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Bal Thakeray and Altaf Hussain

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By Khalid Ahmed



Bal Thakeray died on 16 November 2012 and Hindustan Times headlined the news Bal Thackeray the mascot of Marathi pride. It went on to describe his real power:

'Bal Thakeray protested the right of the Marathi on Mumbai, a city dominated by 'outsiders'. His pro-Marathi plank propounded Maharashtra for Maharashtrians, and chose even to offend his ally the BJP by backing Congress's presidential nominee, Pratibha Patil, who was a Maharashtrian'.

Economist (24 Nov 2012) wrote: 'He started his own cartoon weekly to document the injustices faced by Maharashtrians, "the sons of the soil". They were, he believed, second-class citizens in their own city. The tycoons, in their swanky palaces, came from outside: Gujaratis, Rajasthanis, Parsis. White-collar positions went to English-speakers, Iyers, Shahs and the rest: you could search in vain in an official phone directory for a single Marathi name. And every day he saw the city fill with migrant scum from all over India who stole jobs, picked pockets and used the street as a toilet'.

Two cities of India were conquered by Gujaratis: Bombay and Karachi. This happened because Gujarat had the only port in India - Surat - facing westward and its people had learned trade, acquiring a higher civic consciousness over time. Gujarat gave India its first finance minister Todar Mal under Akbar the Great. It gave to India its two great leaders, Gandhi and Jinnah, the latter also the founder of Pakistan.

Migrations lead to violence. Those who migrate clash with the local population on the basis of different identities. The immigrant is insecure because he wants a place under the sun; the local person is insecure because he fears losing his place under the sun. Fear gives way to hatred and hatred to violence.

Both in Bombay and Karachi the local populations were either marginalised or their relocation from countryside to the cities delayed through 'interloper' communities.

Bombay became Mumbai after growing big on the basis of India's internal migration. Karachi ousted its Hindus after 1947 and was swelled immediately with a massive wave of Urdu-speaking 'external' migrants from India. Pakistan was soft on these migrants because of ideology and language. The Sindhi person remained out of the reckoning - dangerously, because his nationalism was based on language like the Bengalis of East Pakistan.

Because of state ideology, Sindhi nationalism did not prosper. No Bal Thakeray was produced by the Sindhis although many smaller ones came and went in the countryside. Instead, the emigre (muhajir) community produced Altaf Hussain.

Somewhat like Bal Thakeray in Mumbai, Altaf Hussain arose to power in Karachi, their only common traits being loyal ethnic following and use of violence. (Ethnic identity can be based on race, region and religion. Three-way ethnic violence in Karachi may postpone democracy as it has in Iraq and Lebanon.) Ethnicity produces more durable violence than any other identity. More internal emigre communities in Karachi took to using strong-arm methods. Altaf Hussain opposed violent reaction with violent response.

Dutch scholar Oskar Verkaaik in his book Migrants and Militants: Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan (Princeton University Press, 2004) studied MQM as a street movement of karate club youths that moulded itself to Pakistan's electoral system and thus achieved validation.

Verkaaik wrote: 'The muhajir middle class support may have developed at the electoral level in the face of discrimination and reactive state and community violence in response to the MQM's own street aggression'.

Bal Thakeray became a symbol of violence in favour of the 'insider' Marathi community; Altaf Hussain became the symbol of violence in favour of the 'outsider' emigre community. Bal Thakeray used religion against the secular state of India; Altaf Hussain uses secularism against the ideological state of Pakistan.

In the 1980s, the decade was of Afghan jihad where General Zia had allowed the Jamaat Islami to emerge as the most powerful organiser of militias. The MQM soon found itself confronting the Jamaat in Karachi with the state backing the Islamic elements. When the muhajirs got into trouble with the Pushtuns, the Jamaat was reluctant to come to their help.

This resulted in a hostile 'secularisation' of the MQM which was anti-Zia and more akin to the non-fundamentalist Sindhi mystical ethos. This also resulted in the MQM-PPP alliance after the 1988 election. The label of 'new' Sindhis for muhajirs was developed in this brief period of honeymoon between parties that actually had more reason later on to fight each other.

In Karachi, communities hounded by religious extremism seek shelter from Altaf Hussain who, like Bal Thakeray, remains aloof from the politics he presides over. If Karachi is the stronghold of the Urdu-speaking muhajir community, it is also the biggest Pashtun city of the world. For the first time, the MQM is under pressure from Talibanisation, giving Altaf Hussain the kind of acceptance from Talibanisation's victims that Bal Thakeray never got in India.

Bal Thakeray challenged a functional Indian state and was therefore demonised by India; Altaf Hussain challenged a dysfunctional Pakistani state and achieved acceptance from political parties beleaguered by terrorism. The vanishing breed of 'liberals', hounded by a rightwing media, want Altaf Hussain to succeed because he is the only man who can respond to the violence of Taliban with violence.

Bal Thakeray found an ally in the BJP but BJP was not willing to let go its secular self-identification; Bal Thakeray's Shiv Sena was more radical. BJP feared getting a bad image through too much association with Shiv Sena. But MQM is a refuge of the threatened minorities from Karachi to Gilgit-Baltistan. ?

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