Karachi is safer but MQM “can’t guarantee workers will remain focused solely on politics” – WP report

Islamabad, July 30, 2015 (MAMOSA Report) — A two-year-old Nawaz government’s effort to restore order in the southern port city of Karachi has halved the homicide rate, but security officials’ tactics have intensified confrontation with MQM — a powerful political movement that vows it won’t easily be subdued, reports the Washington Post.

The high-stakes question (now) for PM Nawaz Sharif’s government is whether the paramilitary outfit, the Rangers can cement the security gains in the mega city of 20 million without triggering more ethnic and cultural division, observes PM.

Rangers take MQM leader into custody following a raid on Khursheed Begum Memorial Hall.

Rangers take MQM leader into custody following a raid on Khursheed Begum Memorial Hall.

MQM leaders claim 4,000 of their supporters have been arrested over the past two years, with some saying they were tortured for crimes they did not commit. Now, Rangers appear to be cracking down on the secular party’s long-standing practice of soliciting donations from businesses to help fund its activities and vast charitable network.

“We are passing through some of the most difficult times of our history, challenging times, as the government and the military establishment have turned against us,” Farooq Sattar, head of diplomatic affairs for MQM, said earlier this month in an interview to WP at the party’s compound in Karachi. “MQM is being pushed to the wall.”

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Twelve hours later, at dawn on July 17, Rangers stormed the party’s offices, the second such raid in four months, and arrested two senior leaders. Rangers have also plucked MQM workers and sympathizers from their homes and offices, the report says.

According to WP, on the surface, MQM is just another vibrant political organization serving voters who feel oppressed — in this case, mainly Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to Pakistan from India during the 1947 partition and settled in Karachi. But MQM workers and followers have also been accused of hundreds of murders over the years, part of what analysts and officials say has been an orchestrated attempt by the party to also use force to carve out — and keep — a grip on Karachi’s affairs.

The MQM leaders say they don’t deny that some of their supporters, acting independently of the organization, may have been involved in illicit activity over the years.

Whatever the case, Karachi today is a much safer place than it was, the paper said.

The city recorded 1,823 homicides last year, about 1,000 fewer than in 2013, according to police statistics. That decline is continuing this year, with 554 killings reported from January through July 21.

In a sign of improvement, Karachi retail outlets reported record sales during the recent Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

For MQM followers, however, the ongoing security operation is opening a fluid new chapter in what they describe as their ­decades-long struggle to fit into a country under the sway of a few wealthy families. Even some of the party’s rivals say the Rangers need to be mindful of potential consequences, the report adds.

“Any misstep by security forces that might seem political rather than fighting criminals will have a disastrous fallout,” said Farhatullah Babar, a senator from the Pakistan People’s Party, a group often at odds with MQM. “Instead of resolving a problem, it will invite a self-destructive crisis.”

About 7 million Urdu-speaking Muslims migrated to Pakistan during the partition, and most settled in Karachi and surrounding areas of Sindh province. They say they have been repeatedly marginalized by ethnic Punjabis, Pashtuns and Sindhis with roots in the areas that became Pakistan.

MQM tapped into those grievances to rapidly build itself as a dominant political organization with a platform of tolerance, secularism and moderation. The group which claims to serve as an antidote to Islamist extremism in the city, is backed by a force of 100,000 political workers.

During the 1990s, both Sharif, serving a previous term as prime minister, and the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto supported crackdowns on MQM amid street battles between it and rival groups. The military ruler who followed them, Pervez Musharraf, maintained an uneasy truce with the group during his tenure from 1999 until 2008.

With the party again feeling under threat, MQM leaders warn that Karachi could face a new period of crisis.

“The more pressure we face, the more they squeeze us, the more people will get upset,” said Ali Raza Abidi, one of 35 MQM lawmakers in Pakistan’s Parliament. “I will be honest and say, ‘This is racism, and it’s discrimination.’ ”

On Thursday night, after Abidi was interviewed by The Washington Post, the Rangers raided a popular seafood restaurant that he owns in Karachi, storming in and seizing video monitoring equipment, according to MQM officials. On Friday, the Rangers issued a statement saying that in the raid they had picked up a person who is a suspect in 10 murders, Pakistani media reported.

Spokesmen for the Pakistan Rangers, the Interior Ministry and the army refused several requests for comment, wrote WP.

But many retired Pakistani army officials and political leaders defend the Rangers, saying the drop in homicides demonstrates that MQM sympathizers were responsible for a big share of Karachi’s past violence, the report says.

The Rangers “are arresting criminals across the board,” said Masud ul-Hassan, a retired brigadier and member of the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen Association.

But some analysts predict the Rangers’ actions may end up helping the party. In the past, when the Mohajir community feels threatened, it has rallied behind MQM candidates, said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies.

“If they are trying to disrupt MQM, they instead may just give it another lease on life,” he said, noting that an MQM candidate easily won a special election for a Karachi-area seat in the National Assembly in April.

Sattar can’t guarantee, however, that MQM workers will remain focused solely on politics in the coming months. Fifteen thousand workers now in hiding will eventually emerge in search of money and support, he said.

“If you have this mind-set that we are responsible for every problem,” he said, “then where do we go from here?”

The original article appeared in The Washington Post.

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