The Revamping Of MQM: Karachi’s Ignored Custodial Torture

The Revamping Of MQM: Karachi’s Ignored Custodial Torture
As per reports, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has mobilised the Interior Ministry to formulate a detailed report on the non-issuance of a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) to the MQM’s Altaf Hussain. Along with the Interior, this report warrants the involvement of the Foreign Office (FO) and NADRA, making it a tripartite governmental effort in response to the petitions in favour of reviving Altaf’s dormant political career. This has reignited the speculations of Altaf’s possible return in light of MQM’s significance in the current coalition government.

On 30 March when MQM joined the PDM, ex-PM Khan’s delicate majority in the NA tipped over, earning him the title of the first PM to have been ousted via a democratic and constitutional process in the history of Pakistan. In response, PTI’s chief of staff Dr. Shahbaz Gill disparaged MQM with a moral lesson on how “middle-class parties” should not be “making decisions in the middle of the night” – a jibe at the late-night press-conference held by MQM upon reaching an agreement with the PDM. Although this wasn’t the first contemptuous remark by the PTI chief of staff, MQM earned this taunt for belonging to the urbanised middle-class of the fifth-largest metropolis in the world. It is unfortunate that MQM’s transition into the current government was met with a petty reminder of its socioeconomic origins by the party’s former ally.

Once an octopus-like party with its tentacles in every sphere of public life, the party lies fragmented today; with its erstwhile immense power diffused into multiple factions. Due to its scattered power structure, MQM’s politicians are struggling to wield power in their constituencies. The party’s role in the current PDM was recently brought to the forefront through the appointment of Kamran Tessori as the Governor of Sindh. Previously known as the “ATM” of his party, the gold trader is certainly an odd entrant into a party branded as “middle-class.”

However, Tessori’s instatement is an effort at “course-correction” following the realization that MQM’s balkanization was a “grave mistake.” The military operations against MQM have failed to relieve Karachi of its intransigent violence; in fact, its violence has attained an intractable and unpredictable form in the absence of MQM’s role. The resultant power vacuum is considered as being the main culprit of the deteriorating security situation and the resurgence of violence in the melting pot. Hence, in hindsight, MQM’s complete extraction from politics was not a “wise solution.”

Moreover, Tessori’s selection is a harbinger of the remodeling of MQM for a revised role in Karachi’s modern-day politics. Undoubtedly, his appointment was only possible due to the dismemberment of the aboriginal MQM – the party that once politically empowered the majority of Karachi’s residents. Unfortunately, this massive populace lies entirely disenfranchised from the today’s political arena. Currently, Karachi may have Murtaza Wahab as an excellent administrator, but a political void still dominates much of the city. While this has afforded both, the Jamat-e-Islami and the PTI, with an avenue into Karachi’s mainstream politics, these parties can never compensate for MQM’s former mammoth role in the metropolis’s politics.

With the placement of the party’s “ATM” at the helm of party affairs, MQM’s claims of furthering a “middle-class” political existence has been dealt a fatal blow to. Despite the coveted governorship being betrothed to the party by the PDM, the final appointment was simply not a choice for the party stalwarts. Along with the MQM’s segmentation, its weak financial model and the issue of “missing persons” simultaneously plague the party’s existence. Tessori seems to be the one-stop solution for all these compounded issues. While offering the financial package required for the revival of the party, his dramatic entrance into the political arena has also brought an end to the 42-day long illegal detention of the ex-MNA and ex-MPA Nisar Ahmed Panhwar.

In sharp contrast with MQM’s past glory, the party seems to lead a muted existence today; hence, Nisar’s beleaguered family was not afforded enough attention from the media and human rights agencies. Nisar had been missing since August 29 upon being kidnapped by men described as “law enforcement agencies” – a day before the hearing of his constitutional petition in SHC against the ban on Altaf’s media coverage.

Ten days after this mysterious abduction, on September 9, a major fire incident at Nine-Zero, once MQM’s dreaded headquarters, was hushed up as “short-circuiting.” While serving as the birthplace of MQM, it also happens to be Nisar’s famed constituency of Azizabad – the seat that Quaid of MQM had anointed him with. Magical realism seemed at play with the burning of the party headquarters signaling the ushering in a new era for the party’s revamped existence.

Less than a week later, on 15 September, there was a harrowing discovery of three dead bodies of tortured MQM workers. The deceased workers had been “missing” for years and subsequent to sustaining egregious abuses, their dead bodies were dumped in different parts of Sindh. Despite the ghastly occurrence of these brutal extra-judicial murders, the news headlines at the time were dominated by Dr. Shahbaz Gill’s unproven custodial torture eventuating in Mr. Khan’s contempt of court. Evidently, the media solely highlights human rights abuses that are politically relevant.

Prior to his abduction, Nisar had been incarcerated for protesting against the media ban on Altaf outside the Karachi Press Club on 14 August; however, he was released a day later. Being a vociferous, all-weather supporter of Altaf, Nisar champions the reinstatement of the exiled premier’s role in the political stratosphere of Karachi. His family attributes his abduction to his struggle for furthering Altaf’s causes of civil supremacy and empowerment of the urbanized middle-class of Karachi. Nisar’s safe return raises questions on whether the media ban on Altaf still poses an existential threat to MQM’s current existence with Tessori at its epicenter. Moreover, what does this hold for Nisar’s future?

The residence of Dr. Nazir Ahmed Panhwar, Nisar’s brother, still lies replete with memories of Altaf and their deep ideological affinity with the MQM. As Sindhi Rajputs from Khairpur, the brothers started off their political journey with the MRD coalition opposing Zia’s dictatorial era. During Gen. Asif Nawaz Janjua’s crackdown of resistance movements, the seventeen-year-old Nisar sustained custodial torture for supporting democracy as a university student. Despite this traumatic experience, he went on to pursue his master’s degree in political science and later, a career in politics.

Upon moving to Karachi, he joined the MQM-backed labor unions of the Steel Mill and ascended the party ranks. His Sindhi descent encouraged Altaf to metamorphose the MQM from a Muhajir-representative party to an all-encompassing national party with Karachi as the stronghold. His family claims that MQM must be crowned with furthering social mobility as it is the only political party that has graduated union workers to members of provincial and national assemblies.

Interestingly, Nisar’s camaraderie with Altaf began after the dissident Quaid of MQM began leading a life of exile in London. Upon winning one of the party workers’ lotteries for meetings with the UK-based Altaf, Nisar met with the exiled party leader in London and developed a profoundly significant bond with him – one that eventuated in Nisar’s representation of the party at senior levels of government. Throughout his political career, he neither developed nor furthered any family businesses. Despising the concept of dynastic politics, he refused to induct any of his family members or children into the ranks of the party.

Nisar’s humility lies in the frugality of his existence: he still doesn’t own a car of his own; and he resides in a simply furnished, rented house in the eastern end of Karachi. His family shows no signs of affluence or reliance on an inheritance. His educated children are entirely self-made and rely on their salaries for their joint-family existence. Nisar’s political work has been lauded within MQM for his commitment towards harmonizing the relations between ethnic Sindhis and Muhajirs. His politics involves ensuring the rights of his constituencies in terms of creating employment opportunities, developing better communal housing facilities, and fostering ties with various communities.

Undoubtedly, Nisar’s safe return signals the resurgence of the exiled Altaf’s role in the current political arena. In a recent interview with the journalist Asad Toor, Altaf displayed both coherence and intellect. He provided insight into many of his controversies and reiterated his willingness for seeking “forgiveness” for his crimes. It is being speculated that since the spirit of forgiveness dominates the judiciary of today, Altaf may also receive unprecedented judicial pardons.

Furthermore, the radio silence on Nisar’s abduction unveils the selectivity of voices against custodial torture. While there were international protests, there was hardly any mobilization of forces within the fiercely-opinionated legal circles of Pakistan. In the background of the extra-judicial murders of tortured MQM workers, Nisar’s illegal detention was clearly fraught with the high likelihood of custodial torture; yet this failed to ring alarm bells amongst the legal community. It took the HRCP one month to release a detailed official statement. Certainly, the media cannot be held responsible for this unapologetic duplicity rampant in the legal community.

The cause for this unapologetic duplicity seems to stem from the quality of discourse promoted by key national educational institutions. Recently, while hosting a talk titled, “The Menace of Custodial Torture,” LUMS’s policy research department deemed it appropriate to select Salman Safdar and Ahmed Pansota as two of the three panelists for leading the discussion. Therefore, it can be deduced that the legal representation of the PTI chief of staff qualified two-thirds of this panel.

Considering the rampancy of proven cases and the existence of academic scholars on this pertinent subject, LUMS must revise its panelists’ selection criteria for talks on such relevant and pressing issues. Their current selection criteria is questionable by virtue of its lack of inclusivity and bias of agenda. Unlike the media, educational institutions must not restrict the topic of custodial torture to politically relevant cases. As the nation’s leading university, it bears the responsibility for generating meaningful debates and inclusive conversations that bring together diverse academic voices.

Unfortunately for Nisar, neither his legal petition nor his resultant abduction was aptly addressed by the legal community or the Judiciary. Nonetheless, with the Judiciary enfeebled by its own past decisions, any judgement favoring Altaf’s citizenship, or his return will be a confirmation of the “judicial route” to offering a “level-playing field” to political parties across the board. Moreover, on a political level, this also serves as a true test for free speech lobbyists rallying against media censorship. It is especially complicated in light of Altaf’s willingness for tendering unconditional apologies.