The rise and fall of Altaf Hussain

The MQM without Altaf Bhai offers hope, but also brings forth the fear of blood feuds for the citizens.

September 08, 2016 12:49 am | Updated October 18, 2016 01:42 pm IST

Pakistani children play next to the picture of Altaf Hussain, a top leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, at one of his party offices demolished by authorities in Karachi Pakistan, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. A government minister says authorities in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi have demolished over 100 offices of an ethnic party after its self-exiled leader Altaf Hussain made a speech against Pakistan. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

Pakistani children play next to the picture of Altaf Hussain, a top leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, at one of his party offices demolished by authorities in Karachi Pakistan, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. A government minister says authorities in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi have demolished over 100 offices of an ethnic party after its self-exiled leader Altaf Hussain made a speech against Pakistan. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

There was a time, not long ago, when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) controlled Karachi completely, run and dominated by its leader Altaf Hussain in self-imposed exile in London. After being formed in 1986, the MQM used to say that in Karachi not even a leaf would bristle without Bhai’s permission. He was called a Pir Sahib for many years, Quaid-e-Tehrik (leader of the movement), Rahber (guide), and always Altaf Bhai. A strike call in Karachi would paralyse the city as Altaf Bhai would address his muhajir disciples over the phone or video links, carried live by every TV channel that wanted to be spared the wrath of the party militants for not showing Bhai’s address. If ever there was a party which once resembled those called ‘fascist’, it was the MQM. No one dared show any disrespect to the party or its leader.

A party of hope It was not just the fear of reprisal and untold consequences which made the MQM, until the 2013 elections, the third largest parliamentary party in Pakistan since elections on a party basis began in 1988, but also widespread electoral support. This they managed as representatives of the petit-bourgeoisie and sections of a linguistic or ethnic middle class. The Urdu-speaking migrant electorate of the Sindh province — that eventually appropriated the political category ‘muhajir’ rather than just the Urdu meaning of the word ‘migrant’ — almost all of whom are urban, had seen great hope in the party which emerged as a major political player. The migrants (or refugees) who came from parts of India, but especially those who spoke Urdu, many from in and around U.P., and settled in Sindh and in the federal capital, Karachi, had belonged to what were considered to be more educated, skilled, and in line with the official structures of power that emerged in the newly created state of Pakistan.

S. Akbar Zaidi

These new migrants, many who were propertied and close to Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan and other senior members of the bureaucracy, became part of the first ruling elite of the new Pakistan. There was always a sense of entitlement amongst these Urdu-speaking migrants, no matter which class they belonged to, over Pakistan, for they argued, not without reason, that it was they who had actually made huge sacrifices to create an independent Muslim nation. Soon they swamped Karachi, changing its demography, politics, economy and ideology.

Although only about eight per cent in all, these migrants became part of the new Pakistan state structure as members of the high and petty bureaucracies, as administrators and managers in private and public concerns, and as part of the newly industrialising Karachi's working and labouring class. Punjab at that time constituted 55 per cent of West Pakistan's population, but in the forms of modern development, did not have the skills or professions which these migrants had brought from British India. All that changed from the 1960s onwards, when capitalistic development took organic hold in the Punjab, which began to dominate the political, economic, state, and business interests in Pakistan. The muhajirs, who had always been over-represented in terms of their share, now felt marginalised and discriminated against.

In 1984, a group of students at Karachi University, many in the Department of Pharmacy of which Altaf Hussain was one, began to raise the issue of discrimination against Urdu-speakers in terms of jobs, admissions to colleges and universities, and access to public office. These Urdu-speakers set up the All Pakistan Muhajir Student Organisation, and migrants became the political category, muhajir, and the MQM was formed. Its politics was largely ethnic-based, against other Pakistanis in Karachi and in Hyderabad, even though both cities had previously been dominated by Sindhis, and against the many Punjabis and Pakhtuns who had migrated to Karachi in the industrial boom of the 1960s. Karachi was a multi-ethnic city by the time the MQM was set up, and the muhajirs had lost their hegemony over ‘their’ city. Thus began the politics of exclusion, victimhood, victimisation and terror.

Reign of terror Karachi in the 1980s drew parallels with Beirut of the same era, with the MQM engaged in militant conflict with other ethnic groups in the city. The reign of terror was necessary for the party to establish its writ over the muhajirs and other residents. Yet, the party continued to break records in every election, because the muhajirs finally had some political representation of their own. However, the killings and turf wars got out of hand, and the state’s establishment had to clamp down on the militancy in Karachi, and eventually Altaf Hussain fled to London to seek asylum when dozens of cases were registered against him in Karachi. Thus began the London phase of the MQM. Altaf Bhai still held complete control over the line and file of the party.

The MQM benefited a great deal, both politically and financially, by being a major partner of General Pervez Musharraf between 1999 and 2007, yet Altaf Bhai’s distance from Karachi and his apparent deteriorating health made him take some decisions which did not go down well with many muhajirs and with other political entities. On May 12, 2007, the MQM was said to have been involved in mass killings of citizens in Karachi who were supporting the Lawyers’ Movement for reinstatement of the dismissed Chief Justice. While still in control over the last decade, there were always rumours that the Quaid was not in his senses all the time, yet no one doubted who the undisputed leader of the MQM was. Yet, over the last few months, trusted and well-loved muhajir leaders were brave enough and returned to Karachi and began to expose the misdeeds of the MQM and its leader, calling him a traitor, murderer, RAW agent, anti-Pakistani.

On August 22, the Quaid, still showing how much control he had over his people, made many derogatory remarks about Pakistan, and called his workers to attack some television stations in Karachi, which they did. However, perhaps for the very first time in 30 years, there was a much stronger condemnation by many MQM leaders over the Quaid’s anti-Pakistan remarks. The parliamentary leader of the MQM was bold enough to say that they ‘disassociate the Pakistan MQM from London’, and the minus-Altaf formula, which many had been demanding, emerged as a possibility. London responded by saying ‘Altafw Hussain is MQM, and the MQM is Altaf’, adding that they would not accept any resolution in the National Assembly against him.

On September 3, Dawn newspaper reported that “the National Assembly witnessed history... when all MQM lawmakers condemned the party’s founder Altaf Hussain’s recent anti-Pakistan diatribe and vowed to disassociate themselves from him”, a resolution which was passed unanimously by all parties. With many cases against him in London, involving money laundering and even a possible role in the murder of Imran Farooq, a former confidant of Altaf Hussain, both now on-going for several years, it is clear that the Quaid is facing his gravest crisis, of many. How, and if, he lives through this over the next few months, will determine what happens with the MQM, and with Karachi. This party without this Quaid, offers immense hope, but also brings forth the possibilities of unparalleled fear of blood feuds, for the citizens of Karachi.

S. Akbar Zaidi is a Karachi-based political economist, who teaches one semester a year at Columbia University in New York.

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