All in on it

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Let me confess: I’m a pro-democracy man. But recent events in Karachi have made me wonder whether our democrats are unworthy of our support. In times of strife and conflict, major political actors operating in Karachi have all sought to shift the blame, allege ethnic discrimination, and resorted to greater violence. No party can be absolved of any blame for perpetuating the violence; if anything, all parties are guilty of having entrenched violence as the only way things can be solved in Karachi.

Let us get something straight: the situation in Karachi is not the result of some current dispute between the PPP, MQM and ANP. It is the result of layers upon layers of violence, perpetuated since the late 1980s and 1990s, during the Musharraf regime, and now in the PPP-led set-up. The violence in Karachi is about how we have handled dissent and disputes, how violence has been entrenched in our societal fabric as the preferred method of dispute resolution.

When the MQM started its politics, it was not a party that enjoyed the blessings of the establishment. It was a rogue force, seen to be asking for much more than the establishment was willing to provide. Its linkages with the Sindhi separatists, the Jinnahpur narrative, the alleged funding and training provided by the Indians, and of course the violence of the early and mid-1990s saddled the MQM with baggage that it still has been unable to shed.

But essentially, the matter is one of accepting which demands are legitimate and which ones cannot be considered as genuine or appropriate. In the MQM narrative, their struggle was a movement to be accepted as citizens of Pakistan, to have better opportunities in education and jobs, and become recognised as players in mainstream politics. Some allegations against the MQM, as described above, may well have been justified – as senior journalists will testify – but equally, some were fictitious. What it eventually boiled down to was how much space could be afforded to the MQM and its demands.

With our democracy young and insecure in the early 1990s, political actors did not find it in them to either understand the grievances of the Urdu-speaking nor the MQM’s demands. Negotiations between the government and the MQM would often fail, and the army operation during Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, and the one led by Naseerullah Babar in Benazir Bhutto’s government, were seen as justifiable means to an end: peace in Karachi.

During the Musharraf regime, MQM returned to favour with the establishment – to the extent that it was allowed uncontested control over turf in Karachi. Acrimonies between the MQM and the PPP as well as the ANP had begun then but what the MQM failed to recognise was that it would be using the very instruments of violence that were used against it.

MQM’s uncontested power has been challenged through the Zulfiqar Mirza-led PPP (government) during this tenure, but again, this challenge has been violent. If the MQM used the tensions of insecure and unemployed young men to create its movement, Mirza has been doing that for the Sindhi and Baloch young men in his party, and the Pashtun of the ANP. Similar to the stipends offered by the MQM to the young men in the 1990s for their allegiance, the PPP has been handing out stipends and weaponry to young Sindhi, Baloch and Pashtun men.

What worries me is that democrats’ penchant for resorting to weapons for dispute resolution. The patronage provided by all political parties operating in Karachi to mafias is no longer a secret, but it seems that political parties are giving up on politics in Karachi. At a time when the city should have been deweaponised, weaponisation is at its peak.

What is also significant is that all three parties – PPP, MQM and ANP – have decision-makers in Karachi who are not novices but veterans in the art of politics. These seasoned politicians are themselves opening the door to a military operation in Karachi. And here is the worst part: most of them have business interests with each other that are usually kept hidden from the public eye. But the common man is taught to hate, to imbibe lessons in fascism, and speculate on which party is responsible and which is the victim. But the primary lesson: violence, not democracy, is the best form of revenge. Rest in peace, dear shaheeds.

The writer is Deputy City Editor, Pakistan Today, Karachi. In Twitterverse, he goes by @ASYusuf.