Altaf Hussain: one of the founding figures of Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz in Pakistan Photograph: (WION)
Altaf Hussain’s power, which has suffered a temporary eclipse, will not disappear easily from Pakistan's political scenario
In the past weeks, there has been a great deal of sound and fury over Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader Altaf Hussain’s anti-Pakistan remarks. He delivered the speech to MQM supporters who had been protesting media bias at the Karachi Press Club via phone from London where he has lived in exile for the last 24 years. Pakistan, Hussain declared, “is a cancer of the entire world…it is the epicentre of terrorism for the world.” Thereafter, MQM supporters stormed the offices of two media companies. In the ensuing uproar, paramilitary Rangers sealed the MQM headquarters, arresting its top leaders and removing Hussain’s posters.
Since 2013, the Pakistan Army has been trying to restore peace in the Pakistan’s principal port and commercial centre, a populous city of 23 million called Karachi. In 2015, they intensified their operations, killing hundreds of MQM workers and jailing thousands. Many have simply disappeared. It is these actions which probably triggered Hussain’s outburst.
Hussain has since apologised to the Pakistan Army chief, the Rangers chief, the ISI and other higher authorities in that order; the list tells its own story about the power balance in Pakistan. As a tactical move, he has declared that he is stepping down from the leadership group of the party. The MQM leader Farooq Sattar announced that the party will now be run from Pakistan, not London.
Simultaneously, Hussain has faced considerable pressure in his place of exile, UK. The troubles began with the assassination of an MQM leader Imran Farooq in 2010 by two assassins who were arrested in Pakistan on their return. They claim they were put to it by a senior aide of Hussain in London. Subsequently, the London police began an investigation into the MQM’s activities, especially money-laundering, and arrested Hussain in June 2014 though he was not charged subsequently.
There is an irony that the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani establishment is convinced that the MQM has been funded by India, considering that the party is constituted of those who played a central role in creating Pakistan. This is one reason why after the first army offensive against the MQM in 1992, they created a situation for which New Delhi was forced to shut down its consulate in Karachi in 1994, an action that has also affected Mohajir visa seekers.
The “Indian hand” has been a staple Pakistani explanation of the problem. But the fact that Mohajirs originally came from India gives it a resonance in contemporary Pakistan. In 2015, a BBC report, following up a British investigation into money laundering, claimed that Pakistani officials blame India for providing fund and training to the MQM. These claims came in the wake of a statement from a Karachi police officer that two arrested MQM militants have revealed that they had been trained by India.
The BBC report was based on the purported 2012 confession to the London police by senior MQM leader Tariq Mir that the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) of India had funded the MQM. According to the report, the R&AW had been funding the MQM since 1994 and that the four top leaders of the outfit were aware of it. It turned out later that this entire report had been fabricated and it was formally denied by the London Metropolitan Police, which said with typical British understatement that no such documents were part of its record.
One of the greater ironies of history has been the fate of people who are called Mohajirs in Pakistan. They were the people who conceptualised the country and fought tooth and nail against the Congress party to create it. But once established, they found themselves slowly marginalised to the point that they had to create a new political platform to defend their interests. The Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz (Mohajir Qaumi Movement) was founded in 1984 by Altaf Hussain and Azeem Ahmed to represent the interests of the erstwhile refugees from India who had concentrated in the Karachi area.
Initially, its goal was to advance the interests of the Mohajirs who resented the discrimination against them from the dominant Sindhi community. In turn, the Sindhis and other communities in Pakistan resented the sense of entitlement among the refugees from India who had foisted their Urdu language on them and had held a disproportionately high share of top-level jobs in the new nation.
Altaf Hussain’s personality is shaped from his rough and tumble days as a student leader in Karachi university. In turn, this imprinted itself on the MQM. Once established, the party came to dominate Karachi’s politics through a network of patronage, enforced by violence and assassination. In the October 1990 elections, the MQM emerged as a potent third force in the country between the Pakistan Muslim League and its rival, the Pakistan People’s Party.
So powerful did it become that the Pakistani establishment decided to crush the outfit and launched an “Operation Cleanup” ostensibly to restore order in the otherwise chaotic city, but also to cut the MQM to size. Thousands of MQM workers were arrested and hundreds killed. It was around this time in 1992 that Hussain fled Pakistan and arrived in London from where he ran the affairs of the party thereafter.
Violence levels have remained high in the city in recent years with four-way clashes between the Sindhi-dominated PPP, the MQM, the Baloch and the Pashtun refugees who now make up a significant proportion of the city population. Most authorities accused the MQM of being the instigator of the violence. But many believe that elements from all these ethnic groups have devolved into armed mafias and are political entities only in name. To add to this mixture has been the role of the Islamists who have carried out many targeted killings in the city, primarily targeting Shias. The Al Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, too, have found the city’s violent environment congenial for their activities.
In the late 1990s, to rid themselves of a sectional identity, the MQM changed its name to the Muttahida (United) Qaumi Movement. It took up the cause of provincial autonomy and cultural pluralism in Pakistan and called for the abolition of feudal holdings in Sindh. But essentially it remained a political entity tightly controlled by its mercurial leader in London.
In 2002, with a Mohajir, Pervez Musharraf, at the helm of the Army, the MQM returned to normal politics and did well in the provincial elections, though nationally it won only 17 seats. Subsequently, it became an ally of the pro-Musharraf PML(Q) and it displayed its preferences in protesting the visit of Musharraf’s tormentor Chief Justice Ifthikar Muhammad Chaudhry in May 2007. Violence remained at a high tempo thereafter, including the bombing of a Shia procession on December 2009, followed by riots and arson.
Violence intensified after 2010 when MQM lost the power of its mayoralty and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) decided to rule the city through bureaucrats rather than hold elections. According to estimates, in 2011 approximately 2,042 people died in violent incidents, followed by 2,403 deaths in 2012, 2,789 in 2013 and 2023 in 2014. In 2015, despite a sharp decline—with just 1040 people killed—Karachi still remained the most violent region in Pakistan.
Given Pakistan’s own dysfunctional polity, restoring normalcy to the city will not be easy. Neither will Hussain’s power, which has suffered a temporary eclipse, disappear that easily. In treating the symptoms, rather than the disease, the Pakistan Army may buy some time, but that is about all.