Urdu-speaking generation saw the ‘old Pakistan’ first succumbing to Bengali nationalism and later to the rise of Baloch, Pakhtun, Sindhi and even Punjabi ethnic consciousness.

The use of identity politics, and later violence, by the MQM (then Mohajir Qaumi Move­­­ment) was welcomed by Gen Zia who saw in it an opportunity to foment political and ethnic divisions in Sindh that was the hotbed of the democratic struggle launched by the Bhutto women under the rubric of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy.

The changing demographics and politico-economic texture of Karachi, and the old grouse against the quota system, also strengthened the MQM’s narrative of discrimination against the Mohajirs.

Its message particularly resonated with a youth disillusioned with the JI’s conservative politics and that saw other communities catching up with, and replacing, the Urdu-speaking educated classes — those who had dominated the bureaucracy, judiciary, education, health, commerce and other sectors. Many highly skilled professionals belonging to the Urdu-speaking community migrated to the West.

However, among the middle-class and blue-collared Urdu-speaking people who supported the MQM for decades are representatives of a new third-generation Urdu-speaking youth. They are no more content with ‘identity’ or violent politics; hence, many voted for the PTI. They vie for better education, jobs, civic amenities, security and above all recognition of being part of a patriotic citizenry.

They see muscular politics being no more feasible in a city with other ethnicity-based militias. Many of them also carry the scars of having lost their loved ones, in addition to losing socio-economic opportunities. And they are also concerned about the post-Altaf Hussain scenario in the city. It is this class of disgruntled youth that is being wooed by Mustafa Kamal et al.

Whether the MQM acknowledges the discontent of this new generation of Urdu-speaking youth and accordingly adapts its politics, or faces more challengers, if not the fate of its earlier competitors (JI, et al) is yet to be seen.

The writer is a lawyer and academic.

shahabusto@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2016

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