A typical Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) rally in Karachi in its heyday would be like this: party members and activists, both men and women, seated in disciplined rows awaiting the main speaker, the party leader, a balding, bespectacled man; his image emblazoned on banners on the stage and at other vantage points; the entire Rabita Committee (the MQM’s central committee) lined up respectfully on stage next to a telephone.
At the appointed minute, one of the men on the stage would lift the receiver reverentially, and the voice of Altaf Hussain would crackle over the public address system from his home in Mill Hill, London, where he fled in 1992 after a violent internal feud in the party, and pre-empting a huge crackdown by the Pakistani military.
Hussain’s appeal Sunday to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to give him and his colleagues asylum, makes him perhaps the first British citizen to seek refuge in India. Hussain is seeking to flee a country that acted blind to his presence for over two decades. But now he is due to stand trial under British anti-terrorism laws, for inciting largescale violence in Karachi on August 22, 2016, through one of his telephone speeches.
What happened that day
Two media houses were vandalised, and there was fighting and arson on the streets of Karachi that left one person dead and several injured. The MQM leader had addressed his workers who had just ended a hunger strike to protest alleged disappearances of their colleagues in an operation by the Pakistan Rangers since 2013. It was an “anti-crime” operation — a veiled reference to the much feared MQM, with its thuggish street presence and mafia-like operations.
Hussain described Pakistan as a “cancer for the entire world”, a “headache for the entire world”. Pakistan, he said, “is the epicentre of terrorism for the entire world. Who says long live Pakistan... it’s down with Pakistan.” He then suggested that the protesters move on to two media houses.
“So you are moving to ARY and Samaa [TV channels] from here... right?” he asked. “So you go to Samaa and ARY today and then refresh [yourselves] tomorrow for the Rangers place. And tomorrow we will lock down the Sindh government building which is called Sindh Secretariat.”
The violence brought the full force of the Pakistani state crashing on the MQM’s head. The dreaded party office, Nine Zero, which was at one time rumoured to have underground torture chambers, was shut down by the Rangers. It was the beginning of the end of MQM, and of Hussain’s four-decade-long political career.
The following day, the entire Karachi-based leadership of the MQM distanced itself from the words of the leader. But the party never recovered, and on the eve of the 2018 elections, a breakaway faction called Pakistan Sarzameen Party (PSP) put up its own candidates. Its ties to the Army were apparent.
The MQM won just seven seats, a historic low. It had won 18 seats in 2013, and 25 in 2008. The PSP did not win any seats.
Meanwhile, acting on a complaint from the Pakistani government, Scotland Yard charged Hussain under British anti-terror laws for “encouraging terrorism” through the 2016 speech. He was arrested in June this year, and is currently out on bail.
The man and his party
Hussain entered Pakistan’s political scene as a student leader heading the All Pakistan Mohajir Students’ Organisation in the mid-1970s. At a time when all democratic forces were rallying against the military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq and behind the Pakistan People’s Party, the APMSO grew rapidly to challenge the PPP’s hold in Karachi, and other cities in Sindh province.
Among the APMSO’s demands were that Karachi should be carved out of Sindh into a Mohajir subah. Mohajir is the term for Muslim migrants to Pakistan from UP, Delhi, and other parts of India. The MQM was in the beginning called the Mohajir Qaumi Movement.
Even though the MQM started out as a creature of the establishment, its independent-minded leadership, and the party’s popularity among Karachi’s Urdu-speaking middle class and youth, set alarm bells ringing in the military establishment and political parties. The PPP and MQM fought each other on the streets of Karachi. Through the 1990s, the MQM was targeted by the military, leading to violent crackdowns and bloodbaths.
During this period, the MQM was accused of being secessionist, and conspiring to break Karachi away from Pakistan at the behest of India’s Research & Analysis Wing. The “Indian” ethnicity of MQM members and followers was used to taint them. Adding to the suspicion, some of its leaders had escaped to India during the military operations, and were suspected to have been in touch with the Indian intelligence agency.
The party’s fortunes, however, changed dramatically in 1999 when General Pervez Musharraf, an Urdu speaker and Mohajir from Delhi, took power through a coup against Nawaz Sharif. Its elected representatives were key to Musharraf’s plans. The party came out strongly against the lawyers’ movement in 2007. Over 20 people were killed in clashes in Karachi after MQM cadres prevented the Chief Justice of Pakistan deposed by Musharraf from entering the city to address a meeting of the bar association.
It was during this time that the MQM fashioned itself as Pakistan’s only secular party, and came out strongly against the “Talibanisation” of Karachi, which has a huge Pashtun population. Altaf Hussain travelled to Delhi for the first time, and was feted as an emissary of India-Pakistan peace. Syed Mustafa Kamal, an MQM politician and the youngest mayor of Karachi, won praise in the West for his attempts to improve the city.
Luck over, clutching at straws
The MQM’s fall began in 2010, two years after Musharraf’s ignominious exit from the Pakistani political scene. Imran Farooq, a senior party leader, was killed outside his home in London. The investigation into the murder led British authorities to a huge stash of currency at Hussain’s home and office, which set off a money laundering investigation. The BBC aired fresh allegations of Hussain’s links with R&AW.
In Karachi, the Rangers, Army, and Pakistani intelligence agencies began another “anti-crime” operation, which the MQM alleged was intended to split the party and end its political dominance over the city.
The party did split many times over. Hussain mistakenly believed that he would be able to regain control, and the 2016 speech inciting violence was part of the plan.
Since then, Hussain’s health is said to have deteriorated, and absent the control over Karachi, he and the MQM have run out of funding. He is desperate to avoid the UK trial.
This is not the first time he has appealed to Modi. In 2015, as his troubles mounted in the UK, and the Karachi crackdown entered its third year, he had asked Modi to speak up for Mohajirs. But even if India did find him useful at one time, it is unlikely that is still the case.