The MQM Referendum
The people of Pakistan have reacted sharply to the covert U.S. operation in Abbottabad and there could not have been a better way to gauge their opinions than a referendum.
On September 26, 2001 just fifteen days after the suicidal attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, a large public gathering was held in Karachi, Pakistan, to demonstrate the city’s solidarity with the thousands of victims in the United States and to offer sympathy and support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.
In the early days after September 11, when international television networks were quick to broadcast any public articulation of anti-American or pro-Taliban feelings, this huge gathering, reportedly five hundred thousand people large, was a rare sign of public support for the United States, followed by speeches proclaiming Karachi as a liberal-minded city with no place for jihadi groups. A resolution was issued stating that the people of Pakistan in general and of the southern province of Sindh in particular, believed in religious harmony and condemned any kind of religious extremism.
Although this “rally against terrorism” failed to make headlines in the international press, it was remarkable for two reasons. First, it was held in Liaquatabad, an inner city neighborhood of Karachi which flaunts a reputation for its hard boiled people. Secondly, this was the first moderate Muslim assembly against the fanatical religious extremists in the world.
Almost over a decade after 9/11 and with Osama Bin Laden, the world’s most sought-out terrorist killed, the MQM, which had emerged as one of the most vocal anti-jihadi and anti-Taliban parties due to its roots in the leftist campaign and rivalry with the Jamaat-e-Islami, played another master stroke calling it ‘a public referendum.’ Altaf Hussain, the MQM’s leader, who has been one of the staunchest critics of Talibanization and whose party opted to walk out in disgust against making a deal with the Taliban in Swat, defined the process of Talibanization as “A different sort of Talibanization though, where the jurisdiction of religion is expanded to every walk of life, from legislation to education and from sports to personal conduct of private citizens, is not only possible but is in steady progress in Pakistan which is concerning for us. We are ready to stop this process and will never allow this process to go-on at least in Sindh and Karachi, if not Pakistan.”
MQM, post-OBL, did something which no other political party did: they reverted to the people and its constituents via a referendum which could be termed as ground-breaking. A key coalition partner of the PPP-led government, the MQM launched a national “referendum” on May 17 over the covert U.S. operation against Osama Bin Laden, which the party says has violated Pakistan’s sovereignty.
“We want the voices of the people to be heard. They can take part in this national referendum by filling in the form by May 17.… the findings of which we will release,” said Anees Qaimkhani, a senior member of the MQM central committee, at a press conference at the party headquarters.
“Right now the sovereignty, liberty of Pakistan is at stake and there is a general feeling of despondency and insecurity among the people who want answers to what happened and what should be our future line of action,” Qaimkhani said as he sought people’s views on the role of politicians, the military and the intelligence agencies.
There is a need to have a national consensus on this issue, he said, adding that the party had released a form with 17 questions seeking the opinion of the people on pressing issues facing the country after the Abbottabad operation.
The MQM despite being a major player in the government in Sindh and at the centre has in recent times
taken an independent stance on important issues that differ from those of the government.
Many of the questions put to the people in the referendum were ex- pected to irk the ruling PPP and the President and Prime Minister.
“If the U.S. operation was a violation of our sovereignty, was not the hiding of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan for more than five years without any due process of law also a violation of our sovereignty?” asked one of the questions in the referendum form.
People were also asked to respond in “yes” or “no” to whether the armed forces and police had made greater sacrifices in the fight against terrorism or the religious parties? Besides, they were asked to spell out clearly if they wanted greater action against militancy and terrorists.
Another question pertained to the drone attacks, asking people to respond in “yes” or “no” whether they believe these drone attacks were being carried out with the permission of the government and intelligence agencies and if they were necessary.
One more question in the referendum was whether Pakistan should try to have friendly and good relations based on trust with neighboring countries such as India, Afghanistan and China. Wasay Jaleel from MQM’s co-ordination committee confirmed that, “more than 13 to fifteen million people from all over the world, including Pakistan, had participated in the referendum and that results were being compiled which would be released soon. The writer is a Karachi-based investigative journalist who writes on national, political, socio-legal and counter-terrorism issues.
MQM’s base Karachi is a moderate city and takes a bold
stance against religious extremism.