The state within a state

In his book India & Pakistan, published at the turn of the millennium, Ian Talbot – a renowned scholar of Subcontinental history – termed the Muttahida Qaumi Movement a “secondary state”. A majority of Pakistanis would most likely know where this state is located: the political party has ruled Sindh’s two most important cities for nearly three decades now. While its supremacy is now deemed an illusion, with documentary evidence somewhat confirming the charges of election rigging that have been levelled against the party for a long time, there was once a time when the MQM truly was popular in Karachi and Hyderabad. Because there truly was a time, when the state failed the citizens of Karachi once too many times, and there was only one place they could go to seek help and be heard: Nine-Zero. When the state did not even provide the katchi abadis of Karachi with pipe water in the 1980s, the MQM demanded their legislation so that they could be provided with better amenities, legally. Similar civic rights that the state repeatedly failed to impart, were fulfilled by the secondary state of the MQM – legally or illegally. Thus, Altaf Hussain became the Don Corleone of Karachi – and, for many, still is. Is that a compliment or an insult? Depends on the side of the establishment you are on.

Heroes or villains?

Like beauty, the quality of heroism – and its evil brother, villainy – is very subjective, depending mostly upon the side of the border and colour of the skin you were born with. A majority of people who have sympathies with the MQM to this day, belong to the “Muhajir” community (the MQM itself was initially named Muhajir, not Muttahida, Qaumi Movement), and for good reasons. Back in the ‘70s when Altaf and his partners were fighting for the rights of urban Sindhis – mostly Muhajirs – the state, along with the establishment, was busy lending favours to the ethnicities of its choice. For Ayub Khan, it was the Pashtoons, while for Bhutto, the proud feudal son of Larkana, it was the Sindhis. Ayub Khan’s period saw armed clashes between the Pashtoons and Muhajirs, led by his own son; Bhutto, on the other hand, antagonized the Muhajirs in a more legislative manner.

Marred by the language riots of ’72, Bhutto’s period saw the passing of the bill that made it compulsory for non-Sindhi students and provincial government officers to learn the Sindhi language. This was followed by a severer blow: the Sindh Civil Servants Act, which came in 1973 with Pakistan’s longest serving constitution to date. The Act introduced a 40-60 urban-rural quota in the highly-coveted civil services – with 60 percent going to the rural population. A similar quota was introduced in medical colleges, which fixed 40 seats for students belonging to rural areas. To the Muhajirs – who were more educated than their peers and mostly resided in urban Sindh – this smelled heavily of favouritism. This perceived victimization was what led to the ultimate formation of the APMSO – All Pakistan Muhajir Students Organization – a body set up in 1978 to protect the rights of the Muhajirs, and led by none other than Altaf Hussain. The APMSO’s list of demands included clauses such as the abolition of the quota system, the increase in grant for Karachi University and other public universities, and the provision of better employment opportunities for Muhajir youth: it was everything that the Muhajirs ever wished for but were never valiant enough to fight for.

Thus, to many Muhajirs of the time, who felt discriminated against by their own government, Altaf Hussain was the man who not only stood up for their rights but also went to jail and was whiplashed for them. He was the hero who came to their rescue when their own “cruel” government marginalized and discriminated against them. Yes, the man who whimpers on the telephone from London and has the blood of many people on his hands, was a hero – to some.

Kill or be killed

The recent operation by the Army Rangers on Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s national headquarters – labelled Nine-Zero after its telephone number – unearthed a large quantity of weapons from the site; large enough to be deemed unworthy of a non-governmental organization. The operation in which Waqas Ali Shah, a worker of the MQM, was shot dead, was lauded by a wide range of Pakistanis. The logic behind the unapologetic joy of the Pakistani public – including many of Karachi’s own citizens – was the deep-rooted loathing that they harbour for the party. This hatred is mostly because of the perception that MQM is a militant party, the party which has been behind many target killings, as evidenced by the quantity of weapons recovered from Nine-Zero.

Saulat Mirza’s confessional video only cements that claim. The MQM clearly has come a long way from being the revolutionaries fighting against the oppressive state – they have become the oppressive state themselves. Years of fighting the establishment and the central government have turned what was a party of educated youth into a party that rules by the power vested in them by the gun. And while Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi, is in power, this “state within a state” cannot be allowed to thrive – it never has been. For the workers of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, it’s 1992 all over again – and they can be trusted to be prepared for it.