Sindh is on the boil again. Everybody is angry and frustrated with everybody else and nobody is prepared to listen to anyone. The MQM claims that the PPP isn’t offering a “fair” deal on power-sharing. The PPP retorts that the MQM’s list of 70 “demands” is preposterous. The MQM wants the army to stop arresting its members, release all those in prison and withdraw all the criminal cases against Altaf Hussain et al. The army says a criminal is a criminal irrespective of political affiliations or street power. The MQM shrugs this off by promptly calling strikes and crippling Karachi. Is there a way out?
Mian Nawaz Sharif and General (retd) Aslam Beg think there is. “Pull out the army from Sindh”, they say callously, knowing perfectly well that that is a sure-shot recipe for civil war in the province. Of course, they would like Sindh to be swamped by bloody strife. It would create an ideal situation in which to conspire for the ouster of Benazir Bhutto from power, much as they jointly did in 1990. But it’s not going to happen because their conspiracies are all too evident to Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Of course, Sindh cannot be allowed to drift into anarchy, and of course a way has to be found to reconcile the interests of the MQM with those of the PPP and the army. But before everyone is nudged to the negotiating table and advised to be more accommodating, one thing ought to be understood: If Benazir Bhutto had to endure a three year battle to win acquittal in patently trumped-up cases before the Special Courts and if Murtaza Bhutto is in prison facing charges from a largely forgotten era, then Altaf Hussain must also agree to face the same music. If he’s really innocent, as he claims, why doesn’t he have the guts to turn himself in and let the law of the land take its course?
That said, we might suggest a two-track approach in which the two tracks run simultaneously without impinging upon each other. Along one track the MQM and the PPP should directly negotiate a power-sharing formula which fulfils two reasonable requirements: it must be realistic and it should be endurable. The MQM cannot demand everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Nor can the PPP hope to fob off its adversary by offering merely the crumbs of office while denying it the fruits of power.
On a second track, the MQM and the army should directly tackle the question of who is a terrorist or murderer and who is not. If the MQM demands that all charges must be dropped and everyone must be released from custody, it should think again. If the army insists that all those whom it has targeted are guilty as hell, it must not be taken in by its own propaganda. Both sides could start by discussing the merits of cases in which the nature of the alleged ‘crimes’ is not too serious and where some sort of ‘amnesty’ can be arrived at without too much soul-searching or agonising loss of face. In due course, after tangible gains have been affected by both sides and a better political understanding of each other’s dilemma has come to prevail, a strategy for more give and take may be reasonably embarked upon.
Meanwhile all the parties should not say or do anything to exacerbate the situation. And they must start talking. Ms Bhutto has instructed her Sindh chief minister to re-open lines of communication with the MQM. This is heartening. The MQM mustn’t spurn the offer for talks with the government. Not should it muddy the waters by calling for any more strikes. At the very least, it should demonstrate its bonafides by staying clear of the likes of Nawaz Sharif, Aslam Beg and Ajmal Khattak — all of whom have a strong vested interest in sabotaging the prospects for peace in Sindh.
On the other front, leaders of the MQM and General Nasir Akhtar, the Karachi corps commander, should have a crack at an agenda for mutual “appeasement”. While the talks progress, no further arrests or raids should take place; nor should the MQM try to notch up any provocative propaganda points against the army (as in the Naheed Butt case recently). The withdrawal of the dreaded Field Intelligence Unit of the army from Karachi is a gesture in the right direction by GHQ.
Now it is the MQM’s turn to make a move towards reconciliation. Rightly or wrongly, its super-patriotic credentials have been considerably eroded in the eyes of many Pakistanis after its leaders went to Geneva recently and accused the Pakistani army of “human rights violations” in Karachi. Some people also believe the MQM is dancing to the tune of foreign masters. How, for instance, it is asked, are MQM activists able to obtain quick visas from the consulates of certain countries when other Pakistanis have to stand in a humiliating queue? If the MQM remains bloody-minded, many more awkward questions are bound to be raised. It is time for the MQM to quell such talk with concrete and positive action on the ground.