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A turbulent political history

September 18, 2010


Imran Farooq's murder adds to an ongoing episode involving the fate of various political activists from Karachi. — Photo by AFP

Though the murder of Dr Imran Farooq may have closed yet another chapter on a famous MQM man, it does add to an ongoing episode involving the fate of various political activists from Karachi who have been part of shaping the city's politics in the last 30 years or so.
I say this because Farooq belonged to that generation of young men and women who gave the politics of Karachi the kind of twist from which the city continues to reel.
This twist may appear to be wrapped in various violent and negative acts and vibes, but at the same time this was the kind of material that galvanised the country's only major metropolis towards becoming an important political arena.
Till the late 1970s, Karachi's importance was squarely based on its exemplary economic role. However, Karachi had (and still has) the most stunning array of ethnically and religiously diverse population in the country.
Also, till about 1977, the centre of political agitation in Pakistan was the city of Lahore, and both the 'establishment' and the political opposition had to put up a good show there to be taken seriously.
During that time, Karachi's agitational politics was mostly exhibited on university and college campuses. Some prime examples in this respect include the 1953 students' movement against the bureaucratic set-up of the old Muslim League government and the decisive 1968-69 student movement against the Ayub dictatorship.
Although a truly nationwide phenomenon, the protest and agitation in Karachi was mostly spearheaded by the left-wing National Students Federation (NSF). The movement in Karachi epitomised the peak of the progressive, left-wing student movement and its popularity in Pakistan.
The 1972 language riots was another episode. The Mohajir (Urdu-speaking) majority of Karachi was incensed when the learning of the Sindhi language was made compulsory in schools and government offices by the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Hastily formed Mohajir interest groups took the lead in the agitation and were supported by right-wing religious parties such as the Jamat-i-Islami (JI), whose student wing, the IJT, began making inroads into the city's universities and colleges that till then were hotbeds of left-wing student activity.
Apart from these upheavals, Karachi remained the country's economic and entertainment centre and its politics remained largely self-absorbed.
However, in 1977, on the eve of the agitational campaign against the government of Zulfiqar Bhutto, Karachi's politics suddenly burst onto the mainstream. The campaign was kicked off by a nine-party alliance (the Pakistan National Alliance), led by the JI.
The movement was mainly supported by the country's lower middle, middle and business and industrial classes.
Though a nationwide movement, its biggest rallies took place in Karachi. This was Karachi's first major show of political strength. Leading the show in the city were cadres of the JI and the IJT, and many of these would later become the founding members of the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO), and subsequently, the MQM. 
The movement may have been launched to undermine Bhutto's 'socialist' manoeuvres, however, the Mohajir population's aggressive participation in it had more to do with what they saw as the Bhutto regime's 'anti-Mohajir' policies.
Economic downturn brought on by the 1973-76 worldwide oil crises also played a role in the disenchantment.
It is also true that while the movement primarily led by religious parties wanted a 'Nizam-i-Mustapha' (Shariah), many Mohajir cadres of the agitation were liberal in orientation — a fact that translated itself into the formation of the APMSO at the University of Karachi in 1978.
Founded by a young Altaf Hussain (formally associated with the IJT), its early members also included Imran Farooq and Azim Ahmad Tariq. The latter two had been politically active with the Liberal Students Federation at the university.
In 1981, the APMSO joined the progressive students alliance at the University of Karachi. The alliance, called the United Students Movement (USM), was leading the campaign on the campus against Ziaul Haq's dictatorship.
The Zia dictatorship that had toppled the Bhutto regime started to work closely with the JI to wipe out progressive and leftist influences from politics and society. In this regard, educational institutions became the policy's first targets.
The first major political assassination to take place in Karachi was the work of Murtaza Bhutto's clandestine Al-Zulfikar Organisation (AZO).
In September 1982, AZO men shot dead former JI member and pro-Zia politician, Zahoorul Hassan Bhopali in Karachi.
Earlier, in 1981, three murders had already taken place at the University of Karachi. IJT militants had shot dead NSF worker Qadeer Abid and then a USM activist Shaukat Cheema. A leading IJT man was mowed down by PSF militant, Sallamullah Tipu who would go on to join the AZO. 
By 1983 tension and violence between progressive student groups and the Zia-backed IJT became so intense that the APMSO was shoved out and its leaders were 'banned' by IJT from entering the university's premises.
This was when the APMSO began organising its units in the vicinities of Mohajir-populated 'gullies and mohallahs' (streets and neighbourhoods).
In 1984, Zia banned student unions. In the sudden absence of the ballot on campuses, the bullet completely took over.
IJT was the most well armed student party in the city, followed by PSF and BSO. It was only natural that to stay in the race, APMSO too set out to get the 'much needed' hardware.
Some of the first firearms obtained by APMSO were 'gifted' to them (for 'protection' purposes), by some militants of the PSF and NSF in late 1983.
In 1985, fierce riots between Karachi's Mohajir community and the city's migrant Pashtun population erupted when a Mohajir female student of a college was crushed to death by a public transport bus driven by a Pashtun.

Resentment was already brewing within Karachi's Mohajir majority against the arrival of a large number of Afghan refugees who had been pouring into Pakistan ever since the start of the Afghan Civil War in 1979.

Much of the city's public transport business fell in the hands of the Afghan refugees, and many Afghan refugees were also accused of running clandestine businesses involving the sale of guns and drugs.

Most of the refugees were Pashtuns, and since Karachi already had a significant Pashtun population, the troubles soon turned into vicious Mohajir-Pashtun riots.

These riots in which both sophisticated and crude, homemade weapons were used and in which hundreds of Karachiites lost their lives were one of the first signs of the fallout of Pakistan's involvement in the CIA-backed anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan.

The post-riots scenario saw MQM rise as the representative party of the Urdu- speaking population of Karachi.

In 1987, the MQM got its first major cache of weapons, when a number of AK-47s were sold to it by (ironically) the militant separatist Sindhi outfit, the Jeeay Sindh Students federation (JSSF).

This is also the time when MQM/APMSO is believed to have formed its first dedicated militant wing, the 'Black Tigers.'

Sensing the withering away of IJT after the demise of Ziaul Haq and the election of Benazir Bhutto's government, both APMSO and PSF tried to muscle in to fill the void created by the IJT's erosion at the University of Karachi. During that government, MQM had become a coalition partner of the PPP.

The tussle to gain ground at the university soon led to a series of violent clashes between the two triumphant groups. The clashes then spilled out onto the streets.

The two major players to emerge from the scenario were PSF's Karachi President Najib Ahmed and APMSO's Khalid Bin Walid. Both were also said to be heading special militant cells of their respective organisations.

The first such cells to appear in the PPP/PSF was in 1978. They were mainly formed to tackle the Zia dictatorship's heavy handed policies against the PPP. These cells then became highly militant when lead by PSF Karachi President, Salamullah Tipu in 1979.

A Mohajir, Tipu was a self-proclaimed Marxist who then joined the AZO in 1981. He was killed in Kabul (on Murtaza Bhutto's instructions) in 1984.

PSF's militant wing then came under the leadership of another Mohajir from the lower middle class, Najib Ahmed (in 1986). His group was instrumental in sidelining the IJT and then challenging the APMSO's influence in Karachi's educational institutions.

Najib was also accused of killing a number of APMSO militants before his own assassination in Karachi in 1990. The PSF accused APMSO's Khaled Bin Walid for the murder.

Walid was said to be in-charge of MQM's 'Black Tigars' group. Backed by the new Sindh Chief Minsiter Jam Sadiq Ali, this group was also accused of slaughtering a number of PSF and PPP men during the first Nawaz Sharif government.

A military crackdown was ordered (by the first Nawaz Sharif government) against the MQM in 1992.

In 1993, one of the founding members of MQM, Azim Ahmed Tariq was assassinated. The murder was blamed (by MQM) on the agencies. This was also when Imran Farooq went underground and re-emerged seven years later in London. He was being hunted by the military and the police which accused him of being a leading member of MQM's militant wing.   

Another militant group emerged in the MQM called the 'Nadeem Commandos' when the military (on the orders of Nawaz Sharif) began an operation against the MQM in Karachi.

This group was said to be led by APMSO militant Farooq Dada. In 1995, when the operation against the MQM fell in the hands of the second Benazir regime, Dada, and three other MQM workers, were shot dead by police in an alleged armed "encounter" near the Karachi Airport.

The same year, another former APMSO worker and leader of 'Nadeem Commandos' (according to police reports), was shot dead in a 'police encounter'. That was Fahim Commando who is also said to have taken part in the assassination of Najib Ahmed in 1990.

The military and paramilitary operation against MQM lasted between 1992 and 1998. Hundreds of MQM activists lost their lives due to assassinations and torture.

The operation also saw the birth of MQM (Haqiqi) - a faction led by some former MQM militants and facilitated in this pursuit by the military intelligence agencies.

A number of MQM-H men too lost their lives during the many turf wars that the group fought with the MQM throughout the 1990s.

As the decade saw secular political entities like the PPP/PSF and MQM/APMSO locked in a deadly embrace in Karachi, the void in this respect began to be filled by clandestine Sunni sectarian and extremist organisations. Their entry in Karachi's political arena went almost unchecked.

With the near demise of MQM-H, many of its activists became part of the Barelvi-dominated extremist organisation, the Sunni Tehrik. The Tehrik had emerged to challenge the arrival of the Wahhabi/Deobandi-dominated extremist organisations in the city.

Though the new millennium turned out to be stable compared to what went on in the city in the 1990s, and the state finally recognised the electoral strength of the MQM in Karachi, throughout the 2000s certain episodes reflected the fall-out of the violence of the preceding decade.

In 2000 Khalid Bin Walid was assassinated. After 2002, a number of police officers who were involved in the operation against the MQM too became victims of targeted killings.

Then in 2006, powerful bombs ripped across a huge Sunni Tehrik rally, eliminating the party's entire leadership.

Then in May 2007, Karachi's streets exploded with violence, the kind that the city had not seen since the 1990s. The MQM, which was a coalition partner of the Musharraf-led government, had opposed the entry of the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry (who had been deposed by Musharraf and was then leading a protest movement along with the PPP and the PML-N).

MQM is accused as the main culprit behind the May 12 violence but as the scenes of the deadly gun fights on the streets that day would suggest, almost each and every participating group was heavily armed.

The main gun fights took place between MQM militants up against PPP/PSF and ANP gunmen. Almost 40 to 60 people lost their lives that day, and Chief Justice Iftikhar had to cancel his trip inside the city.

However, as MQM became a coalition partner of the new PPP-led government, Karachi ironically became the most peaceful city in the country, especially in the face of the terrorist attacks by the Taliban taking place in the Punjab and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

But this peace is still not about the ethnic tensions that prevail in the city. Karachi may not be a hotbed of extremist thought and action, but off and on, it continues to face waves of targeted killings.

These waves are very much the echoes of what took place in the city in the 1990s. Many MQM, MQM-H, ANP, PPP and Sunni Tehrik men and police officers who have been targeted in these waves, one way or the other, have had some kind of direct or indirect connection with what transpired in the 1990s.

Perhaps Imran Farooq's murder too is part of this cycle?