New Delhi: Altaf Hussain, the leader of Pakistan’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and self-styled representative of the Muhajir community, was once the most feared man in Karachi.
He practically ruled over Karachi for nearly 36 years, of which he was in London for 22. A single phone call by Hussain from London would paralyse all of Karachi. He would communicate with his party workers through phone and video calls, which would be televised by every single Pakistani news channel. And the ones that didn’t, risked bearing the wrath of MQM supporters.
Today, facing trial in the UK for allegedly inciting terrorism through a speech to his Pakistan-based followers, Hussain has requested asylum from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As a report in TRT World noted, he has “become the butt of jokes: memes and videos making fun of him regularly do the rounds on social media”.
For Hussain’s reign of terror, it has been an unceremonious ending indeed.
Hussain rose to power by emerging as the representative of Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking ethnic minority, the Muhajirs. The term Muhajir means “immigrants” and the community primarily comprises Muslims from modern-day Uttar Pradesh and Delhi who moved to Pakistan following Partition. Today, they form a “substantial” share of the population in the Sindh province.
Muhajirs made up just about 8 per cent of Pakistan’s population in 1947, but quickly became a part of the ruling elite. However, the rise of the Punjabi capitalist class, and the domination of political discourse by Pashtuns and Punjabis, led to the marginalisation of Muhajirs.
Hussain’s brand of politics is centred on this alienation of the Muhajir community.
Rise of Hussain and MQM
Hussain rose as a student leader and co-founded the All-Pakistan Muhajir Students Organisation (APMSO) at Karachi University in 1978. By 1984, it had evolved into a full-fledged political party — the MQM back then stood for Muhajir Qaumi Movement.
One of the core tenets of MQM’s ideology was loyalty to the leader and criticising him was a cardinal sin. “The unflinching devotion and obedience demanded from followers distils down to this very basic fact: criticising Hussain is akin to committing blasphemy, with the guilty deserving death,” notes a feature in Herald Dawn.
MQM’s “oath of allegiance” states, “I swear by my mother that if any conspiracy against MQM or Altaf Hussain, or any act harmful to them come into my knowledge, I shall immediately inform Altaf Hussain, even if the conspirator be my brother, sister, mother, father, any relative or friend.”
The MQM became the platform for the Muhajirs to seek social, economic and political justice. The party also managed to garner the support of the urban “petit-bourgeoise” and the Muhajir youth.
“The entire MQM narrative, indeed, is based on two strongly interlinked strands: a powerful ideological discourse heavily informed by religious symbolism, and spearheaded by the almost mythological figure of Hussain,” the Herald Dawn feature adds.
Through the mid-1980s, the MQM also went through rapid weaponisation, catalysed by the 1985 killing of Bushra Zaidi, a young Muhajir student, and the Muhajir-Pashtun riots.
The Soviet-Afghan war was underway and American weapons for the Afghan mujahideen were transiting through Karachi, giving the MQM easy access to them.
The presence of youth and large-scale weaponisation led to the development of the MQM’s “street nationalism”. The group demanded that Karachi be declared a “Muhajir subah” and violence was employed in the pursuit of its demands.
“He has been accused of ordering political assassinations and running a militant wing responsible for hundreds of killings — mutilated bodies were often dumped in gunny bags alongside roads whenever rivalry with other groups spiked,” TRT World noted in the aforementioned report.
By late 1980s, the MQM managed to win city elections in Karachi and Hyderabad and gained seats in the Sindh assembly. By 1990, the party had amassed substantial electoral and muscle power, with Hussain as the unquestionable leader.
Running the party from London
In the early 1990s, the MQM had gained enough electoral power that it joined federal coalition governments in Islamabad. But Hussain and his party’s militant tendencies became an irritant for the Pakistani military.
Pre-empting a crackdown, Hussain fled to London.
Several reports describe the power he wielded from the British capital, getting the city locked down with a mere phone call. Party workers who dared to criticise him were allegedly killed.
“After being formed in 1986, the MQM used to say that in Karachi not even a leaf would bristle without Bhai’s (Altaf’s) permission,” wrote Pakistani political economist S. Akbar Zaidi in an opinion piece for The Hindu.
A laundry list of factors helps explain Hussain’s hold over his party from London, including spiritual, ideological, and emotional connections with his party workers, social and economic empowerment of his constituents, and the brute use of force.
But it was far from rosy for Hussain and the MQM through the 1990s. Following a major crackdown by the Pakistani security forces, more than 10,000 MQM activists were reportedly killed between 1992 and 1999.
Hussain’s fortunes turned around, however, when his party decided to support General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. The MQM went on to join the government and got important Karachi-centric ministries such as ports and shipping.
Fall and fall of Hussain
Starting in 2007, when Musharraf was clutching on to the last threads of power, Hussain made his first major blunder. During the lawyer’s movement, he ordered mass killings of the protest’s supporters. This was the first time the population opposed a decision by Hussain in a major way.
In 2010, Imran Farooq, who co-founded the MQM with Hussain, was stabbed in London. Hussain emerged as a prime suspect in the ensuing investigation. Farooq had quit the MQM and was expected to start a new party that could have potentially rivalled Hussain’s.
The investigation turned out to be a double-whammy for Hussain. First, it ended the sense of invincibility attached to him. Secondly, Hussain, preoccupied with his possible arrest, started paying less attention to his party’s work in Karachi.
In 2013, the MQM managed to win the Karachi election but lost a substantial vote-share to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Struggling to come to terms with his eroding power, Hussain started bad-mouthing senior party leaders. Soon, his close allies started to desert him.
The last nail in the coffin came in 2016, when Hussain called Pakistan the “cancer of the whole world”. His party members passed a parliamentary resolution distancing themselves from Hussain and he was met with complete media blackout — taking away his most important medium of running the MQM and Karachi.