Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Return (and Resurgence) of Napier

The recent spate of violence, mayhem and bloodletting in Karachi has drawn a number of responses, ranging from the outraged to the resigned, the depressed and confused. And all of them are understandable on their own terms. It would be fair to say, however, that in a city as teeming, complex and diverse, there is no single truth about the causes for the flare-up that trumps all others. Every actor in this sordid saga can (and does) point to the actions of other actors as an excuse for their own villainy.

'The burnt out ends of smoky days' (Photo source: Times of Karachi)

If the MQM operates like a mafia, there is also no denying the underworld nexus that parties like the PPP and ANP are using to carve out their own slice of turf in the city. If Karachi's law enforcement is inefficient, corrupt and politicized, it is not an aberration from the rest of Pakistan where the writ of the state has been steadily eroded. If politicians are venal and self-serving about their political ends, this city has not been spared the shenanigans of the military's nefarious tactics to ensure they have the means to keep the political kettle boiling. If people from all over Pakistan stream to the city because of its higher professionalism, employment opportunities and avenues for making money, there are also those who resent the ever widening gap between the affluent and themselves. Where Karachi is Pakistan's most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse city by far, its diversity also creates the conditions for easy friction between cultural identities and is a magnet for those who wish to take advantage of it. Add in the desire for political and economic clout to diminishing respect for the state's writ, the complexity of administering a megapolis in general and in times of a regional shadowy militancy in particular, severely strained resources and constrained availability of land and you have a truly volatile mixture.

Does this mean that the anarchy let loose on Karachi in recent days could not have been prevented? No, it definitely involved actors who benefited - at least in their perceptions - in some way from it and it was fueled by leaders without vision (some may argue, basic humanity) who believe the best route to getting what they want is brinkmanship of the most dangerous kind. But what it does mean is that these sort of spells will recur (as they have before) unless and until the issues that underlie these conflagarations are addressed in some cogent, cohesive manner and unless at least the majority of stakeholders recognize that the status quo will not hold. It is not just a matter of allaying the current insecurities of the MQM (as the PPP seems to believe) or satisfying the local political ambitions of the ANP. There are serious chronic issues to do with land-use, planning, administration, distribution of resources and law enforcement that need to be tackled. Otherwise new problems, one example of which is this, will keep rearing their heads.

But this is actually not what I wanted to address in this post. What I wanted to look at was an intriguing aside to the current flare-up, how the seemingly raging fires of political instability were suddenly damped down. Consider the following timeline:

August 3 (Just Past Midnight): MQM supremo Altaf Hussain issues a fiery statement, full of rhetoric, asking the people of Karachi to stock up on at least a month's rations (even if they need to sell valuables to do it) and to be ready for sacrifice for the 'cause'.

August 3 (Morning): Fears of what is implied in Hussain's speech lead to palpable tension in Karachi and a run on stores as people stock up for impending shut-downs and further violence.

August 3 (Afternoon): British Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister for South Asia Alistair Burt calls up Sindh Governor Dr Ishrat-ul-Ebad. According to the official press release, Mr Burt said:

"This morning I spoke to the Governor of Sindh Dr. Khan to expressed my concern at the continuing violence and loss of life that Karachi has faced in recent weeks.  I encouraged the Governor in his ongoing strong personal engagement to restore law and order.  I warned that inflammatory statements from any political party risked making the situation worse and that all political leaders and their parties have a duty to refrain from inciting violence and to reduce tensions and restore calm.  I reiterated the view of Her Majesty’s Government that the stability of Karachi is in the interests of all in Pakistan and the wider international community.  I said that peace and prosperity in Karachi was necessary to encourage further foreign direct investment which would be vital to Pakistan’s future economic growth and stability."

August 3 (Evening): Altaf Hussain makes another, milder speech, this time with nary a word about stocking up on rations. Even more intriguingly, he makes half the speech in English.

August 4: Altaf Hussain issues an unprecedented apology for his earlier speech, claiming his talk about stocking up on rations was misunderstood and that he never meant to offend anyone. He also appreciates the paramilitary Rangers' actions at Kati Pahari, the area at the centre of the storm. Conciliatory statements also come from the MQM's bete noir PPP Sindh Minister Zulfiqar Mirza who speaks respectfully about "Governor sahib" who he had dubbed a "bhagora" (fugitive) just a few days ago.

August 5: MQM members of parliament attend the Sindh Chief Minister's iftar party in a seemingly convivial mood, strengthening rumours that the MQM has come to an understanding with the PPP. President Zardari formally invites the MQM to yet again join the government.

Sindh CM Qaim Ali Shah with MQM leader of the 'opposition' Syed Raza Haroon at iftar (Photo: Whitestar/ Dawn) 

One can only speculate about what the exact reasons are for the British to take such a leading and active role in this reconciliation. Could it be that they were asked to do so? It's important to recall that anarchy in Karachi not only threatens the entire economy and stability of Pakistan (more than 70% of Pakistan's tax revenues are generated from the city) but also obviously port operations - which is the hub of the NATO supply lines into Afghanistan. It would also do well to recall that it would not be the first time that the British have played foot-soldiers for their allies. And as WikiLeaks has divulged, it's not the first time that the US and the UK have coordinated their efforts with regards to Karachi and the MQM either.

It could also well have to do with Britain's own interests in Pakistan too. After all, trade between the UK and Pakistan is well over 1 billion pounds (mutual direct investment adds about another 300 million pounds)  and has been rising significantly and more than 100 British companies operate in Pakistan including the giants Unilever, Shell, GlaxoSmithKline, Standard Chartered Bank, HSBC and Barclays. British pharmaceutical companies also control over 30% of the market share in Pakistan and Britain has also earmarked over 1.3 billion pounds in aid for Pakistan over the next 4 years.

But far more interesting would be to understand why the British have the leverage they do in the current situation and why they are likely to play an increasingly significant political role in the future. Consider the following simple facts:

* Altaf Hussain, Leader of the MQM: Lives in self-exile in London. Is now a British citizen with a British passport. The MQM's 'International Secretariat' is also based in London. And as slyly pointed out by journalist Abbas Nasir in his column in Dawn today, "the British government has acquired greater leverage over some of the political exiles on its soil because an amendment to the immigration laws in 2006 empowers it to revoke the nationality of any naturalised dual national if the decision was deemed for the 'public good.'"

* Asif Zardari, Co-Chairperson of the PPP: Has property in the UK including Rockwood, the infamous "Surrey Palace" (Abbas Nasir has reminded me that Rockwood was sold off to pay debts). Has a son and daughter studying in the UK.

* Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairperson of the PPP: Studying and living in the UK.

* Yousuf Raza Gilani, Prime Minister: Has a son studying in the UK.

* Nawaz Sharif, President of the PMLN: Has property in the UK including flats in super-posh Mayfair. Wife is currently under medical treatment in the UK. Keep in mind also the British assessment of Sharif's future as detailed in this secret US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

* Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of the Punjab: Has property in the UK including at least one flat in Mayfair.

* Pervez Musharraf, head of APML: Lives with wife in London, has property there including a flat in Edgeware and is provided security by Scotland Yard.

* Imran Khan, Chairman PTI: Former wife and two sons are British citizens and live in London.

It pays to be even a former colonial power doesn't it? The US can try whatever it wants to gain influence in Pakistan but even it realizes that the British do have first mover advantage.


moizza said...

And now the restoration of LGO 2001. A complete volte face of PPP tactics of cultivating anti-MQM sentiments of late.
The Urdu press reports that "some" PPP peeps had asked for the UK to intervene. If so why the change in PPP's strategy generally. Or is this solely because of British pressure?

Abbas said...

It's kind of amazing how brainless and thoughtless our general public is - burning busses and vehicles, killing other humans on one signal from their gurus (MQM, ANP, PPP etc).

It's very sad whatever has happend in karachi. These political mafias have taken karachi hostage. We need a cleansing in karachi of all these evil forces who only want their own political and material benefits with zero regard for teh safety, wellbeing and prosperity of the general public.

It saddens me to see how illiterate morons like Altaf or zardari are 'our' leaders. With the current 'progress' in this good democracy, I think any sane Pakistani would prefer musharraf like dictatorship over this democracy.

All our leaders are leeching our blood, enjoying luxury lives themselves with their kids and wives enjoying abroad, studying in expensive institutions, staying at expensive hotels.

What the hell is going on with my country, was this what the great Quaid invisioned.

- Abbas 'deeply-ashamed' Abbas

Anonymous said...

Actually Nusrat Javed of Bolta Pakistan first pointed out the role of British diplomacy

Moiz Jaferii said...

altaf hussain did not make a 'milder' speech, and his apology the day after that was not in reference to the rationing comment.

the speech that had its 'milder' parts in english, contained a rather xenophobic taunt towards the people of Sindh that rivalled what Zulfiqar Mirza had said a few weeks earlier.

Altaf Hussain used the 'bhooka nanga' tag once again, and this time in response, said that these sindhi's should thank us, they were all slaves of Hindu money lenders and we came to save them.

Basically, ethnic excuses for parties, bringing minorities into the muck.

Anonymous said...

"It pays to be even a former colonial power doesn't it?"
Yup, very much. Now, UK has it's own version of Junior TTP-LeT - it's named Anjem Chaudhary. Indeed, it pays *a lot* to support fanaticism - it's the *pay-back* that's so bitter.
Thx ~!
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