Sunday, April 11, 2010

I'm Back, But Will Violence In Karachi Be?

My schedule, after about seven or eight weeks of hell, is finally looking to loosen up, so blogging should slowly but surely return to normalcy.

According to unconfirmed reports, Altaf Hussain is in a coma after suffering a brain hemorrhage. I really need to underline the "unconfirmed" bit there, but assuming this is true, what does it mean for Karachi?

Well, I'm not sure to be honest, but I think it could mean bad news. Let's step back for a second, and take a reverse-telescope view of violence in Karachi in recent times. When has it been the most violent? From the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. When was it the most calm and peaceful? The early and mid 2000s. What does this tell us? It tells us that Karachi is most violent when political and demographic control of the city is at its most contested, and most peaceful when everybody knows who's in charge.

This is actually consistent with most prominent studies of civil violence, and agrees with most logical understandings of the uses of violence. Organizations need to use violence when they need to intimidate local populations to get them on their side. And when would they need local populations to be on their side? When there is a danger that they support someone else. So high levels of violence presuppose that there is an element of competition for control of an area. But if everybody supports you already, and you're the Big Boss, violence is superfluous and unnecessary.

Note that this logic holds not just for militaries and militias, but also gangs (which don't use much violence except in neighborhoods which rival gangs are infiltrating) and political parties (one of which I'm about to get to).

Everybody in Pakistan knows the MQM is a violent, thuggish organization. However, such a characterization conceals more than it reveals because it assumes that they are always violent against everyone. Patently, this is untrue. It would be more accurate to say that when their dominance in Karachi is challenged in any serious way, whether it's from Pashtun migrants, local Sindhis, the military, the ANP or the PPP or the Jamaat, they get violent (80s/90s/May 12, 2007) to remind everyone that Karachi is theirs. Conversely, when nobody is in any doubt on who controls Karachi, such as in the Musharraf era, especially when Mustafa Kamal took over from Naimtullah Khan, their control is well-established and, as a result, the marginal utility of violence is low.

All this is a preamble to my suggestion that Karachi may see higher violence in the coming weeks and months because control of the party, and consequently the city, will be up for grabs. This is one of the very serious downsides to the cult of personality that dominates the MQM -- and, to be fair, most political organizations in Pakistan. Because Altaf Hussain is synonymous with the MQM, the party, as far as I am aware, has not thought in any serious way about life after Altaf.

In a way, this is inconsistent with the MQM's structure as an incredibly decentralized, meritocratic political party. But the fact remains that at the upper echelons of the party, loyalty and devotion to Altaf bhai is a prerequisite for getting anywhere, so it's unlikely the MQM has arranged for an orderly and peaceful transfer of power within it. If anything were to happen to Altaf bhai, one can safely assume a chaotic and almost-assuredly violent succession struggle, which will draw Karachi squarely into the cross-hairs.

Think about it this way: in the bad old days, which of the following was the MQM most brutally violent against? (1) The military and police, (2) Pashtuns and the ANP, (3) Sindhis and the PPP, or (4) MQM Haqiqi?



Saad Ghauri said...

I hope this is not true. Though he is going to die someday.... Hope whenever it is, its due to natural reasons

karachikhatmal said...

@ saad

he could die in his sleep, but you think that would stop pakistanis from forming a million conspiracy theories.


if it wasn't for the obvious threat of violence, and lots of it, wouldn't it have been fun to guess who would succeed altaf bhai? but then again the flying pigs would have distracted us

TLW said...

Speculation on the succession of the MQM can be found here:

Second Editorial: MQM chief’s absence

After scrolling down and reading what's read, I would respectfully disagree with Ahsan about what he says considering the succession to Altaf being violent. In reading this talk of mysterious illness, laying the Great Leader low, I was reminded of another story from history where another great dictator-of-his-people was lying ill, possibly dying, and his trusted coterie were too scared of bringing his potential death up: Stalin.

Stalin was dying, and Beria, Molotov et al., nobodies who had survived from the revolution by being the third round of suckups to Stalin (rounds one and two being unceremoniously purged) were too scared to even speak of their "Great Leader's" possible death. When the man himself actually died, the violence was not all around, public and brutal. It was quiet, stealthy and scalpel swift on poor Beria.
The reason the violence hadn't gone totally public was because the control of the USSR was total on its territory (having just won a little dust-up called The Eastern Front) and nobody doubted the Commie Party ran anything.

Does anybody doubt that the MQM runs Karachi? From my vantage point outside Pak-land, the answer is no. If there's anybody in Karachi and you doubt the MQM's control, please do explain (behind an IP firewall of course) because we'ld all like to hear.

Three last things:

1) Ahsan, you on Five Rupees yourself have mentioned that there's an MQM "Jirga". Who or what are they, is this a "Muhjir" jirga, and could they play a role?

2) As they are both totalitarian structures, I think examining the similarities between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the MQM could give us profit. For example, the Commie party were a thoroughly modernised cadre, with the most contemporary non-democratic political structure for their time (1920's/30's) that ruled amongst and clashed with an illiterate and superstitious predominantly rural population. So is the MQM. Plus Stalin and Altaf have Mustaches ;-)

3) You asked about a book on the MQM, Ahsan. I was reading it when Umair Javed mentioned it.

But since you asked, here you go

So yeah; I've called the MQM totalitarian, implied the Sindhi population is illiterate and backward, and hopefully have the internet communists up in arm over comparing the Soviet Union to the MQM.

My work here is done.

takhalus said...

did something happen to my post? Anyway TLW has stolen my thunder! I was gonna say there are no indications to say the succession will be violent. And to answer your last comment 2,3,1 and 4

karachikhatmal said...


i don't know much about communist russia, but i think you are greatly overstating the case for control over karachi by the mqm.

for starters, the city runs at several levels. at the most outwardly civil, that is the political level, the mqm does not have an iron grip. it does not have control of all the corridors of bureaucratic, doesn't control the security forces etc

then of course, there is the issue of demographics. while the mqm controls LARGE parts of the city, karachi being the behemoth it is, there is still a pretty sizable population that lies outside that control. currently, the mqm has been at 'war' against pushtoon elements in areas like the east and the north, while simultaneously vying for control of the ppp-dominated west.

then there are the all-important cartels, or mafias, run in the black market and white market financial capital of the country. there is a lot of money to be made - as the saying goes, in karachi even the trash gets sold. these are all in cahoots with that ambiguous grey zone where political parties devolve in to criminal elements, or vice versa. and once again, the scores are not completely in mqm's favor.

finally, even if there is a peaceful transition within the mqm in terms of leadership, unlike the communist parties, there are a lot of political rivals itching to wrest away muttahida's grip over the city. and the mqm tends to be very prickly about its control over karachi. for example

may 12.
may 12.
may 12.

ostensibly sparked by imran khan's comments about the mqm, and the party's stance on the judicial crisis.

yeah fucking right.

this really doesn't look like stalin's russia.

Rabia said...

I guess it's possible that an ishrat-ul-ibad vs farooq sattar power struggle could end violently but I doubt it because MQM has too much at stake (the divisions within the party in the 90s were extremely costly and almost destroyed it).

the main threat seems to be external elements exploiting the period of uncertainty following AH's death which is probably why they've managed to get afaq ahmed and aamir khan their life sentences and killed a bunch of haqiqi folks last week.

Umair J said...

Violence in Karachi is intrinsic to its ethnic make-up but nobody has ever considered the possibility of MQM infighting after the haqiqi split. Like Ahsan said, all things considered your role in the MQM is defined by how close you are to the Bhai. The Bhai is a focal point of power, he's like a one-man state whereby all control and power emanates from him and his position as party leader and by the virtue of him being Altaf Bhai. This does not by any mean imply that the party is not decentralized or incapable of running its own local affairs without recourse to London, but what it does mean is that the overarching macro-direction comes straight from one man (very much like all the other parties in Pakistan). Remove that one man and you're left with a very sophisticated political machine that is extremely vulnerable to internal fracture.

In most cases where there is party fragmentation, its not because the party is disorganized or unstructured at the middle or bottom rungs, its because the rules of filling the highest leadership position are completely unclear. With the PPP and the Congress, that rule is tied to blood-relations and anointed successors hence their fragmentation has been controlled and relatively non-damaging. So maybe its a bad thing that Altaf Bhai never pushed in his own family members into the setup the same way that these other parties have done.

AKS said...

The various MQM sector in-charge will be key in any leadership battle, more so than most MNAs and MPAs.

As Rabia mentioned, at this stage Farooq Sattar and Ishrat-ul-Ibad would be the leading contenders. Other people to look out for: Wasim Akhtar and Syed Haider Abbas Rizvi.

Of the above four, Ishrat seems to me to be most adept at national politics - he can have a conversation with an army guy without bring up Operation Clean-Up and have a drink with a Sindhi politician without getting angry and going on about the ills of feudalism.

The other three seem to be more adept at riling up support than leading a party, their politics hasn't evolved much beyond: we're educated, they're illiterate and they (Punjabi army and Sindh feudal elite) have wronged us.

Anonymous said...

"It tells us that Karachi is most violent when political and demographic control of the city is at its most contested, and most peaceful when everybody knows who's in charge."
- Actually it tells us when the local majority of the population is deprived of its representation, it often leads to violence.
Conversely, when the local population has control over the development and resources of their community, great benifit is derrived.

"But the fact remains that at the upper echelons of the party, loyalty and devotion to Altaf bhai is a prerequisite for getting anywhere"
- While the rabita committe formulates politcal agenda it is well known that on the mirco level 'sector in-charges' have the real power in MQM, specificaly due to their ability to mobilize the population.
You saw that on May12 and you will see that when the local populace gets into violent clashes with Pakhtuns and Balochis, despite the exhoration of political leadership for calm.
Unlike most organisations in Paksitan, being the bosses son wont get you plum job at the MQM.
However, like most anti-authority organisations, a level of demonstrative 'commitment' is required to ascertain loyalty.
You can imagine what 'commitment' was during operation clean-up and other state-sponsored terror.

"MQM is a violent, thuggish organization"
- Context explains a lot, considerting the organisation was formed in the late 70's early 80's in the "violent, thuggish" atmosphere of Karachi University politics.
Also, it is one of the few political movements to have stood upto the full force of the Pakistani establishment and survived.
The history of the MQM explains a lot about the residual violence in the organisation.

Nabeel said...

I'd agree with Anon429 were it not for the relative calm enjoyed under Naimatullah Khan. If local control=MQM control, then it's not necessarily true. Like KK has explained,Karachi is anything but homogeneous.

Ahsan said...


Interesting comments. I think one of the key differences would be something you alluded to, which is that the second and third tier of leadership in the Communist Party had been wiped out from within. By contrast, in the MQM, there are plenty of people who think they've paid their dues for a long time, and deserve it. In addition, it's almost assuredly true that these individuals have backing from various groups within the party.

But yeah, interesting comments and food for thought.


I strongly disagree. I feel the violence against Haqiqi outflanked everything else.

KK and Rabia:

You raise the interesting point that rivals may think of this point as an opportune moment to strike a blow against the MQM in Khi. I don't think that's true, but if it does happen, it will certainly complicate things.


Heh. That sounds about right. Are there any dark horses that the media isn't really talking about that you know of?

Hira Mir said...

Karachi is the economic capital of the country. The port exists in the city and a lot of trade is done through there. The terrorist realize the importance of this city and have again and again tried to attack it firmly which in turn leaves Pakistan wounded. We must support the security officials to track down terrorist and punish them severly.

AKS said...


Well the media's not talking about anything because the media never talks about the MQM - that's what happens when you have news channels concentrated in a single city. The only reference I've read was in the Friday Times Such Gup column, and they referred to Altaf Bhai's lifestyle as being a cause (presumably the craziness requires some stimulants).

And ordinary people aren't talking about it either, if there's even a semblance of truth in the story, its been buried.

The real dark horse will be Imran Farooq, Convenor of the party, and reckoned by many to be the real brains behind the outfit. He's low profile and wont be seen but is certain to be a major power broker.

The decentralized nature of the MQM may make things really difficult if there is a major power struggle but it can also be beneficial. The absence of powerful factions, as is the case with with other major political parties, (thanks to Altaf Bhai's murderous, tyrannical rule) means that if the transfer of power at the highest level is smooth then one can see the party workers at the sector and unit level quickly pledging their allegiance to the new leader.

Anonymous said...

"relative calm enjoyed under Naimatullah Khan"
- I'd say this had more to do with Mushraff's focus on the city during that time more than anything else.
He had the Karachi corps commander read the riot act to all parties in the city and even the MQM at that time was not in any mood to cross the khakhis.
From Naimullah's time I remember two underpasses without drainage systems which became swimming pools and dug up roads which somehow acted like dams and resorviors during the monsoon season.
All despite the billions pumped into the city for development.

lalapathan said...

just wanna say HI and that Messi is kicking some srious footballing ASS , hope u had time to watch history in the making :)