Accessibility links

Breaking News

Karachi’s Leading Party Holds Sway Despite Pressure

Karachi police officers guard the roads leading to the French Consulate after a protest against the French satirical magazine "Charlie Hedbo" turned violent in January.
Karachi police officers guard the roads leading to the French Consulate after a protest against the French satirical magazine "Charlie Hedbo" turned violent in January.

Earlier this year, I went to a restaurant in Karachi, my hometown and Pakistan's biggest city along its southern Arabian Sea coast.

As we feasted on curries and kebabs, the restaurant's owner sat with us for a moment. He was humbly dressed and had commendable people skills.

He represents a Karachi constituency in the National Assembly or lower house of Pakistani parliament. Like most lawmakers from his Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, he is one of Karachi's Mohajirs, an Urdu-language term for Muslim immigrants and their descendants who migrated from India to settle in Pakistan at the time of its creation in 1947. Most Mohajirs are Urdu speakers.

For the past three decades, the MQM has capitalized on identity and grievances among Pakistan's 10 million Mohajirs, who are primarily concentrated in Karachi and the nearby city of Hyderabad in the southern Sindh Province.

The MQM's political machine has dominated Karachi's life and politics since its emergence in the mid-1980s. With a population of nearly 20 million, Karachi is often called "Mini Pakistan" because all of the country's ethnic groups and religious sects are represented there.

Extreme discipline, hyperconnectivity and vast educated cadres have enabled the MQM to champion its brand of Mohajir ethno-nationalism and dominate Karachi, Pakistan's commercial and financial capital, main port and industrial hub.

Karachi has been vital to the survival and stability of the rest of Pakistan. Being the leading political party in the city, the MQM has also been one of the major parties in Pakistan because of its solid vote bank in Karachi and Hyderabad.

The MQM's rise and hold over Karachi is not without controversy. Critics and defected insiders have accused the MQM of being behind most political violence in the city. Perhaps hyperbolically, Karachi is ranked as the "most dangerous city in the world." Karachi has witnessed many violent episodes since the 1980s, including security operations targeting the MQM.

The party has emerged as the key target of an ongoing security sweep that first began in 2013. According to MQM leaders, at least 2,600 members have been arrested and more than 30 killed. The party has accused security forces of orchestrating the disappearances of its activists.

Pressure on the MQM has been mounting since January. First a leaked investigation report prepared by law enforcement agencies blamed an MQM member for a factory fire that killed more than 250 workers. The report said the factory was set ablaze after its owners refused to pay extortion demands to the MQM.

In March, paramilitary forces raided the MQM's headquarters in Karachi and arrested scores of suspected and convicted criminals. That same month, the video confession of convicted murderer Saulat Mirza dominated Pakistani TV channels.

Mirza, a former member of the MQM, accused party leader Altaf Hussain of ordering assassinations. Mirza is now awaiting execution after his appeals against conviction for targeted assassinations were rejected.

Hussain has been in exile in London since 1992. In recent years, he has been investigated for money-laundering, inciting violence and the 2010 murder of a former colleague, Imran Farouq.

Headlines such as these prompted politicians and journalists alike to blame the MQM for terrorizing Karachi residents and essentially forcing them to toe the party line.

Despite the negative press, MQM has built and maintained a loyal support base.

Unlike other political parties, the MQM is not controlled by a feudal or tribal elite. Its support base is rooted in its ability to organize and mobilize Karachi's mohallas or neighborhoods. Its members know their constituencies, which include gated communities as well as slums.

The MQM not only relies on technology and social media, but it engages in regular person-to-person contact. Their ability to mingle within Karachi’s neighborhoods has helped MQM members to develop relationships that transcend ethnic, class and sectarian differences despite the fact that Muhajir ethno-nationalism is still the party's forte.

Essentially, it is the presence and accessibility to its leaders, members and offices that gives the MQM its street creed. Most significantly, it acts like an informal government providing security, jobs and even some social services.

This has been important in the face of the increasing numbers of Pashtuns who, since the 1960s and 1970s, have become as asset for Karachi's economy and are gradually populating the city’s various towns and districts. Millions of Pashtuns moved to Karachi as Taliban violence and military operations haunted their homeland in northwestern Pakistan during the past decade.

Many believe the influx of Pashtuns poses a threat to the dominance of the Mohajir demographic in the city. This demographic change is perceived as a threat by the MQM and has pushed it to possibly resort to violence.

Its Mohajir appeal enabled the MQM to reclaim a parliamentary seat in Karachi after a local politician resigned after leaving the MQM earlier this year.

By securing 95,000 votes, the MQM demonstrated to its opponents -- who allegedly enjoyed support from Pakistan's powerful security establishment -- that their attempts to convince Mohajirs the MQM is a spent force had failed.

The party's success in the National Assembly constituency showed that Mohajirs in Karachi are confident the MQM will eventually safeguard their interests in the city.

Just before the 2013 parliamentary elections in Pakistan, I asked a Mohajir friend in his mid-20s for whom he intended to vote; his answer was telling: He told me he had no interest in voting for Altaf Hussain but that he would still vote for the MQM.

This is an important distinction. Hussain has been in exile since 1992, meaning the Mohajir youth have little personal interaction or affiliation with him.

MQM activists, such as the lawmaker I met in his restaurant, have maintained an open dialogue with the youth. They have kept the party's appeal alive by turning into an informal patronage network, which provides security and jobs to Mohajirs.

In his book "Migrants and Militants: Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan," anthropologist Oskar Verkaaik notes the MQM’s success can be partly explained by its ability to speak both the language of the state and the language of the street.

"As an urban movement, the MQM operates in public spaces such as parks, bazaars and gyms, where it contributes to what I call street nationalism or nationalism of the neighborhood," he wrote.

Cashing in on its Mohajir appeal and catering to the demands of Karachi's populous youth will keep the MQM relevant in Karachi, but its tumultuous history shows that militancy and violence will not appeal to Karachi residents.

Now is the time for the leaders and supporters of the MQM to develop a better political strategy and grow out of their reliance on the criminality and hostility.

Zoha Waseem is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.