MQM, Ethnicity and Politics of Violence

By Raza Habib Raja

At the onset I would like to acknowledge that I have very mixed feelings about MQM. At one hand, I like its relatively secular approach and its demonstrated commitment to denounce hardliners when everyone else was actually going for an appeasement policy which in reality would have merely strengthened them in the Northern part of Pakistan. I also endorse the view of some prominent journalists, albeit with reservations, that MQM is a necessary counterforce to thwart reemergence of Jamat-i-Islami in Karachi . I like and admire the fact that MQM is the only party whose leadership has risen from the grass root level to the top. Its ability to mobilize masses is brilliant and above all MQM has the ability to engage masses and encourage a culture of populism which often acts as strong canceling agent to political aspirations of the conservative religious forces.

However, no matter how hard I try I cannot turn a blind eye to the other and frankly at times ugly side of the MQM. The recent spree of target killings clearly indicate that all the political stakeholders are to be blamed. However, being the dominant political force and with a long history of violence, MQM has to take the major share of the blame. In fact it has become a pattern that whenever MQM wants to convey a message, it uses deliberate and cold blooded violence to do so. Moreover, the party deliberately uses its electoral strength   to blackmail every provincial government whether its PML(N), PML (Q) or PPP. The combination of electoral strength and violence to achieve its objectives is a regular pattern now.

Ironically since it has secular credentials it is even supported by some prominent liberal journalists who try to justify MQM’s violence as some kind of “natural” behavior in the context of generally violent character of Karachi city. This pattern of support which glorifies the secular credentials of MQM while pointing to the ‘natural” violent character of Karachi, further insulates the party from political discipline. Although there is a tendency in some elements of the media to brand MQM as a liberal party, frankly it is not. Yes it has secular credentials but then it’s also a party with very firm roots in ethnicity. Moreover it is largely based around the cult of personality model and is not afraid to use violence to meet its desired ends. And that violence is not “mob” violence but one enacted with cold blooded and ruthless calculations.

Liberalism at a philosophical level does embrace ethnic diversification but rejects promotion of extreme ethno based nationalism. Liberalism denounces such promotion because it eventually is aiming to create an artifact where so called “natural” tendencies such as ethnicity can be incorporated in the society without creating polarization. Liberalism tries to cultivate an open society and an attitude where differences are debated in a civilized attitude and the dissidents of the mainstream views are not killed or threatened. Moreover, liberalism from a philosophical point of view holds that a political organization which overstresses ethnicity is a dangerous element because it conflicts with the egalitarian principle. It also recognizes the danger that such a political party eventually may become amalgamated with the ethnic identity in such a way that any criticism of its actions would be successfully branded as ethnic discrimination. In case this occurs, the party becomes insulated from the political discipline.

 Apart from ethnicity another factor which is contradictory to liberal spirit is the cult of personality model which MQM has. In this model, electorate starts equating a party with a charismatic individual who is generally also responsible for founding or popularizing the party. In some parties, after the initial phase, the individual though remaining powerful fades into background and allows the party to become more dominant. However, in some cases individual becomes more and more powerful and cult of personality forms. This cult of personality often sets the basis for subsequent formulation of dynasty politics as well. Cult of personality if successfully formed gives the individual unusual power over both the electorate and party members. This has unfortunately happened with MQM.

Since the party draws its strength from the above two factors, so therefore it has to reinforce them every time it is in a tight spot or when it wants to extract some political mileage. Political row with any party is given a racial discrimination spin and then is used for both attack and defence tactics. The previous rows with PML(N) and the recent bloody feud with ANP are the glaring examples where selective facts are used to whip up the discrimination mania to extract political advantage and for turning away the spotlight away from the actual issue. For example, a few months back when the party was in confrontational stance with PML (N) suddenly the old wounds of 1992 operation resurfaced and the party actually started a campaign to demand apology from PML (N) on the Media. It was rather strange that MQM had no qualms being in the PML(N) led Government in 1997 and one wonders as to why fate of 15000 workers was not asked when shaking hands with Nawaz Sharif in 1997. Moreover another and in fact more severe operation launched by PPP in 1995 was conveniently and in fact completely ignored because right now PPP is accommodating MQM. Likewise in ANP’s case charges of racism are levied and ethnic mania is whipped up to insulate MQM’s own acts of violence. The moment you start criticizing MQM, the response is generally an allegation of racism. Another method of fending off criticism is by stressing that “MQM aik haqqeqat hai” (MQM is a reality)

Of course the party supplements this whipping of the discrimination paranoia with a severe cult of personality model to ensure internal unity and uniformity of outward stance. This cult of personality has become so strong that slogans like “Humhe Manzil Nayee Rehnuma Chahei” are not merely empty rhetoric but the actual political philosophy of the workers.

In some ways, MQM symbolizes lost promise. It’s a misfortune that a party whose leadership has actually risen from the masses has gone astray and developed a militant culture with some shades of criminal mafia. It initially showed a lot of promise and in fact is still capable of delivering it. But for that it has to show progressiveness and allow dissent of opinion. Contrary to what some critics say that MQM was a simply product of agencies, in my opinion MQM was the natural outcome of the gradual marginalization of the Mohajir community which started in seventies and also represented aspirations of the lower middle class in urban Sindh. Its leadership, having originated from the ranks of the lower middle to middle class, was the one capable of addressing the actual issues which a common man faces. Even afterwards, the party showed positive signs when it tried to come out of its ethnic base and broaden its appeal. However 12th May and subsequent events have changed it and relegated the party back to its roots. And linkage with those roots has to be severed for the party to realize its potential.



Filed under Pakistan

15 responses to “MQM, Ethnicity and Politics of Violence

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  2. Mnoor

    Good analysis of MQM. It is not liberal by any stretch, it is anti-religious parties only because it ousted them from Karachi and Hyderabad. It is entirely enthnicity based, and despits its name change this fact has been proved again and again. On the grounds, it operates like a well oiled mafia, and what we are witnessing in Karachi is a prolonged gang wars.
    There are some very talented people in MQM, and these could have been catalyst to make MQM more political and less fascist, but still the overall working of the party continues to be dominated by personality cult and violence.

  3. Sher Zaman

    Indeed a very good analysis; it is important for this group to abandon violence and resort to healthy politics, the way it was formed originally.

  4. Pingback: MQM, Ethnicity and Politics of Violence « Pak Tea House - Politics & Politicians of Pakistan

  5. Yasir Qadeer

    The culture of liberal politics could never be initiated in Pakistan which I believe is a dire need now. We must remodel our political and socio-economic models on more liberal and rational principles to go forward.

  6. PMA

    A very timely article by Raza Habib Raja. A good and fair analysis.

  7. Tilsim


    Excellent article. Violence is indeed their achilles heal. It arises from the street fighting culture of Karachi.

    I agree with your conclusions. The criticisms, praise and pointing to the potential are fair observations. The only thing that I would add is the MQM has been relatively effective at certain aspects of governance. The transformation (infrastructure and cleanliness) of certain neighbourhoods in Karachi, such as Nazimabad, FB.Area, Azizabad, Gulshan and road networks of the City overall during this last decade is a credit to them. The extensive tree plantation across the City is also praise worthy. It has helped lower middle/ middle class people who were feeling marginalised from the rest of Pakistan, reconnect to a significant degree.

    The MQM has to do a lot of work still to shed it’s reputation for violence and ethnic configuration to become a political force in the rest of the country. The feudocratic parties (thanks D_a_n) won’t make it easy for them but the potential is there.

  8. Mustafa Shaban

    I agree with the author. All the other parties are from the establishment and most leaders like Nawaz Sharif and others worked under military dictators. However MQM is not the only party that has come from the grassroots and can mobilize the masses, PTI is also another grassroots movement not coming from the establishment that is gaining ground as well. They dont have a violence problem.

  9. Raza Raja

    I have lived in Karachi for 9 years and MQM has genuine support. But even the supporters are privately critical of its violence. I think MQM has a lot of potential provided it reforms. Here the problem is that whenever it shows signs something happens and its back to square one.

  10. rationalist

    to mustafa shaban

    PTI has no violence problem?
    May be because they side (but deniably so!) with the violence-doers and hence are left safe.

    Taking a soft-line on violence-doers has always been to some people a long-used strategy to safeguard their own interests.

  11. nasir jan

    Lets face it without the MQM Pakistan would be called Mullahstan today. Its the only force in pakistan to stand up against the mullahs

  12. Humane

    Not all muhajirs support MQM and many within MQM privately criticize its violent actions against innocent pathans. Its wrong to associate every member of the muhajir community with MQM.
    But we must not forget the remarks made by Shahi Syed about the whole of muhajir community. He too
    is part of the crap in Karachi.

  13. Raj

    whenever MQM wants to convey a message, it uses deliberate and cold blooded violence to do so.

    ha ha ha ha…

    that’s what Mohajirs always do and have been doing even before they became Mohajirs…

    Nice summary of “Pakistan movement” in a single sentence….LOLz…..

    Every day is a Direct Action Day.

  14. Raza Raja


    I am amazed that an article on MQM is being twisted and spun just to show your hatred against Pakistan.

    aap khud he apni adaon per zara ghor karein..hum kahen ge to shakiat hogi

  15. Humane

    raj is part of the group of people trying to incite racial hatred.