Friday, Jan 27, 2023

Something is changing in Karachi

The city, and the party that controls it, could be on the arduous path to normalcy

MQM, Altaf Hussain MQM chief Altaf Hussain’s micromanagement of the party and exercise of control over frontline MQM leaders is described by Gayer.

This year, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is under pressure in its bailiwick, Karachi. People might switch to the rising graph of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party there. Both have cult, street power and an unbuttoned tongue, but Tehreek doesn’t do terrorism on the side. Both signal a weakening of the writ of the state in Pakistan.

Pakistan could be too late in waking up to the fact that it has lost “internal sovereignty” over 60 per cent of its territory, if you count almost all of Balochistan, most of the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan, half of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, parts of south Punjab and the city of Karachi as the “badland” of law and order.

A national consensus seems to have jelled around the latest operation by the army, aided by the police, to swoop down on the MQM and catch it in the act of running an underground state of terror. On March 11, the Rangers raided the headquarters of the MQM, known as Nine Zero, and captured several notorious target-killers — professionals who kill on payment.

The big catch was Faisal Mehmood “Mota”, sentenced to death in absentia in 2014 by an anti-terrorism court for killing journalist Wali Khan Babar in 2011. Another killer, Umair Siddiqi, confessed in court how MQM leaders had ordered him to kill some people out of favour with the party and how they had got MQM thugs to set a factory on fire in Karachi’s Baldia Town in 2012 because the factory owners had not paid “bhatta” (protection money) to the party. The fire took 257 lives.

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Is this the beginning of the end for the MQM? Is it something like what the army has done to the Taliban, bombing its safe havens, killing them in scores and making them escape to Afghanistan to become “crossborder” terrorists?

Not at all. The MQM is a political party of long standing, winning 84 per cent of Karachi’s vote and emerging as the third largest party in parliament, and also winning global kudos for running local governments in the mega-city. The garrison state in Pakistan produced non-state actors as instruments of foreign policy over decades and allowed Karachi to become the microcosm of jihad, all political parties developing “military wings” for protection and “extraction”.

There are 17 Taliban-related terrorist groups in Karachi in as many “no-go” areas. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has its stronghold in Lyari town, where “dacoits” reign while fighting internecine battles with one another even as policemen fall like ninepins matching their old weapons to the latest brands used by the terrorists. All parties top up their kitties collecting bhatta, kidnapping for ransom, holding up banks and grabbing land from citizens who can no longer protect their property. If the state came into being to protect private property, it has breathed its last in Karachi. The underworld of Mumbai is a picnic in comparison.


French scholar Laurent Gayer, in his seminal work Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (2014), describes how MQM leader Altaf Hussain remote-controls Karachi from London through terror and keeps his party leaders on a leash by subjecting them to the threat of violence through mid-level party henchmen. About the “unit-in-charge” (also known as sector-in-charge) person’s practice of protecting criminals, he writes: “My interviewee explained that the criminals of MQM are useful and rare these days, suggesting that units-in-charge shelter them to increase their autonomy of action and possibly to build up their reputation within the party. If some of the dirty work overseen by these units-in-charge might evade the control of their immediate superiors, their activities are tightly monitored by London, where the centre of command of the party (its international secretariat) was relocated in 1992.”

MQM chief Altaf Hussain’s micromanagement of the party and exercise of control over frontline MQM leaders is described by Gayer thus: “I was once interrupted during an interview with a unit-in-charge of the party in Landhi by a phone call from London. After hanging up, the unit-in-charge told me that the interview was over as he had just received a request from his bosses in Britain: a party worker had recently lost a relative and he was asked to present his condolences to the grieving family.” You get too uppity, you get killed.

The MQM can’t be exterminated. It has to become “normal”, just as the other political parties in this city of 20 million have to behave as part of the overall normalisation of Pakistan as a nation-state. What Gayer calls the “normalisation of the unofficial” has to end, and Pakistan has to return to de jure governance from the de facto sovereignty of non-state actors deployed by an irredentist state erected on flawed nationalism.


Things were not as bad post-1947, even after mass external and internal migration and its unsettling effects.

According to the 1951 census, 49 per cent of the population of Karachi was refugee. In Hyderabad, they were 71 per cent, while in Lahore the refugees accounted for 43 per cent of the dwellers. In the afterglow of the Raj, governance was by learnt reflex and of good quality, even after further refugee injections. After all, Karachi was always a city of migrants.

Something happened in the decade of the 1990s. Warriors were extracted from the madrasas by the state and trained with weapons they could carry while living in civil society. Doctrines were coined to justify this extreme violation of the sovereignty of the state through the empowerment of the religious leader. Karachi reacted by embracing the “abnormal” and countering violence with violence, as the police fled in the face of better-armed hoods supported by communities that had started enjoying their protection after a period of useless resistance.

The religious state produced its grand universal jihad, defeating superpowers but paying for it through self-destruction. Most of the new refugees were Afghans (4,74,162), but others too flocked to Karachi after being displaced. It became home to Uzbeks (30,000) and Hazara and Tajiks (20,000 each). Add to that some Bangladeshis, Burmese, Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Thais, Iranians, Iraqis and even Ethiopians, and you have a big unregistered patchwork.

The “self-correction” of the state has started from within the Pakistan army, and the benighted politician — under threat from terrorist abductions of his family members — has fallen in behind the GHQ. Pakistan had its anti-terrorism courts that didn’t work; now it has military courts that will hopefully work since military officers can’t be blackmailed by terror. Fortunately, the army is intact, still immune from the helplessness with which the police take to their heels when faced with the non-state actors. It is not like the Iraqi army, which ran away from Mosul in the face of the Islamic State, or the Nigerian army that fled after handing over their weapons to Boko Haram.


If Karachi is “normalised”, the MQM will learn to live like a normal organisation, unthreatened by non-state actors-turned-renegades and by ditching its target-killers after cleansing its structure of the internal terror that allows Altaf Hussain to micromanage it.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

First published on: 18-04-2015 at 00:16 IST
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