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Violence as an instrument of politics

The case of MQM

Violence as an instrument of politics
Altaf Hussain.

Altaf Hussain’s vitriolic speech that stirred the MQM’s rank and file into vandalism is baffling on several counts. His diatribe was directed at the country instead of its establishment or the government of the time. This was unusual because saying what he said amounted to political suicide, to say the least. By making that speech, he not only squandered away his position of impregnability as MQM superemo, his anti-Pakistan rant heaped a truckload of embarrassment on his party colleagues, bringing his very own party at the crossroads.

But a much larger question forming the central theme of today’s column is: why do the political parties, whose cadres as well as leadership are drawn from the urban bourgeoisie, have a tendency to resort to violence on a small pretext? This holds true for the entire South Asia. A comparable case with MQM is Bal Thackeray’s the Shiv Sena, a right-wing Marathi ethnocentric party, which emerged in a different socio-political context but not only has its political support among the urbanites classes, it solely relies on the muscle power to make its presence felt particularly in the Indian state of Maharashtra.

The Hindi/Marathi word Sena means army and the members of Mumbai-based party are called seniks or soldiers. Mercifully, the MQM has not been so audacious to select such a signification for itself. Rather it tried to spawn a softer image of itself by substituting a nomenclature from Muhajir Qaumi Movement to Muttahida Qaumi Movement; by doing so it tried to shun its ethnic characterisation. Having said that, it has not shied away from employing violent means to make the Pakistani state realise its power and relevance.

Real issue irking both the parties on the either side of the divide is their xenophobia that invariably runs amuck with disastrous consequences. Any peaceful means or negotiation for both MQM and Shiv Sena is not a worthwhile option to resolve thorny issues.

The reason why the parties representing the urban bourgeoisie typify violence as a mode of their politics is that they were conceived and, subsequently, founded as a reaction to a certain situation. MQM was conjured into existence as a reaction to the perceived socio-political hegemony of the Sindhis, which had become quite disconcerting for the Muhajirs during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime. Later on, in Karachi, ethnic swords were crossed between Muhajirs and Pathans.

Thus, violence became an order of the day in the biggest city of Pakistan.

Read also: Good MQM, bad MQM

Muhajir community’s ghettoised mode of habitation in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur immensely helped MQM in its advent as a political force to be reckoned with. In any event of violence, law enforcement agencies found those areas virtually impermeable. Ever since the 1988 parliamentary elections, after ensuring unequivocal electoral support from the Muhajir community, the violent streak in MQM has consistently been on the rise.

Quite like MQM, Shiv Sena came up as a mouthpiece of Marathi speaking people, the natives of Maharashtra against Gujarati migrants. Many Gujaratis had settled in Mumbai (then it was Bombay) and its adjoining areas because of economic reasons. That ethnic friction had its basis in economics than anything else. But from 1980s onward, the focus of Shiv Sena’s antagonism shifted to the Muslim residents of Maharashtra. Thus the economic grievances were articulated through the idiom of religious exclusion, by pitting Marathi Hindus against Muslims, later being stereotyped as essentially anti-Hindu. Historical figures like Shivaji, an anti-Mughal Maratha icon, are accorded prominence in the public discourse.

MQM was conjured into existence as a reaction to the perceived socio-political hegemony of the Sindhis, which had become quite disconcerting for the Muhajirs during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime. Later on, in Karachi, ethnic swords were crossed between Muhajirs and Pathans.

All said and done, Shiv Sena too was reacting to a certain situation which, to its reckoning, had pushed the Maratha community, it claimed to represent, over the precipice.

Historically speaking, the South Asian urban bourgeoisie, irrespective of the cultural or religious differences, seems to have followed a similar pattern in its political orientation and trajectory. It has been influenced from the reform movements which had surfaced in the late 19th or early 20th century. Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, abbreviated as RSS had a tremendous clout among the Hindu middle classes. People like Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, M.S. Golwalkar, Madan Mohan Malviya, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Lala Lajpat Rai too cast a considerable influence on the Hindu bourgeoisie.

Read also: Violence as instrument of politics II

Gandhi, Nehru and Azad were relevant only to the high politics at the all India level. Lower/lower middle echelons of Hindus from North India in particular, sought inspiration as well as guidance from the people mentioned above. Socialists like M.N. Roy, P.C. Joshi and Kunwar Muhammad Ashraf tried to carve out a niche for their ideology but, in retrospect, we can say it did not work as much as their counter ideologies.

Eventually, success came to the vision/ideology embedded in the reforming of the Hindus through religious injunctions. Liberal values were looked at with suspicion, as a colonial ploy to sabotage the indigenous traditions and culture. However, these people did not reject everything with the western tag. They accepted modern tools and more importantly the method of classification. Thus factional and sectarian exclusion crept into their ranks in a tangible manner.

Consequently, accepting anything that is different proved impossible. Acceptability of what is different comes only through liberalism. Moral values steeped in religious reformation galvanise people to unilateralism.

The pattern with Muslims is uncannily the same. As and when they felt Western tools and methods suited them, they were readily adopted. Socially too, they tried to re-invent themselves through religious reforms. Liberal traditions that Quaid-i-Azam stood by were shunned quite conveniently. Even the great leader had to make a huge compromise by accepting the likes of Shabbir Ahmed Usmani and Zafar Ahmed Usmani etc. The reason for that compromise was the enormity of influence that the reformists had over the Muslim middle classes.

Majlis-i-Ahrar, Khaksar Tahreek and later on the ascendancy of Jamaat-i-Islami brought Muslim Leaguers to the position of vulnerability. Fundamentally, the Muslim middle class (salariate) was conservative rather reactionary; therefore, it succumbed to the ideology identified with socio-political exclusion.

The people who lent support to MQM from 1980s onward were the progeny of the old Muslim Leaguers. Although their political sentiment is ventilated through the idiom punctuated with ethno-linguistic particularity, the pattern of exclusivity harks back to olden days. Like a typical representative of urban bourgeoisie, MQM is highly conservative, overtaken by xenophobia and they take to violence in order to actualise its political self.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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