MQM: the road ahead

Published August 27, 2016

IN every nation’s history, there are defining moments, moments that augur a shifting of the tides. The last few days in Karachi have provided several such moments, and on Thursday they coalesced in a stark image, the likes of which an entire generation of Pakistanis, specifically those living in Karachi, could never have imagined they would witness. In different parts of the city, as well as in Hyderabad, posters of MQM supremo Altaf Hussain were taken down from where they had gazed upon the citizenry for decades. Even Azizabad — the Karachi locality synonymous with the party and where its formidable central headquarters Nine-Zero is located — saw posters, banners etc with the MQM founder’s visage being removed. Several unit and sector offices were sealed, though without legal orders. In the past, these controlled their respective localities with an iron fist — and more — and were the vital nodes through which Mr Hussain’s orders from London were carried out. Some were bulldozed on the grounds that they were built on encroached land.

And yet, in a city that has long been held hostage to Mr Hussain’s whims, where a phone call from him was enough to send Karachi spiralling into an orgy of violence at the hands of the MQM’s much-feared militant wing, there was a stunning lack of reaction from supporters. Then again, Karachi has changed in many ways, demographically and politically, in the years since the military-led operation against the MQM in 1992; its people are wiser, and many of them are weary of the party’s unabashedly authoritarian proclivities. Among the MQM’s leadership, instead of defiance, there is trepidation and fear, evidence of a party denuded to its core. The arrests and detentions of hundreds of MQM activists since the Rangers’ raid on Nine-Zero in March last year — sometimes through brutal, extralegal tactics — had already shattered the party’s air of invincibility. Then came Mr Hussain’s incendiary speech on Monday, which upped the ante significantly, and left the MQM’s leadership in Pakistan little choice but to disassociate itself from his remarks.

Although at this time, Dr Farooq Sattar and the other party leaders standing with him are under immense pressure on various fronts, a situation in which perhaps the only thing that matters is surviving the crisis, it is also an opportunity to look ahead. Those who have assumed the mantle of leading the MQM must acknowledge that the party has had a militancy problem and chart a course clear of that unsavoury reality. There is yet a core constituency that looks to the party to represent its interests, and which has continued to vote for it in considerable numbers. For its part, the state must now stop placing roadblocks in the way of the MQM’s functioning. What has happened over the last few days is a sea change. The question to ask, however, is this: is it a game changer?

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2016

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