What is the difference between an MQM strike and a PTI strike?

Published: December 12, 2014
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PTI chief Imran Khan on arrival in Karachi. PHOTO: RABIA ALI/EXPRESS

It’s that time again. The city’s roads are busy with protestors and crowds are congregating to listen to their political leader. TV anchors and websites of media houses are keeping everyone abreast of the latest happenings. There is a political strike, a protest march, in Karachi and we have been through plenty of those in past few decades. So much so that there is practically a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that we all follow. Stock up the night before, watch early news to check routes, head to work if we can, call home to say we are there safely, get told by security to leave because it is getting rough, get home and watch the news.

Repeat at next strike and keep decreasing turnaround times.

However, this time it feels different and as a child of the 90s, a particularly strike and strife filled decade even for Karachi, I can tell. The biggest difference is that the strike call was not by the usual suspects, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Sure there are other parties that call for strikes but they have as much effect as Indian pacers on dead pitches, honest tries but nothing to discuss at the next day’s water cooler. Word is that two, just two, entities control Karachi’s barometer, Abdullah Shah Ghazi and the leader of the MQM, one Altaf Hussain. Since Ghazi Sahib intervenes only when it’s about to get very wet and windy, which is seldom, it’s really the MQM that was supposed to be experts at impacting the city.

No, this strike is by the (relatively) new kids on the block as far as city-wide strikes are controlled. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), now in its fourth month of protests and third phase of action, has decided to do shut downs in different parts of the country to put pressure on the ruling party. After Faisalabad, Khan Sahib and his passionistas are in Karachi to keep the protests simmering away and hence the call for today’s strike.

But this strike is different from the ones we are used to and the signs are all to see. Here are some of the major differences between a PTI strike and an MQM one that I have noticed so far:

Massi (maid) magic

The first sign that things are different is when the cleaning maid shows up. Just when we had expected to clean the house that looked as if it has been hit by a tornado, a tornado that also entertained guests the night before, and resigned ourselves to our fate lo and behold the most loved household member waltzes with nary an excuse. We asked her about the hartal (strike) and she replied,

“Yes there is a strike but it is not the dangerous sort. I know I will be able to make it here and go back easily.”

Viva la massi!

Dude, where’s my fear?

I started to get dressed for work expecting my mother to say what she always does during an MQM strike which is basically along the lines of,

“Are you crazy?”

“No one will be there.”

“Don’t take the nice car!”

“Have you signed your will?”

I went to her armed with my typical responses of being brave and deadlines. She first looked confused at my dramatic pause and then seeing that I was ready, she waved me off with a nonchalant goodbye. Confusion was rising and I had to ask,

“Ammi, aren’t you worried about the strike”?

Sipping her morning tea she replied,

“No. The massi’s here, she’s the one I was most worried about, and this is a PTI strike.”

Then it hit me – there’s no sense of fear, no lingering feeling of menace. It’s a strike but what are the PTI people going to do, slogan me to death?

Cheerio off to work!

Keep on truckin’

When I got to the roads, the way was blocked by some people waving flags. During a normal strike, I would retrace my way with the alacrity of a deer chancing upon a tiger at lunch time but fear factor way down, I approached them and asked about the situation.

“Sorry about the blockage but we have left alternate routes open. We don’t want to make the city impassable.”

I asked around and was shown the way. This was something new for me. The city was closed down but one could in fact move about. Let’s go!

Flower power?

As I drove off, it struck me that the boys, alright very young men, were decidedly different from my previous experience of strikers. Yes, they would burn tires and have the usual paraphernalia, what’s a strike without some burning tires right, but they looked harmless otherwise. The raffish clothes and shades were more promenade than politics and the female protestors were the sort you wanted to do homework for back in university. Some protestors were having tea and samosas while others preening about thinking themselves as modern day Che Guevaras, taking selfies from expensive phones.

And wait, was that the guy from the dramas and his friend the model?

This looked way more fun than my last office shindig and if I wasn’t late for work I may have joined in.

Viva la party!

Missing hardware

So far there was no sign of the other strike staple guns. Not even an itty bitty 9mm or 38 revolver. There was something unnerving about this Karachi protest and its lack of proper protocol.

No guns, no violence?

I even gamely tried to pass on a stick to a protestor and he thought I am selling sugar cane. I tried to reason with him, don’t do it for you, do it for the media reps, what the hell will they report? Spare a thought for the screaming talking heads who descend upon us at the sign of any hits. Do you want them to actually do some real work and talk about issues? The sadist refused and I left shaking my head.

Aren’t revolutions supposed to be violent?

This was turning out to be more ‘kiss kiss’ and less ‘bang bang’.

Business as usual

I pulled into the parking lot and trudged to my desk. I was barely seated when the smell of fresh parathas assailed my senses. Some colleagues were having them and I was reminded of the hollowness inside, the hollowness that comes from a missed breakfast. Since the shops would be closed and this has to be a home product, I sauntered over hoping for some largess. There was but little left but I was gracious with my compliments.

“Your mother is a great cook”, I told my colleague hoping to catch him early next time.

“Oh this is not from home. I got it from the dhaba across the road.”

It hit me.

Shops are open?

On a strike?

I rushed over to the dhaba and while he fixed my breakfast, I asked him about closing shop.

“Nobody has told us to shut down. You can if you want to and go to the protest but we have regular customers and can’t”, the owner replied.

So no goons closing shops?

No na maloom afraad?

No hungry days?

Viva la food!

New spaces

The final thing was the demographic spread of the protests. Normally, the sit-ins are concentrated in the middle income areas. But PTI has garnered support from those who until recently were outside the political realm. They cut across the social economic lines, the well-heeled rubbing shoulders, figuratively speaking, with the labourers and so the protests were spread from Teen Talwar to University Road and beyond. Not to say that other parties don’t have support from different income groups, but their sit-ins don’t usually spread to Clifton and its nearby areas.

Has PTI given a glimpse of the future or will Karachi be subjected to same old soon enough?

Looking at all this, it seems today’s strike could be changing my SOP soon. The real victory though will be if the city never has to be shut down by anyone. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope we get to that stage soon.

Sibtain Naqvi

Sibtain Naqvi

A writer and social commentator who has written extensively for various Pakistani English dailies. An art critic accredited by the AICA and the Royal College of Art, London, he dabbles in music and sports writing and tweets @Sibtain_N (twitter.com/Sibtain_N)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.