The day Karachi bled & burn

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE 34 who met a violent death in Karachi on its black day on Saturday had not even been buried when the blame game started. President Pervez Musharraf placed the onus for the tragic happenings in Karachi squarely on Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and the opposition parties.

Were not they the ones to politicise the reference issue? And were not they the ones to proceed to Karachi against official advice when the government had reports that there was going to be trouble on May 12?

The opposition retaliated by blaming the Sindh administration — specifically the MQM which is a coalition partner in the provincial government — for being the first to unleash violence and for letting it spiral out of control. The police were either conspicuous by their absence or stood idly by watching the carnage.

With the gory drama being played out in full view of the electronic media, people can judge for themselves what actually happened on Saturday and thereafter. With the country so deeply polarised no one seemed prepared to listen to the other, even though innocent lives were being lost.

Most of those who died were ordinary people who have no political stakes. That is the sad lesson to emerge from May 12. The feeling among the common man is that no one really cares what happens to the people of Pakistan – those millions who have no access to what we, the fortunate ones, take for granted such as ‘roti, kapra, makaan’ and also healthcare and education.

Over the years generally and in recent months specifically, the common man has been increasingly marginalised. He does not have much of a say in what is happening, neither does he want to have a say because he views politics cynically.

A very common refrain is, ‘We don’t care which party rules, for no leader is really interested in addressing our basic concerns.’ This depoliticisation of the people is the biggest tragedy Pakistan has suffered. And we owe this setback not just to the military governments, whose contribution to the destruction of healthy politics has been the greatest.

The incidents of May 12 have reinforced this belief. As it is, the legal dimension of the presidential reference and the issue of the independence of the judiciary, so dear to the heart of the intelligentsia and the politicised liberal minority, has been pushed into the background. Now the matter is seen as being purely political thanks to the induction of the opposition parties into what was being described as a legal issue.

True, the lawyers appealed to the political parties to keep a distance from them in their struggle. They probably understood the implications of playing politics. But they must have also realised the futility of trying to keep the political parties out of the fray. After all, the counsel of the Chief Justice, Aitzaz Ahsan, is a high profile member of the Pakistan People’ Party.

One wonders whether this turn of events was anticipated by the Chief Justice and his advisers who now have no control over events. They would have asked that, in an election year, could one really expect a political party seeking to contest the polls to refrain from gaining mileage from an issue that it could use to mobilise popular support? More so, when the parties in the opposition have still not chalked out a clear cut strategy at this crucial stage in Pakistan’s political and constitutional history.

With the exception of a few serious members who have been doing their homework on various bills introduced in the National Assembly, they have not much to show by way of preparation of party programmes.

For them the presidential reference came as a godsend opportunity and they were quick to jump on the bandwagon. This has been done by all parties on both sides of the divide and should have been expected.

Should this be seen as the start of the election campaign? That is how one would interpret the “rallyisation” of politics in Pakistan today. President Musharraf was caught in the same trap. But this strategy has its pitfalls. The violence that gripped Karachi should not surprise anyone.

Since the mid-eighties when the MQM emerged on the scene with the army’s backing, the nature of politics in the city has radically changed. To gain supremacy here a party must muster substantial muscle power. This phenomenon has destroyed the peace of Karachi because a party’s capacity to put up an impressive show of strength is seen as the key to its electoral success. Rallies help parties keep their supporters in a permanent state of mobilisation.

In this scenario, the MQM’s Karachi rally on May 12 was also intended to warn the other parties that they were encroaching on what the Muttahida perceives to be its own turf. No chances were to be taken. Hence the overkill in the form of blocking of routes, intimidation of the public and preventing the Chief Justice from proceeding towards the high court.

It is a pity that politics in Pakistan has degenerated into one of rabble-rousing in the street. In this state of affairs, the symbols that have begun to matter are those which help to subdue by force all others, even those who could present a remote challenge.

The biggest tragedy is that those in power — be they in Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi or Quetta — are taking recourse to these tactics. Being already in a position of advantage they can afford to be magnanimous. But they will not. They have already lost the commitment of the people who are apathetic. These rallies are deceptive for apart from the hard core workers others are herded out there. That is why muscle power counts.

All this bodes ill for Pakistan. Society is already fragmented. Will we regress into ethnic violence? In the absence of participatory politics rooted in the masses, will we slide back to square one?