Pashtuns, petrol and Gen Pervez Musharraf are behind the decision of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) headed by UK-based Altaf Hussain announced on January 2 to leave the federal coalition headed by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) at Islamabad, thereby reducing it to a minority in the Federal Parliament.
Interestingly, the MQM has not yet left the provincial coalition in Sindh with the PPP. It apparently wants to continue to have a share of the power in Sindh, while renouncing power in the federal government as a populist measure to respond to the anger of the Mohajirs in Karachi over the failure of the governments in Sindh as well as in Islamabad to protect them against attacks by the Deobandi extremist Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) and pro-Taliban Pashtuns.
The Mohajirs, who constitute the largest single ethnic group in Karachi, are the refugees from Uttar Pradesh, the erstwhile undivided Bombay state and Bihar in India, who migrated to Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur in Sindh, when Pakistan was formed in 1947 and their descendents. Pakistan was largely the creation of the Muslim elite from these areas of India, who belonged to the tolerant Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam. In the initial years after the formation of Pakistan, when Karachi was the capital, the Mohajir elite of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) dominated political power in Pakistan.
After the Army under Ayub Khan seized power in the late 1950s, the Mohajirs found themselves increasingly marginalized by a combination of the Punjabis and Pashtuns, who belonged to the extremist Deobandi sect. After the capital was shifted from Karachi to Islamabad, the Mohajirs practically lost all political power and were reduced to insignificance in the federal bureaucracy.
Zia-ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977 after overthrowing Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, made overtures to the Mohajirs in order to use them to counter the Pakistan People’s Party led by Benazir Bhutto and the Sindhi nationalists, who had started a movement for the independence of Sindh. Thus was born the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), which was subsequently re-named as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in order to erase the impression that it was an ethnic political grouping of the Mohajirs only. After changing its name, it has been trying to project itself as a pan-Pakistan party representing all ethnic groups of Pakistan. Despite its change of name, it remains a largely Mohajir party with very little following outside Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur.
Since it owed its birth to Zia, it remained loyal to the Army so long as Zia was in power. After the death of Zia in 1988 and the coming into power of the PPP-led government headed by Benazir Bhutto, attempts were made by Benazir to wipe out the MQM as a political force in Karachi—initially with the help of the police and the Intelligence Bureau and subsequently with the help of the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence too ( ISI). The MQM under Altaf Hussain fiercely resisted the attempts of the federal government under Benazir and then Nawaz Sharif to wipe it out in Karachi. The years between 1989 and 1994 saw a virtual civil war situation prevailing in Karachi.
The federal government failed in its efforts to crush the MQM. Ultimately overtures were made to Altaf Hussain, who had fled to London, in order to bring the MQM into the political mainstream. Violence subsided, but the basic suspicions between the Mohajirs and the Sindhis of the PPP and between the Mohajirs and the Punjabis of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) remained.
In the meanwhile, a new complicating factor entered the picture in Karachi—the influx of a large number of Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns into Karachi in the 1980s. This influx has continued since then resulting in Karachi becoming the largest Pashtun city in Pakistan. The Mohajirs still constitute the largest ethnic group in Karachi, but are facing increasing demographic challenges from the Pashtuns. A triangular struggle for political power— involving the Sindhis, the sons of the soil, who have been reduced to a minority in Karachi, the Pashtuns and the Mohajirs— has become the defining characteristic of Karachi. The Sindhis support the PPP and the Sindhi nationalist parties, the Mohajirs back the MQM and the Pashtuns were behind the Awami National Party (ANP), which heads the ruling coalition in the Khyber Pakhtunkwa (KP) Province and is part of the ruling coalition in Islamabad.
The situation has been further complicated by the influx of pro-Taliban Pashtuns from the KP and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into Karachi since the Army started its operations against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2008 and the US stepped up its Drone strikes in the FATA in the beginning of 2009. The fresh influx of the Pashtuns with pro-Taliban sympathies has created fears in the minds of the MQM leaders not only of the likely Talibanisation of Karachi with the Deobandi-Wahabi combine overwhelming the Barelvis, but also regarding a conspiracy encouraged by the Sindhis of the PPP to reduce the Mohajirs to a minority in Karachi with the help of the Pashtuns. Karachi is still a Mohajir city, but there are fears in the minds of the Mohajirs that there is a conspiracy to make it a Pashtun-Sindhi city.
Since the PPP-led government headed by Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani came to office in Islamabad in 2008, there has been mounting violence in Karachi due to ethnic clashes between the Mohajirs and the Pashtuns and sectarian clashes between the Barelvis and Deobandis and Sunnis and Shias.
According to the Daily Times of Lahore of January 1, during 2010, at least 705 people, including 488 political and religious leaders and activists, fell prey to targeted killings in Karachi. In addition,74 others died in explosions all over Karachi during the year. As against 779 people who died due to ethnic and sectarian violence in Karachi during 2010, only 427 people died due to the acts of suicide terrorism by the Pakistani Taliban in the entire non-Pashtun belt of Pakistan and 797 in the Pashtun belt. This would give an indication of the seriousness of the situation in Karachi, which is considered the economic capital of Pakistan. The situation in Karachi has been as serious as that in the Pashtun belt and much more serious than that in the non-Pashtun belt.
Whereas the international community was concerned over the Taliban violence in the Pashtun and non-Pashtun belts and exercised pressure on the Pakistan government to act against the Taliban, it showed a disturbing lack of concern over the equally serious situation in Karachi, which the MQM has been attributing to the influx of Talibanised Pashtuns into Karachi.
The MQM has been complaining that the Karachi Police and Rehman Malik, a confidant of President Asif Ali Zardari, who is the Interior Minister in charge of the Police, are not doing anything against the mounting violence in Karachi and has been demanding that the responsibility for the restoration of law and order in Karachi should be handed over to the Army.
It is the anger of the MQM over the perceived inaction of the PPP-led government against violence in Karachi which led to the initial split between the MQM and the PPP. The Daily Times wrote in a commentary on January 3:
“Add in the ANP factor that is buoyant on the back of an understanding wink and nod of the PPP’s rather permissive approach to their expansionist design in Karachi — remember Karachi is the biggest Pashtun city of Pakistan — and the MQM’s ire will be better understood. After all, the MQM has been making an unending noise of Karachi’s Talibanisation, implicitly echoing fears of a growing campaign to curtail if not neutralise the MQM’s political influence in Karachi. It is an interesting mix. The MQM wrested control of Karachi from the erstwhile religious denomination of the largely middle-class Jamaat-e-Islami, that is now only a shadow of its past self in Karachi, but the same control is now under serious threat by another strain of the religious denomination built around the Pashtun-Salafi nexus. Those who might gain politically from such facilitation will be the secular-minded ANP with some advantage to the predominantly politico-religious parties. In all this, the PPP stands to benefit indirectly on a strategic scale. If the MQM can be balanced sufficiently in Karachi, or at least embroiled in a debilitating power struggle at its base, it is likely to cede space to the PPP in the rest of Sindh, especially the larger cities of Hyderabad and Sukkur.”
Even though the MQM’s anger over the government’s failure to act against the anti-Mohajir Pashtun violence is the main reason for its disenchantment with Zardari and Gilani, it did not want to make it appear that ethnic reasons were responsible for quitting the coalition. It tried to give moral and economic pretexts for its decision to quit. It initially asked its two Ministers in the Federal Cabinet to quit in protest against the government’s failure to control widespread corruption. It has now decided to leave the coalition itself at the centre in protest against the increase in petrol prices introduced by the federal government.
After announcing its decision to leave the federal coalition, the MQM has made overtures to the pro-Musharraf political parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaide Azam) headed by Shujjat Hussain. If the MQM remains firm on its decision to leave the coalition and sit with the opposition, there could be political instability in Pakistan resulting in a fresh jockeying for power of which the Army and pro-Musharraf political forces could be the beneficiary.
Pakistan's governing coalition held 181 seats - including the MQM's 25 - in the 342-member parliament. The MQM's departure leaves the PPP well below the 172 seats needed to retain its majority.
If the PPP agrees to cancel the increase in petrol prices and revamp the Police in Karachi, it may still be able to win back the MQM. But will it do so? The fact that the MQM has not yet left the coalition in Sindh shows that it may still be amenable for a face-saving compromise.
The Army under Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani is likely to maintain a watching brief for the present without intervening. However, if it suspects that Nawaz Sharif could be a beneficiary of the split between the PPP and the MQM, it might try to bring the MQM, the pro-Musharraf forces and other opportunistic elements together in order to keep Nawaz out.
The British and the US intelligence keep in close touch with the MQM. Altaf is obliged to the British for giving him political asylum in the UK despite his being an absconding suspect in an alleged murder case of Karachi. Any increased political instability in Karachi and any increase in the presence of pro-Taliban Pashtuns could affect the movement of logistic supplies for the NATO forces in Afghanistan from the Karachi port. The US and the UK are, therefore, likely to exercise pressure on Altaf and Zardari to patch up their differences.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.