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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Smashing the Conspiracy of Silence: MQM & Mirza

Didn’t we all know what was wrong with Karachi? Weren’t we familiar with the cult of violence devouring the city? Extortion in Urdu has an expressive equivalent: ‘bhatha’. Didn’t we all know who the greatest collectors of ‘bhatha’ were?

But while this knowledge was inscribed on the tablets of our minds, it was knowledge that dared not speak its name. For the consequences of speaking out were swift and terrible: a bullet in the neck, if you were lucky; drill machines and your shroud in the form of a gunny bag if you were out of luck. We were so brave about exercising our freedom of expression when it came to the sins of politicians, the unholy role of generals and the ISI, Pervez Musharraf’s many transgressions.

But something happened to our courage when it came to Karachi. Our admirable attachment to freedom of expression lost its sting, intrepid anchors lost the use of their tongues, newspaper editors became paragons of moderation, choosing discretion over valour.

So all of us – analysts, certified patriots, screeching politicos – spoke of Karachi in a circular manner, never saying anything directly. Karachi taught us to be masters of the roundabout phrase.

This literary expertise, this gift for indirect speech, had unforeseen consequences. Terrible as the violence was, the conspiracy of silence was in a way far worse for it imprisoned our minds. And the killers enjoyed a free hand because no one was willing to name them. They spread a pall of fear over the city, especially its less favoured parts where their hegemony was unchallenged, and made a thriving business of collecting extortion money...doing so with impunity, their writ uncontested, because there was no one to name them, far be it from anyone to nab them.

Until, that is, Dr Zulfiqar Mirza’s bombshell news conference. This was not just political theatre, although it was this too, but something much more, something far bigger: an event to change, perhaps dramatically alter, things as they were. The status quo has been attacked. The conspiracy of silence and lies has been rudely shattered. The truth we always knew but now it is not only out, it lies exposed. A name, finally, has been given to the spectre haunting Karachi. The age of equivocations, of dodging around the truth, is over. Nothing can be the same again.

The MQM is shell-shocked, as it has every right to be. The allegations against it, backed by chapter and verse and some documents, were virtually on oath, Mirza with a hand on the Quran throughout his tour de force, at times holding the holy book to his head. It was a bravura performance during which Mirza, to my surprise I must say, was never at a loss for words. Occasionally, he was also devastatingly funny, as when he dilated upon Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s steady adherence to the unvarnished truth.

Naming MQM killers, holding the MQM responsible for the killing of the journalist Wali Babar – again naming names – referring to the recent attack on a police van in which many policemen were killed and again accusing the MQM for this. Accusing the MQM of being behind the killing of its own former leader Imran Farooq, and saying that in 2001 Altaf Hussain had written to then British prime minister Tony Blair offering to organise pro-western demonstrations in Karachi and elsewhere and calling upon the West to help disband the ISI lest it produce more Osama bin Ladens – to characterise these charges as explosive would be the under-statement of the century.

When was the last time such a thing happened? That too before a rapt nation-wide audience, hanging on to his every word and scarcely believing the evidence of its ears.

But there was also enough dynamite to shake the Presidency. For an attack on Rehman Malik is an attack on President Asif Zardari, Malik’s ultimate protector. Malik is a Zardari creature, owing everything to him, being of no account in political terms on his own. If Mirza says that if anything happens to Pakistan, Malik will be responsible, Zardari indirectly is also touched by the accusation. As he is by Mirza’s no-holds-barred attacks on the MQM, for who is the master-architect of the alliance with the MQM? President Zardari.

Remember also that Mirza’s language, his tone, are not his alone. He has touched a chord, and a burning one at that, expressive of sentiments passionately shared across the length and breadth of rural Sindh, including amongst the PPP’s own power-base. He can be excommunicated from the PPP but his views are not easily ignored.

Mirza has not so much thrown down the gauntlet as exposed the Republic’s nakedness in Karachi, the lies fuelling the bonfire of violence consuming the city. Like it or not, this is a call for action. If his charges are not refuted, if the names he has named are not denied, the government comes under a responsibility to act. But will it?

It is a safe bet that Zardari, a master of masterly inactivity, his forte presiding over a state of paralysis and construing it as cleverness, will do nothing. He will be hoping that like previous storms, this one too will pass. His instinct will be to preserve the alliance with the MQM even if the cup of popular cynicism boils over. This approach might work in normal times but after Mirza’s fireworks we are beyond the politics of the routine. This is different. The ball has already been flung into other courts.

The Supreme Court, reduced to a state of helplessness by the government’s stonewalling on a range of issues, has at last found a cause, the situation in Karachi, worthy of its suo moto consideration. It will be strange if Mirza is not called upon to testify and if and when he does it will become the responsibility of the Supreme Court to act, to issue clear directions, on the information he imparts.

Two great issues, overshadowing others, threaten Pakistan’s peace and security: religious extremism and the Taliban threat from the north-west; and the politics of extortion and blackmail in Karachi...theocratic violence on one side, and secular violence on the other. The Supreme Court has now an unrivalled opportunity to address the second of these two issues.

There is a tide in the affairs of men...there’s one in the affairs of the Supreme Court and it has to be seen whether it takes it at the flood or allows this opportunity, not likely to return soon, to slip through its fingers.

And, pray, what about the guardians? Mirza’s recklessness was controlled and well-directed. While he did not spare his chosen targets, Malik and the MQM, he was most judicious in his references to the army and ISI, going so far as to give a certificate of preserving the country to the latter. This points to intriguing possibilities. Zardari will not act, we can be sure of this, and Malik will continue to play his smooth games. But what is turning in the mind of My Lord the Chief Justice and what cue from his labours will the long-eyed men in General Headquarters take? Let no one say we don’t live in interesting times.

The lawyers’ movement broke the Musharraf status quo. For seven-and-a half years – Oct 99 to Mar 2007 – nothing was happening, Musharraf’s armour impervious to any assault. Then, out of the blue, he committed his famous faux pas with the chief justice and nothing was the same again (and to think that Pakistan’s lawyers, minor instruments of history, were to reduce themselves to showering rose petals on Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri... this is to trace a path from the sublime to the revolting).

Mirza’s thunderbolt has shaken the Zardari status quo, its impact greater than the confines of Karachi. For three and a half years nothing was happening, nothing sticking to Zardari’s Teflon armour. Now this.

To echo Ghalib, no hand is on the reins and no foot in the stirrups...where the galloping steed comes to rest let us see. Dr Zulfiqar Mirza has entered where angels would fear to tread. Where this leads to we don’t know. But at long last the elements of change have been set in motion.
Ayaz Amir: http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=65478&Cat=9&dt=8/31/2011