The MQM’s controversial founder has once again been stirring up conflict from afar in Pakistan’s biggest and most febrile city, and within the party. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports
There was disbelief when Dr Farooq Sattar, parliamentary leader of Pakistan’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), announced at a crowded press conference in Karachi on August 23 that he and scores of party workers and lawmakers were ‘breaking away’ from the MQM’s London-based founder Altaf Hussain in the wake of his provocative anti-Pakistan comments.
Most politicians, analysts and laymen barely believed that the MQM could exist without the 63-year-old Hussain. Party activists had once so glorified him as the ‘Quaid-i-Tehrik’ (leader of the movement) that he had to be obeyed at any cost. His control of the party was total and the MQM constitution declared he must be consulted in all decision-making.
Altaf Hussain is well-known for his controversial remarks against Pakistan. In his latest anti-state speech, made by phone on August 21 to his party workers observing a hunger strike in Karachi in protest at unlawful detentions and the disappearance of MQM activists, he repeatedly raised the slogan ‘Pakistan Murdabad’ (Down with Pakistan).
The speech triggered Dr Sattar and his colleagues’ split from the so-called ‘MQM London’ and also provoked MQM workers to ransack the offices of a private TV channel for refusing to broadcast Hussain’s speeches and highlight the party’s grievances against the paramilitary Rangers’ operation in Karachi against suspected terrorists and criminals. The workers clashed with the police as a person was killed in the violence and several others were wounded.
Although Hussain later apologised for his remarks, Dr Sattar insisted the damage had been done and Pakistan’s civil and military leadership was in no mood to forgive him. In the past Hussain has been quick to seek forgiveness for his vitriolic comments against Pakistan, particularly its powerful military and judiciary, but there is wide consensus in the country that this latest tirade should not go unpunished. The state’s security institutions are convinced that the MQM, under Hussain’s command, has developed links with Pakistan’s traditional foe, India, and obtained Indian money and military training for its cadres. The government said it has provided evidence to the UK government to act against Hussain, who is now a British citizen, for inciting violence in Pakistan through his incendiary speeches and his hit-men, particularly in Karachi, the country’s biggest and richest city.
Under pressure from the government, the MQM’s Pakistan-based leadership went about the difficult task of damage control to reassure the authorities and the nation that the party is patriotic, democratic and believes in peaceful political activities. This was no easy task, as most Pakistanis increasingly distrust the MQM leaders and are wary of their frequent shift of loyalties and use of strong-arm methods.
The party legislators’ decision to back a unanimous resolution moved in the National Assembly to condemn Hussain for his most recent speech would have been unthinkable a few months ago, as the MQM rank and file had for years vociferously defended him against any criticism, which was taboo. The Pakistani media, mostly headquartered in the MQM stronghold of Karachi, avoided confronting the MQM and Hussain, as this invariably prompted violent retaliation from party activists. Not long ago most of the media bowed to MQM pressure to broadcast Hussain’s speeches live on private television channels and publish news items requested by the party leaders. The ban on live telecasts of Hussain’s speeches later ordered by the government was a relief to the media and many viewers, though the MQM termed it a curtailment of press freedom.
The MQM has had a turbulent history. It emerged as a protest movement embodying the anger of young members of the Urdu-speaking Mohajir community in Karachi, Hyderabad and other urban centres of Sindh province, which is also a stronghold of the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), drawing support from the mostly rural Sindhi ethnic group. The Mohajirs, who migrated from India to the newly independent state of Pakistan, felt they had sacrificed most for Pakistan’s creation but got little in return in terms of employment and business opportunities. The quota system put in place in Sindh to help the rural Sindhi population secure jobs and admission to professional colleges and universities was seen as discriminatory by the urban Mohajir community, and bitterly opposed.
As a student at Karachi University, Altaf Hussain exploited the Mohajir anger and frustration by launching the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation in 1978 and demanding an end to discrimination in admission to educational institutions and in employment opportunities. By 1984, the organisation had transformed into the Mohajir Qaumi Movement to continue the struggle. The MQM won its first electoral contest in November 1987 when its candidates triumphed in the local government elections in Karachi and Hyderabad, Sindh’s two biggest cities. A year later, it won most of the assembly seats in those two cities in the general election and became part of the provincial government. It has won every subsequent election in urban Sindh, often emerged as the third biggest party in parliament, and remained part of coalition governments with both the PPP and the PML-N of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The MQM has at times taken contradictory positions in politics. It backed military ruler General Pervez Musharraf but has also supported campaigns for democracy. It has been critical of the military and its domineering role in Pakistan, yet this hasn’t stopped it from asking the army generals to seize power by overthrowing elected governments. It practised ethnic-based politics for years by playing the Mohajir card, but in 1997 replaced the word ‘Mohajir’ with ‘Muttahida’ in the party’s name in a symbolic move to attract members of Pakistan’s other ethnic groups into its fold. As expected, the move backfired because the MQM’s appeal remained confined to the Mohajirs.
The party has also suffered splits due to the machinations of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agencies and personality clashes caused by Altaf Hussain’s authoritarian attitude. The MQM Haqiqi was the first splinter faction under Afaq Ahmad and Amir Khan. It has survived without posing any serious challenge to the mainstream Altaf Hussain-led MQM. Early in 2016, a number of MQM stalwarts, under the leadership of Mustafa Kamal and Anis Qaimkhani, quit the party to launch the breakaway Pak Sarzamin Party. It has managed to attract several party lawmakers and activists and is hoping to benefit from the latest crisis confronting the MQM.
While coping with yet another government clampdown, the MQM is putting up a fight on many fronts. It has survived previous crackdowns, including one in 1992-93 called ‘Operation Clean-up’, when MQM activists went into hiding and party offices were shut down. Altaf Hussain left for London in January 1992, ostensibly for medical treatment, but his real purpose was to escape harm and seek political asylum in Britain. He has stayed there, securing British citizenship and running the MQM by making innovative use of the telephone to issue orders and make speeches to supporters in Karachi and other Pakistani cities. He has also faced investigation by the Metropolitan Police over the murder of former MQM secretary general Dr Imran Farooq, who was killed in London in September 2012, and also on suspicion of money-laundering. Hussain is said to be in poor health and under stress, and therefore ill-equipped to cope with the challenging situation facing him.
It is true that the MQM is a party of the middle class, unlike Pakistan’s other political parties, which are led by feudals, capitalists and clerics. It is also secular and progressive. However, over the years it has drifted into mafia-style politics and used violence to achieve its political objectives. With Altaf Hussain forced to take a back seat and the MQM, in his absence, facing internal revolt, there is little chance that the party can make a comeback as it has in the past. Ironically, it was Altaf Hussain who founded and strengthened the MQM to become one of the biggest political parties in Pakistan; yet it is he alone who has triggered its downfall.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz