The raid

Monday, March 16, 2015

The 90 raid is an exceptionally significant event, the implications of which go far and wide. All the parties – the state, provincial and federal governments, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the media, and the judiciary – have been impacted by this development, some more than others.

For state institutions – read the army and the ISI – this is a turning point in their engagement in the internal affairs of the country’s financial nerve centre and port city. For years the state used a combination of carrot and stick to manage Karachi’s complex political dynamics. During Gen Pervez Musharraf’s rule the paradigm was to divide and hold. The MQM was the keystone of the power structure that the ambitious general had built for himself on the assumption that it would last for a long time.

Political governments, both past and present, occasionally tried to grapple with the issue of urban terrorism but never crossed that threshold where they had to directly deal with the MQM’s full clout. Everybody skirted around the issue, sometimes in the name of democracy, sometimes for the sake of expediency and at times out of sheer fear.

The present Karachi operation, however, has grown into something of an exception. For a host of reasons, the Rangers as a force (a bit like the Frontier Corps in Fata operations) has evolved into a fairly autonomous entity with its own intelligence gathering and urban counterterrorism units. This new role was honed to perfection by the then director general Rangers Lt-Gen Rizwan Akhtar, who, on account of his experience in dealing with the city’s inner working, had a deep insight into Karachi’s many complexities. His new role as DG ISI, his near-complete understanding with the federal government and an exceptionally good equation with army chief General Raheel Sharif has made his plans of defanging Karachi’s powerful war-lords a long-term policy.

Away from the nebulous and event-driven approach of his predecessor, he and his military colleagues and commanders seem to now be thinking at a strategic level. Just as tackling religious extremists has a well-thought-out game plan within a comprehensive framework, dealing with armed wings of political parties too is high on the list of priorities. Therefore, the 90 raid, while triggered by the killing of four policemen, is not a knee-jerk reaction to something immediate and temporary as far as its aims are concerned. Nor is it based on any ‘misunderstanding and conspiracy by some elements’ as some within the MQM and in the media have tried to style it. The plan was to go the whole hog and hit the centre of gravity whenever a chance arose. And that is exactly what has been done.

Now that this step has been taken, the equation between the state and the MQM has radically changed. 90 is not an ordinary place. This is the heart of Altaf Hussain’s party. This is his GHQ. If this raid does not yield a comprehensive solution to the problem of militancy and those captured from the building or from its surroundings are found to have been wrongly-held and falsely-accused, the state will cause itself a massive embarrassment. It will also vindicate myriad critics of this radical action.

Further, if similar actions are not taken against other areas, which state institutions in the past themselves have designated as hubs of trouble – certain seminaries, homes and houses of gang-masters etc – this event might get totally politicised. It could lose its rationale and become a game of ping pong between two sides rather than remain an issue of enforcing the law.

This means that the responsibility of both provincial and federal governments in contextualising this raid is exceedingly important. It is their reaction more than anything else that is likely to define whether this effort shall be seen as targeted against militancy and terrorism or against the MQM as a political entity.

So far the federal government has given a half-hearted ownership to the entire episode. Yes Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar spoken in an unequivocal fashion but it was not lost on anyone that his right words carried an after-the-event flavour. The prime minister’s office has kept quiet. In fact on the day of the raid the prime minister’s high-profile presence in Sindh did not even remotely suggest that he was clued in or that he was particularly interested in endorsing the action.

The provincial government had the standard Qaim Ali Shah response to give: maybe-I-know-about-it-maybe-I-don’t, but in the end Zardari saeen knows best. And what Zardari saeen had to say was typical of a party head who wants to keep his fingers in all pies. He condemned the raid, but his party representatives in different talk shows were fairly aggressive in postulating that the MQM was in the wrong and the raid was justified.

As events unfold, parties taking this middle-of-the-road approach might find themselves in a tricky spot. Short of the state working out a deal with Altaf Hussain, the likely flow of happenings after the raid (yes, there is more to come such as Umair Siddiqi’s confessions of serial killing in Karachi) would create an ‘either-or’ scenario. The provincial government will have to pick and choose sides clearly and without many pre-conditions. Waffling won’t do. Neither will talking from both ends of the mouth.

The media’s role too could come under tough scrutiny and be a subject of swift judgements of right and wrong. The raid has spliced public opinion deeply, the bigger chunk is against the MQM but the party’s incredible clout and ingress in the industry has allowed it to balance out the state’s narrative about what led to last week’s events. At present, most media outlets are trying hard to somehow accommodate ‘both viewpoints’. So far so good; this won’t go very far.

Sooner than later there will be court cases. There will be black and white issues to deal with. Editorial lines will have to be adjusted. Positions will have to be taken. A swing against Altaf Hussain is what media owners have traditionally avoided. Mollycoddling and preferential treatment has been their way to stay afloat. With the law swinging into decisive long-term action media-state relations will be tested. Given Altaf Hussain’s penchant for colourful language and MQM local leaders’ need to mirror his words, the media can become an amplifier to negate what the state believes is correct, legal and essential.

Whether this battle of perceptions about who is right and who is wrong will be long or short hinges crucially on the role of the judiciary. Like the media, the judiciary too has been, for obvious reasons, less than assertive in handling cases involving high-profile activists. Getting caught is about the worst thing that happens to serious criminals who later on walk freely out of the courts for lack of evidence against them.

This time it is different. Laws have been amended. Legal loopholes have been tightened. For the first time, judges are working in an enabling environment. How the judicial system works now is the core question. Those who are innocent have to be set free. Those whose hands are bloodied ought to get the punishment they deserve. This looks easy enough but in a fractured, highly charged atmosphere meeting the basic standards in administering justice can become a big task.

For the MQM, the implications of the raid are fairly obvious. It has been jolted to the core. The theory that something like this – capture of 90 – can never be done without precipitating a political Armageddon has been proven false. This must be shattering for the party and its leaders. However, it wasn’t as if they were not aware of the likelihood of something like this coming their way.

In the past year and a half there were several indications from the state that it meant serious business. The party had a lot of time to reflect on its affairs and start a process of internal cleansing besides pursuing politics of healing and reconciliation. That path wasn’t taken. Critics were categorised as enemies. Assessments of the party’s shaky political fortunes were brushed aside as vile hearsay. Leader worship and victimhood were prioritised over honest admissions. Seeking total domination and insistence on not changing according to the needs of the time have brought the MQM to a point where it is facing an uncertain future. The party needs a deep overhaul to ride this storm. It is facing a moment of truth it has long avoided confronting.

Syed Talat Hussain The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12