Wednesday, March 18, 2009
By Gibran Peshimam, Karachi, Sindh
Courtesy and thanks: The New
What is it about the acronym “M-Q-M” that stirs up polarized views of either unbridled apprehension or unquestionable devotion? What is it about this party and its leader that has made it so potently vilified or sacredly defended that even the most innocent of discussions on the topic end up in heated debates?
As the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) celebrates the silver jubilee of its establishment amidst the fanfare of its new calling card of ‘development’ – backed by flyovers, underpasses, water projects and mega-parks – it has, despite all efforts, been unable to shake the tag of terror – backed by hellish stories of torture, killings, extortion and intimidation. The 90s are not only known as the decade of democracy, but the darkest years of the country’s largest city.
It was, however, not always like this. MQM was not always a euphemism for intimidation.
In its initial years the MQM was not merely a party – it was a phenomenon. Its leader, a young, outspoken and enigmatic twenty-something saying things that struck home for a huge chunk of the lower-middle class Urdu-speaking population – a majority of whom were relatively apolitical and docile. It was a political movement whose success was fuelled by social and ethnic causes. Until the MQM came around on March 18, 1984, these causes were discussed only in the drawing rooms of 100-something square-yard plots of Karachi’s suburban heartland. Suddenly, there was a young, charged man who was saying all these things in the open.
The whispers of discontent regarding newly-imposed quotas, the anxiety over the language riots – articulated by Raees Amrohvi’s “Urdu Ka Janaza Hai, Zara Dhoom Sey Niklay” – the outrage over the infamous ‘three-naught-three’ (303) controversy, were all suddenly no longer mumbles of complaint; they had become topics of charged speeches.
The MQM drew unprecedented crowds, the first example of which was the mammoth and exceptionally-organised rally at Nishtar Park on August 8, 1986 – a day which the party still celebrates as the moment the MQM came to the fore as a political force. Tens of thousands attended that memorable rally, and stayed despite the rain.
So instant was the party’s success that, three years into its existence, it swept the local bodies’ election in 1987.
How then did it go wrong? How did the MQM go from the party of the oppressed to a party seen as oppressors by many, from ardent activism to marauding militancy? Why was the need created to call the Army in to launch Operation Cleanup, which led to the bloodiest days in the city’s history?
The MQM and its supporters fell into the classic trap that consumes many similar socio-ethnic political movements. The politics of repression, on which such movements’ initial popularity hinges, transmogrifies into a kind of paranoid obsession. The world around begins to be viewed through the lens of mistrust; siege mentality creeps into the movement’s thinking. Encouraged by the massive response to a novel movement, instead of asking for rights, they begin to believe it can just take them. Voluntary contribution by supporters soon becomes mandatory donation.
Not unlike the stereotypical outcome of a meteoric rise to fame, success and support become addictive. To feed this addiction, rhetoric is replaced by the use of weapons – which were plenty available after the flow of arms into Pakistan for use in the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets during the eighties.
That many of those who had crept into the top tier of the MQM were not the same people who had joined the cause when it was in its purest form – i.e. the Students Action Committee, which then became the All-Pakistan Muhajir Students Organisation (APMSO) – made the party’s transmogrification even more possible.
The MQM may not see it this way, but its move to remove its excessively militant political leadership in 1991, including Amir Khan and Afaq Ahmed (who would go on to form the Mohajir Qaumi Movement-Haqiqi), clearly reflected the realization that this was happening.
The loss of identity following the expulsions and then the departure of Altaf Hussain into self-exile threw the party into a tailspin in terms of leadership. With one leader miles away and the other, Azeem Ahmed Tariq, seeming to have changed his mind about the movement amidst a crackdown on activists, the party did not seem to know what to do.
On June 19, 1992, the operation against the MQM would begin and further fuel the new violent and paranoid nature of the party. Reaction to state aggression was even more potent, and gripped the entire city. For its detractors, MQM was soon a synonym for violence; its activists viewed as thugs. The jubilant cheers of mass gatherings was lost in a barrage of gunfire; the cause consumed by the cancer of fear – seemingly forever.
Yet, despite it all, MQM continued to appeal to a majority of those who believed in it, despite the allegations of terrorism. The movement’s support proved too strong, too deeply entrenched to wipe out. This is something not even the harshest and most devoted detractor of the MQM can deny. Whatever its image, the bulk of MQM’s support remained steadfast.
Post-2002, however, the MQM made a political comeback. A resurgent party, bent upon changing its image (having already changing the M in MQM from Mohajir to Muttahida in 1997), re-entered the political arena after boycotting the 1997 general elections and the 2001 local government polls. The party has made concerted efforts to transform behind slogans of development and progress, and the people of Karachi are clearly rallying behind them in even larger numbers.
The MQM’s policy to concentrate on its local government wing, Haq Parast, has proven to be a brilliant one; one which has not only pulled the party out of the morass that promised to asphyxiate it forever, but actually won over even more support in Karachi.
The organizational restructuring of the party by Altaf Hussain and the induction of heavily educated and fresh faces has gone a long way to change the perception of the party in the eyes of many. The MQM has begun to shed the moniker of ‘un-criticizeable’ – with its new faces willing to face criticism and defend party policies. Most of all, they are no longer self-professed victims.
The new generation, as evidence of this re-transformation, does not fear the MQM the way the last did.
Yet, incidents of violence, such as May 12, 2007, and April 9, 2008, have surfaced time and again, threatening to the pull the party back into its role in the darkest days of Karachi. In addition, a vast majority of its young activists remain aggressive and willing to resort to violence on the streets and on educational campuses.
The MQM’s past makes it an easy target. In a situation where two parties are equally to blame, the MQM will bear the brunt of criticism.
However, those living in Karachi will testify that the MQM is a resurgent force; their political representation is now full of non-Urdu speakers evidence of their rising above a purely ethnic party. Like them or not, today they have given a voice not only to Mohajirs, but to the people of Karachi – now a teeming polyglot urban centre.
Many, especially the older generation and detractors outside Karachi, will be unwilling to accept this – but the MQM’s vast and growing popularity, particularly among the youth, is evidenced by the fact that a majority of the people of Karachi have thrust Altaf Hussain and the MQM into mainstream national-level politics.
Labels may be hard to shake and moulds hard to break, but the MQM is doing a damn good job of it. And this is just the beginning – the true limits will be reached once its breaks free completely from the shackles of the 90s. Given that most political parties in Pakistan have already hit their potential ceiling, the MQM’s future is perhaps the brightest – no matter what Rasool Bux Palejo may say.
Courtesy and Thanks: The News