Karachi: The likely endgame


All eyes at the moment, however, are now on April 23



Though, by and large, people across the board have appreciated and shown confidence in the operation that started in Karachi with a raid on MQM headquarters on March 11, some questions proved steadfast and refused to go to the background. There are three basic questions which remained constant during this period: What will happen to MQM? What will be the endgame there? And, how can this multidimensional operation be contextualised into the grand domestic political scene?

Law and order situation and mafia style politics in Pakistan’s largest city demanded to be addressed for more than three decades. Some attempts were made in the past too. But the effort this time seems more effective and the MQM entangled in the most serious of crises it has faced so far. But why is there a general consensus – except the displeasure of MQM, of course – and why it seems that this time ‘they’ mean business?

Situation can be assessed from different angles but let’s start from the top and try to enumerate the reasons that delivered the general/national consensus on different levels; from civilian government/s to army leadership and from political parties to the people.

One, all the actors in the power game have come to the same conclusion that monopoly on violence indeed is the sole prerogative of the state and that by looking the other way or approving or covertly encouraging its snatching away by elements other than the state for reasons of expediency, in fact, resulted in more serious challenges to the state than resolving some or all of them. Two, the current military leadership has apparently decided to break away with its past reputation of tolerating – sometime, godfathering – the non-state actors for purposes national and institutional. Three, agreement of the civilian side to whatever the army is doing in order to bring an end to different shades of militancy and terrorism from North Waziristan to Karachi – and its inherent weaknesses vis-à-vis the military side – to follow it in all the endeavors. And fourth, the wish of the army to take all the national and international credit for everything good that is happening in Pakistan and to ensure a position in any emerging scenario from where it can call the political shots – as usual.

Clearly, everyone has become fed up with the status quo in Karachi where a particular group led by Altaf Hussain is ruling the roost since time immemorial. But there is an added factor of ‘institutional hurt’ caused to Pakistan Army by the mercurial Muhajir leader in his video-linked addresses from London in recent months in which he had been showing his contempt and openly challenged it to do what it can.

Looking from this perspective there can be logically three main objectives of anything that is going on in Karachi: Altaf Hussain and his like-minded cohorts should be made to sidestep; clout and influence of militants of all hues and other small-time criminal mafias must be effectively undermined; and, long-lasting peace restored in the city. At present, there seems two ways to achieve these goals; a) to go on an all-out war against all the targeted political and non-political criminals and crush everything that comes in the way; and b) to adopt a middle way and use both carrot and stick.

Adopting the first course is comparatively easier as far as ‘fighting’ the enemy physically is concerned but the aftereffects may not be to the liking of those who want to introduce a real change and let the people feel the difference. In that eventuality, MQM as whole will become a ‘suspect’ for a long time which will compel its diehard workers to break into smaller underground groups and fight law enforcing agencies which means lots of bloodshed in the foreseeable future. Also, a political uncertainty and void will be created which may remain there for a long time.  Situation like this will be a golden opportunity for the beleaguered MQM leadership to play the victimhood card and wage an indefinite ethnic war against the state.

That surely can’t be termed the best available course to follow. A better way can be, not to shun peaceful means besides using the strong-arm tactics. This means the state apparatus confronting the unwanted element on the table. If the official and unofficial claims regarding criminal involvement of some leaders of MQM are true then Altaf Hussain can be presented with hard evidence and made to succumb to his and his partners going into ‘honorable’ political oblivion.

Following this course, the MQM will be purged of the unwanted leadership and the law enforcement agencies left in a much better position to deal with the foot soldiers, target killers and other petty criminal groups which operated with impunity in the city for a long time. Also, MQM will not be extinguished altogether or made an enemy as a whole but turned into just ‘another’ political party doing business in Karachi.

At the moment, there are sufficient indications that suggest things are headed that way and the state apparatus has left its options open for a negotiated settlement. From a cursory look it seems as if everything is being kept under wraps by the law enforcing agencies for no obvious reason. Updating the public about new developments will be a good PR exercise which is being avoided at the moment. Also, rushing things forward speedily will apparently be to the advantage of the state which it itself appears to be slowing down; again for no obvious reasons.

Examine the following facts in this regard: Saulat Mirza’s case is still kept in the limbo while the handling of Imaran Farooq’s murder case leaves much to be desired. Muazam Ali, according to Interior Minister, Ch Nisar, was arrested in Imran Farooq case but, strangely, when he was produced in the court the next day, the list of charges contained everything but not that particular charge. The arrest of the ‘facilitator’ in that case was celebrated the way as if the killer had been nabbed, but when Interior Minister was confronted with a question of the whereabouts of the two ‘real killers’, allegedly in the custody of some agency, Ch Nisar very intelligently dodged the actual question of where they were but instead termed them ‘poor, hapless’ (ghareeb, lachaar) chaps who didn’t have the resources to carry out that big operation on their own [sic].

There was also a strange development exactly one month before the arrest of Muazam Ali, and that was when Ch Nisar ordered both the interior and foreign affairs ministries as well as FIA to stop implantation of prisoners’ extradition treaties with other countries.  This has put a full stop on handing over any arrested person to the UK government, thereby ensuring that the leverage remains in the hand of Pakistan till the ‘formulation of a new and transparent policy’. And who know if in the meanwhile authorities reach some favourable understanding regarding the Karachi situation with the other stakeholders (wouldn’t hanging of that Damocles’ Sword over some people’s head compel them to budge a little, by the way?). The court giving physical remand of Muazam Ali to the Rangers for full 90 days was also confusing, keeping in mind the apparent enthusiasm and commitment of Ch Nisar to show some ‘substantial progress’ in Imran Farooq case during the coming days.

There are also some other indicators to the same effects but let’s go to the next question and see why would the state apparatus (the government, the armed forces, etc.) like to talk to the people who they consider responsible for the woes of Karachi. Well, there can be many long- and short-term benefits which such an approach can deliver: To begin with, if the leadership that currently holds the sway over MQM is sidelined through behind-the-scene wheeling-dealings, it will not push the whole of the party out of the political arena and into the underground, violent wilderness. This will mean; a) increased chances for the restoration of law and order in the city, and b) decreased chances of armed resistance from the lower cadres – in absence of a guiding leadership and a protective umbrella.

Avoiding complete breakup of MQM will also mean avoiding the creation of a huge political void and instability in the city. In absence of a ‘huge void’ limited room will be available for the new political entrants to rush in and sweep the political landscape of Karachi completely; the pie will be divided and share equally among different power contending parties. In such a scenario, the ‘tainted’ leadership will be removed but MQM will still be there as the real balancing force with a (terrified/compromised) leadership more susceptible to outside manipulation.

Though it might be a little early to tell with certainty what shape Karachi situation will take in the days to come, the second option is more suited to the powers that be and has more chances of success with lesser volume of bloodshed and violence. It will avoid completely destroying a party which is considered representative of the whole Muhajir community. This course, if followed, will help in permanently dispensing with those who tarnished and ridiculed the army and still hoped to remain politically alive, powerful and respectful. Peace will be restored and small groups brought under the thumb of the state. The only hiccup is that in the new situation it will still be the traditional power player who will be calling the shots in Karachi. But how cares? It is already calling the shots everywhere else.

All eyes at the moment, however, are now on April 23 which will play a big role in determining the future course of action of the stakeholders. Is the evidence so incriminating against Altaf Bhai to compel him to toe the line and go into oblivion? Was the mandate of the MQM not so overwhelming as we were made to believe up till now? Or the support of the people behind MQM is still so big that its beleaguered leader decides to fight it out to the very end, no matter what the consequences are?

Keep your fingers crossed.

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