A country created by a Shia Muhajir is being torn apart by ethnic, sectarian and class divides as poverty, inequality, injustice, corruption and repression enrage an increasingly urbanizing population.
This week, Turkey finally sent its troops across the Syrian border to take on the Islamic State, a massive earthquake struck Italy killing thousands and the circus of the rotten Rio Olympics came to an end. Yet the focus this week is Pakistan where Waseem Akhtar was elected as the mayor of Karachi, a sprawling megacity with 20 million people. Why might you ask is Akhtar’s election such a big deal?
For a start, Akhtar is in prison and is unlikely to be released anytime soon. The poor chap has been jailed and tortured in the past. Incongruously, he can still run for office in the topsy-turvy world of Pakistani politics where even prime ministers are not safe from jail. In more ways than one, Akhtar’s story captures all that is ailing Pakistan.
Akthar is a member of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party largely of Muhajirs who immigrated to Pakistan after British India was partitioned in 1947 into India and Pakistan. Muhajirs speak Urdu, the language that arose amidst the embers of the dying Mughal Empire. They were the driving force in the creation of Pakistan, and Akhtar, a proud Muhajir, rightly declared in his victory speech: “We are the children of those who created the country.”
Most Pakistanis forget that their founder was a Muhajir of Shia descent. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a pork eating, chain smoking and scotch drinking Gujarati barrister who loved fine suits, silk ties and good old William Shakespeare. This complex and charismatic man married a glamorous Parsee of legendary beauty less than half his age, defying social convention and causing much scandal.
Jinnah was ecumenical not only in his personal life, but also in his political inclinations. He began as a secular nationalist who worked for Hindu-Muslim unity. He played a key role in the freedom struggle and defended none other than Bal Gangadhar Tilak against the charge of sedition labeled by the British. For those who do not know the history of India’s independence movement, Tilak was the most popular Indian leader before Mahatma Gandhi. Anyway, this is not the time and place to dissect Jinnah’s fascinating personality, but readers must remember that the founder of Pakistan sought to create a secular state for all Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.
Instead, what exists today is much worse than the “truncated and mutilated moth-eaten Pakistan” that Jinnah railed against. East Pakistan has long been Bangladesh after winning its independence from its western cousins in 1971. During the brief 24-year period from 1947 to 1971, the residents of West Pakistan failed to treat their dark-skinned countrymen with decency. In Punjabi-dominated Pakistan, Bangladeshis were second-class citizens subjected to oppression, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, murder, rape and genocide. Naturally, they created their own country with Bengali instead of Urdu as their national language.
Jinnah might have dreamt of uniting all Muslims of the subcontinent as one Pakistan, but ethnicity, sect and class triumphed soon after his death. Punjabi and Sindhi elites have dominated the country since 1947. Even Muhajirs, members of Jinnah’s own community, have struggled to find their voice in Pakistan even though they form the most educated community of the country. Many Muhajirs are middle-class, with large numbers of doctors, engineers, professors, scientists and lawyers, much like Jinnah himself. The main power base of this community is Karachi, Pakistan’s port city and its commercial capital. Hence, MQM’s Akhtar has won despite being locked up in jail. This raises a key question: Why is Akhtar in jail?
Akhtar has been charged in 10 cases for “abetting the treatment of alleged terrorists and gangsters,” and the anti-terrorism court has refused him bail. MQM has long had a troubled relationship with the Pakistani state. Altaf Hussain, its founder, lives in exile in London because he is wanted by authorities in Pakistan. In 1992, the authorities launched “Operation Clean-up” which, in the words of Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali, was “ostensibly aimed at cracking down on all ‘terrorist’ and ‘criminal’ elements in Sind, but which effectively became a witch hunt against the MQM.” MQM responded by waging war against the police and paramilitary. Ethnic and sectarian violence has been permanent feature of the Karachi landscape since.
In fact, the politics of ethnicity is deepening and widening existing chasms in Pakistani society. Once, Sindhis and Muhajirs battled each other in Karachi. Now, Pashtuns fleeing from their war-torn homeland are fighting Muhajirs in a brutal battle for the control of the city. Thousands have died in the city over the years as bomb blasts, drive by shootings and gang wars have become par for the course.
Trouble is not only brewing in Karachi, but also in Balochistan, a state bordering Afghanistan and Iran, where many celebrated Independence Day on August 11 despite a bomb blast in a hospital. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are infamous for providing refuge to the likes of the Taliban, and Pashtuns in FATA have often fought Pakistani troops with the same fervor with which they once battled the British. It almost seems that things are falling apart and Islamabad can no longer hold on.
As if ethnicity was not enough, sectarian strife is eating up the innards of Pakistani society. When General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq ruled in the 1980s, he began the infamous Islamization of Pakistan. Saudi money flowed into the country like water. Pakistan’s famously relaxed form of Islam suffered a virulent Wahhabi infection. So much so that, in 2012, Deutsche Welle called Pakistan the “Wahhabi Republic.”
Zia was a great beneficiary of the Cold War. The democratic US fell in love with this intolerant military dictator like a teenager without judgment. Consequently, Saudi petrodollars and American expertise flowed through Pakistan to the mujahedeen fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Some of these resources were diverted to fight Operation Tupac, a part of Zia’s master plan to promote insurgencies in India and bleed his bigger neighbor with a thousand cuts.
To find fighters for the insurgencies, Pakistan’s legendary Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) came up with a cunning plan. Madrassas were the answer. These Saudi-financed religious schools were not about creating urbane Islamic scholars à la Baghdad’s fabled House of Wisdom. Instead, they focused on creating jihadists who would fight the kuffar (non-believers) whether in Afghanistan, Kashmir or even the US. It is little surprise that many blame the ISI for supporting “terrorism and extremism.” Till the spectacular attacks of September 11, 2001, Pakistan along with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates was one of the three countries that recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In fact, it is an open secret that the ISI helped to create and then assiduously cultivated the Taliban.
Pakistan has since discovered that it has been playing with fire. The Frankenstein of radical Sunni Islam that Zia once created is now devouring the country itself. As Anwar Akhtar wrote at Fair Observer in 2013, Pakistan is a tough country for minorities because of widespread discrimination and persistent persecution. Violence against Shia Muslims is now endemic. In fact, all minorities, including Ahmadis, Hazaras, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs live in fear. Ironically, the dandy Shia father of the nation would not survive too long in modern-day Pakistan.
Even as ethnic and sectarian strife plague Pakistan, inequality is rising. In FATA, 73.7% of the population is poor, and the figure for rural areas for the entire country stands at 54.6%. Women own a mere 3% of the land and their labor participation rate is a lowly 25%. By contrast, the female participation rate for Sweden, Kenya and Thailand is 60%, 62% and 64% respectively. Dawn, Pakistan’s leading newspaper, once aptly described the “50 shades of inequality in Pakistan,” pointing out that the country’s tax to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio of 9% was the lowest in the world.
The extreme inequality in Pakistan has resulted in a feudal democracy in a country where “large land holders occupy national and provincial assemblies controlling both property and people.” The best example of this is the Bhutto family. Like the Thai royal family, they are big landowners with little in common with their toiling peasants. The politics of patronage dominates Pakistan, and corruption runs deep not just into the bone but the bone marrow itself.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the callow leader of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), is yet another member of South Asia’s lucky sperm club that comprises other luminaries such as Rahul Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru’s feckless great grandson, and Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the current Pakistani prime minister’s daughter. As an undergraduate at Oxford, Bhutto Zardari spent most of his time carousing merrily.
The 28-year-old scion of the rich and powerful Bhutto clan has not lost a taste for “jolly entertainments” where “models in skimpy outfits” dance around a fiery cauldron. This dissolute modern-day wannabe Roman emperor speaks Urdu in a horrendous English accent, giving credence to the accusation that he is a “coconut.” Furthermore, he often shrieks at the top of his voice at public rallies, coming across as a “rich spoilt pansy.” At Oxford, Bhutto displayed no interest in political issues or intellectual discussion and was conspicuous by his absence in any discussions on Pakistan.
Yet Bhutto Zardari has parachuted into the leadership of a major political party without even having grown up in the country. Although his stock has fallen, he is still revered by a large section of society that blindly votes for him. As one of his fellow students at Oxford pointed out, this is precisely the problem with Pakistan. Scions of families who have looted the exchequer still command deference and even reverence. Bhutto Zardari’s father was infamously known as “Mr. 10 Per Cent” for purportedly taking a 10% cut for awarding every government contract.
Even as Bhutto Zardari has been throwing a big party, his PPP government in Sindh has not exactly been doing its job. Amir Hamza, a young medic in Karachi, wrote a satirical letter to “Lord Bilawal” that eviscerates this smug, sanctimonious and shady scumbag for his “plain disdain and utter disregard for the lives of ordinary men and women.” Hamza damned this young dynast for hosting his revels even as people were literally starving in the Thar.
Some would argue that Bhutto Zardari’s behavior is in keeping with the tradition of the great Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal even as his people were dying of a frightening famine, a key cause of which was the emperor’s extortionate taxation. The idealistic Hamza does not buy into this logic and damns Bhutto Zardari for his incompetence. This young medic boldly writes that the PPP’s “ranks are filled with the vilest of feudals that feed on the blood of their serfs. Its cabinet [of the Sindh province] is nothing but a conclave of dunderheads.”
Hamza is bang on the money. Bit by bit, the Pakistani state is imploding. Most of the country’s laws are still colonial. Pakistan’s penal code is the same as India’s and was drafted by none other than the splendid Lord Macaulay. The changes its parliamentarians have made since independence have only made it worse. Pakistan’s military has often conducted coups in the past and has a reputation for corruption. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is still battling the military after being packed off to exile by General Pervez Musharraf, has found himself in hot water after his name cropped up among the Panama Papers.
Meanwhile, Pakistani institutions are a complete mess. The army is exceedingly powerful and so are the paramilitary and police. The ISI still remains a shadowy force. The Pakistan Administrative Service, like its Indian counterpart, is full of dilettantes who base their claim to fame on an examination they write in their youth. These bureaucrats have neither the aptitude nor the attitude to do a half-decent job. One day, they sit in the Culture Department, another day they move to agriculture and a third day they run the country’s finances. In this Kafkaesque country, the law is an ass and the courts are worse than bazaars with justice for sale.
Many have long quipped that Pakistan is land created for Allah, kept together by the army and propped up by America. Today, the army is not what it once was as elites pack off their children abroad and a new breed of religious officers rises through the ranks. Allah might still be around but America is turning squeamish. It did not help that Osama bin Laden was hiding practically next doors to the country’s prestigious military academy. Waseem Akhtar represents yet another challenge for Pakistan: An elected Muhajir mayor is in jail on trumped up charges of terrorism while the Bhutto and Sharif clans rule the roost.
Meanwhile, corruption, inequality and injustice keep driving a fast urbanizing population to desperation. Unsurprisingly, Islamic fundamentalism and Saudi-funded madrassas are on the rise. They provide identity, community and hope in a beleaguered society. Just think for a moment about Hamza. If this middle class medic is so enraged by injustice, then imagine the anger of a deeply exploited poor young man with little or no prospects who is aching for payback.
To add a sting to the tail, Pakistan is a country with nuclear weapons and decent missiles. It is little surprise that many consider it the most dangerous country in the world.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Danish Khan