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Cities of joy

December 08, 2011

It is startling to note that a majority of political analysts and journalists from the Punjab still sound somewhat naïve and highly presumptuous while commenting on the politics of Sindh as a whole, and of Karachi in particular.

I must also add that from my father’s side I am a Punjabi, even though I was born in Karachi and have lived in this city all my life.

Never mind the usual jingoists and mind-numbing vendors of worn-out establishmentarian narratives that are heavily littered around local TV news channels in this respect, because unfortunately, even some of the most astute and insightful media men from the Punjab suddenly begin sounding rather wet around the ears when commenting on Karachi and the rest of Sindh.

Take for example Najam Sethi. An experienced journo and publisher from Lahore and certainly one of the sharpest and most perceptive men on TV and print journalism in Pakistan.

Though a robust political animal when it comes to understanding and relating the politics of Islamabad, the military establishment, foreign policy, terror outfits and, of course, the politics of the Punjab, yet he can’t help but stumble whenever commenting on Sindh and its capital Karachi.

I have found a number of the most progressive intellectuals and media men from the Punjab flip-flop from being profound and articulate while talking about something else but then begin to actually prattle when it comes to commenting on the political cultures of Sindh and Karachi.

I expect stunning insights from this far more experienced and worldly lot, but instead, all they can usually muster in this regard are a series of clichés.

On a side note, since I as a college student, was involved in various anti-dictatorship movements in the 1980s, the above-mentioned phenomenon has made me finally understand just why the bulk of the Punjab had remained silent when General Ziaul Haq’s tanks were mowing down one Sindhi village after another during the MRD (Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) agitation in Sindh in 1983.

In his desperation to construct his very own constituency, Zia had begun to patronise the economic well being of Punjab’s bourgeois and petty-bourgeois.

With Punjab’s economy booming and stomachs of its middle and lower middle-classes full, a democratic struggle against a military usurper meant little or nothing to them. To hell with Sindh! It’s full of terrorists and crooks anyway.

PPP activist killed by military during the 1983 MRD movment in Sindh.

So much has been written and discussed about the politics of Sindh and of its capital ever since the 1983 MRD movement and especially since the initial eruption of ‘ethnic violence’ in Karachi in 1986.

And yet one is still bound to face the most worn-out and clichéd claptrap about Sindh and Karachi from some of the most astute intellectuals and intelligent journalists from the Punjab.

For example, during a series of recent shows of his on Geo TV, Najam Sethi, while talking about the militant-wings of political parties in Karachi blundered on a number of fronts.

In one of the episodes of his show, he confidently claimed that the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) did not have a militant wing. This was a stunning disclosure from a man so historically attuned and intellectually competent.

Just how could he miss pinpointing a phenomenon that each and every student of a state-owned university or college has experienced for the last many decades? A phenomenon called the ‘Thunder Squad (Paracha, DAWN).’

Those who had been part of student politics in Pakistan’s state-owned universities and colleges are all well aware of such a squad.

Long before any major political party constituted armed wings within their respective student units, the Thunder Squad was the first true manifestation of armed action that not only included student militants but common criminals as well.

To be fair, Sethi did change his claim (a bit), when in another episode of his highly rated show, he said that the JI did have a militant-wing – but not any more.

Not exactly. The Thunder Squad is still very much alive, not only in Karachi but also (if not more so), in Lahore (Ballen P:126)!

The only difference in Karachi now is that since the JI has almost completely lost its vote-bank in this city, especially among its traditional supporters of yore – i.e. the city’s trader classes (who have over the years mostly switched their loyalties to Sunni Tehreek) – JI militancy is struggling to find a turf it can call its own.

But does that mean its militant wing has withered away? Not really. It was very much in the picture during the tragic May 12 episode in Karachi, as correctly highlighted by this report.

Sethi Sahib believes that in the next elections Karachi’s largest party, the MQM, will struggle because the population dynamics of the city have changed.

Sethi is right to state that today there are more Pushtuns residing in Karachi than before and that the largely MQM-voting Mohajir (Urdu-speaking) population of the city has comparatively shrunk.

This is correct. But then Sethi, for some inexplicable reason, went on to greatly exaggerate this change.

He confidently said that once Karachi’s Mohajir population stood at “70 per cent,” and that now it is drastically shrinking, as opposed to the Pushtun population in Karachi which now stands at “30 per cent!”

The fact is Mohajirs never constituted more than 57 per cent of Karachi’s population (according to 1951 census). This figure then stood at 48.52 (according to the 1998 census report).

As for the Pushtuns, their population in the city stood at 11.42 per cent (1998 census). How on earth did Sethi Sahib come up with a figure like 30 per cent?

Sociologists like Arif Hassan believe that the next census report may, at most, see the Pushtuns of Karachi now hitting a high of not more than 19 to 20 per cent, while the Mohajirs may shrink from 48.52 per cent to somewhere between 41 to 43 per cent.

Now coming back to the constant concerns of some of Punjab’s journalists’ and politicians’ concerns about Karachi-based parties’ militant-wings.

Every major political party in Pakistan has had militants, if not organised militant wings.

This trend began with the Jamat-i-Islami’s Thunder Squad (from the 1960s onwards) and expanded when violent state repression by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in the 1980s instigated ‘progressive’ student groups to also begin constructing their own militant wings.

It is true that from the late 1980s, the MQM has had some of the most organised militant units (‘Black Tigers,’ ‘Nadeem Commandos,’ etc.).

Charity worker, Abdus Sattar Eidhi collecting body of MQM militant, Fahim Commando, in 1993. Fahim was shot dead by security forces during the military operation against the MQM.

On the other end, some of the militant units in PPP’s student-wing, the PSF (in Karachi), have evolved into aggressive outfits like the notorious Peoples Aman Committee.

Though the ANP (in Karachi) does not have a name for its militant arm, but it is very much there, as the college students and shop-keepers in the Pushtun majority areas of Karachi would tell you.

Each one of these has also witnessed a gradual process of criminalisation within, with members entering various extortion and real state rackets and common theft.

Even in the interior of the Sindh province, Sindhi nationalist parties have heavily armed groups, especially those belonging to the Jeeay Sindh Thereek and its student-wing the JSSF.

But to suggest that PML-N does not have any armed militants in its ranks is just plain naïve on Sethi sahib’s part.

PML-N’s student-wing, the MSF, has been involved in a number of violent episodes ever since the early 1990s.

To quote from a local English daily’s editorial of October 9: “The PML-N’s student wing, the Muslim Students Federation, has often enforced its authority on campus by resorting to violence. Many prominent figures in the party have also expressed support for militant outfits like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and even maintained links with banned Punjabi groups. If the ban Sharif proposes (on political parties’ militant wings) is to be fairly enforced, then it would have to include his own party.”

Mian Nawaz Sharif arriving in Karachi

Karachi’s political economy is different from that of urban Punjab’s. Throughout the Zia period, Karachi’s (and the rest of Sindh’s) economics and overall sociology were not given the kind of state protection and patronage that the traders and businessmen of the Punjab were bestowed with.

The democratic interlude between the Zia dictatorship and the Musharraf dictatorship witnessed great political instability so much so that by the time Musharraf arrived (1999) even Punjab was feeling the pinch.

But whereas in Karachi, due to willful state negligence, businessmen had begun to use/pay militant wings of powerful political parties (both by choice and coercion) to safeguard their assets and lives, in the Punjab the trader classes began patronising militant Islamist organisations to safeguard their economic interests.

In the Punjab, at the revival of PML-N in the post-Musharraf era, the party was quick to acknowledge the fact that its main vote-bank comprising of central and northern Punjab’s petty-bourgeoisie and the trader classes, had drawn close to various puritanical Sunni Muslim sectarian organisations.

After the economic patronage that the Punjab received during the Zia dictatorship began to recede, these organisations played the role of ‘protecting’ the trader classes’ economic interests just as the militant-wings of the political parties did in Karachi.

The only difference was that by 2009, such a partnership had begun to haunt these classes in Karachi like a Frankenstein monster, whereas in the Punjab, it still continues, even to the point of the traders there being at least one of the main funders of sectarian organisations (Kamran, Journal of Islamic Studies).

So was there any surprise in watching PML-N leader and Punjab’s law minister, Rana Sannaullah, hobnobbing with one of the head honchos of a (supposedly banned) extremist Sunni sectarian outfit? No. Sannaullah was merely holding the hand of a force that also draws its support and funds from the same ‘patriotic’ segment of the Punjab as does the PML-N, and maybe Imran Khan will in the future.

PML-N minister Rana Sanaullah seen campaigning with Sunni sectarian leader, AM A. Ludhianvi

Now, I want to ask my colleagues and seniors in the Punjab intelligentsia and media, how different really is the sight of a MQM/PPP/ANP worker in Karachi holding an AK-47 in his hand than a leader of a mainstream political party holding the hand of a person who heads one of the most hate-spouting and violent sectarian outfits in Pakistan?

Armed supporters of Imran Khan's PTI

Alas, I’ll leave you with a little incident that should explain my dilemma.

Some two years while on a visit to Lahore, I was invited by a friend’s uncle to visit his factory in that city. This happened merely a few days after Lahore was rocked by a series of Taliban suicide attacks that had killed a number of innocent people.

We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries (in Punjabi), until I was taken aback when the uncle asked: ‘So, how’s the situation Karachi? I heard things are really bad there?’

Yes, Karachi violence became the topic of the day and the suicide attacks in Lahore were never mentioned. Because after all, violence only takes place in Karachi, enough even for the CJP to take suo moto action.

 

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.