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The judicial pursuits that have resulted in the arrest of Altaf Hussain in the UK (where he was released on bail last week, four days after being arrested) may mark a turning point for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi. But what has Hussain’s strategy since the creation of the party been? And who is he?
Hussain first played an active role in the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), the student union of the Jamaat-e-Islami — one that, like others, systematically resorted to violence on university campuses in the 1970s. In 1978, mohajir students created their own union, the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO), under his aegis. The union represented the lower middle class of the mohajirs, who were the first to feel the brunt of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s pro-Sindhi reforms in the 1970s. Born into a family of modest means, Hussain had trouble getting into medical school to study pharmacology. A clear indication of his social marginalisation was the scorn of the mohajir business elite, which he experienced when he approached industrial houses in Karachi to raise the funds needed to operate the APMSO. The beginning of his career as a student leader was difficult, but he founded the MQM in 1984.
In the 1980s, the mohajirs came to find Zia-ul-Haq’s policies just as detrimental to their community as Bhutto’s. Although they approved of the establishment of courts to enforce Sharia and applauded his decision to make Islam the state religion, they protested against the quotas put in place in the administration, which meant that 10 per cent of civil service posts were reserved for retired military personnel, while Punjabis continued to dominate the army. More importantly, the mohajirs felt besieged in their own cities. Migrants poured into Karachi from all of Pakistan’s provinces, seeking to take advantage of its dynamism; this was also true of refugees from the war in Afghanistan. According to the 1981 census, Karachi’s population was 61 per cent mohajir, 16 per cent Punjabi, 11 per cent Pashtun, 7 per cent “native-born” Sindhi and 5 per cent Baloch. On top of it, mohajirs were losing government jobs as a result of the quotas introduced in 1973: 10 years later, urban Sindhis made up only one-fifth of the senior civil service, compared to one-third earlier. In 1981, they represented only 22.30 per cent of the civil servants hired by the Centre, against 30.30 per cent in 1973.
In 1978, the first APMSO manifesto claimed that “Mohajirs should be provided with a province of their own where they can freely practice and exercise their culture” — something their forefathers (including Jinnah) had tried to achieve by creating Pakistan. In 1984, APMSO leaders, including Hussain, created the first iteration of the MQM, the Mohajir continued…