The chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, leads a section of opinion-makers in Pakistan demanding that ex-president Pervez Musharraf not be tried for treason. His party benefitted during the Musharraf years (1999-2008) and was able to improve its image as a development-oriented party in Karachi. The stigma attached to it as a violent organisation, using terrorism to remain dominant, was somewhat removed as it won international acclaim for its performance in municipal government.
These days, it is under pressure as never before. The current period marks a low point in its career because its leader, safely lodged in London since 1992, is under investigation for money laundering and the murder of one of his own hierarchy of exiled leaders. Its alliance with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has come apart in Sindh, where the PPP is consolidating by moving close to Sindhi subnationalism that despises the MQM, representing a non-Sindhi “interloper” population of Urdu-speaking citizens. It has had to leave the provincial coalition and is in the wilderness without its leverage of local government, which the PPP is determined to win through gerrymandering as and when the election occurs.
Yet, the MQM is the only party in Pakistan that proclaims its secularism while others avoid the label for fear of losing public support, and speaks openly of confronting and defeating the Taliban-al-Qaeda combine. As a result, a number of small communities endangered by the religious state and its non-state actors seek its protection. Take a look at its self-definition: “The objective of the party (is to achieve) the kind of change Pakistan requires as a modern, democratic, liberal state where each one of its citizens is guaranteed equality, justice and fair play. These principles have helped countries in the West and the Far East reach a level of prosperity and ensure civic rights for their people. These states, as also India next door, have reached their level of affluence by building a strong middle class, and by ensuring maximum participation of their people in the affairs of the state. The MQM too has been engaged in this task, but since it has to demolish the well-entrenched system of feudalism and tribalism, its philosophy has been resisted by almost all powerful vested interests. Journalists, unfortunately, have failed to appreciate or even understand that the attainment of such an objective is the need of the hour.”
Some analysts see fascism in the way Altaf Hussain handles the party, ruling by fear and imposing efficiency where other parties can’t prevent corruption in their ranks. He has been compared to the late Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena, except that the latter stood on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, promoting aggressive Hinduism behind his campaign of restoring the Maratha majority ownership of Maharashtra. The other difference between these two one-city leaders was that Hussain represented not the indigenous population against external migrants called muhajir, but the migrants under threat from indigenous reaction.
The MQM is faced with a number of ethnic-linguistic-religious forces in Sindh and Karachi, its electoral stronghold. The Sindhis, who should be the majority population in the cities, hate the Urdu-speaking migrants from India who filled the urban space vacated by Hindus forcibly driven out of Sindh in 1947. Another post-1947 internal migrant community challenging the MQM are the Pashtuns, concentrated in Karachi, making it the largest Pashtun city in the world. The Pashtun presence has grown with the influx of Afghan refugees and runaways from Pakistan’s tribal area of Waziristan, bringing with them at least half a dozen Taliban terrorist groups who target the MQM. An old presence in Karachi, the Jamaat-e-Islami, soft on al-Qaeda, is also an electoral rival. The real danger faced by the MQM is the gradual surrender of the state to Taliban.
In London, Hussain has evolved as a leader, mixing politics with a strategy developed in the light of global changes, a newfound ability he may have shared in part with the PPP’s Benazir Bhutto. His support to Musharraf was not simple opportunism of the sort he opted for in 1988 and 1990, when he became a coalition partner with the PPP and the PML-N by turns; it was apparently embedded in his understanding of what was happening in the world. In 2001, his opposition to the religious parties had crystallised, defining his opposition to the Taliban and the Kashmir jihad, which had seriously dented the MQM’s position in Karachi, forcing it to walk out once again of the PML-N government in 1998.
The MQM has stayed away from the popular misdiagnosis of what’s wrong with Pakistan. As early as 2004, its parliamentary leader Farooq Sattar explained the factors behind the wave of terrorism in Karachi: “After jihad was vacated from a number of places in and around Pakistan the terrorists had all come down to Karachi; so did those sacked from the jihad in Kashmir; and now Wana in South Waziristan was sending its rebels to the big city. The religious parties tacitly give them support. They had tried to kill Musharraf and were now trying to kill the big functionaries of the state. The old establishment had actually given birth to the terrorists and sent them to Karachi.”
Not even liberals in Pakistan stick to this realistic assessment any more. From London, Hussain began talking of pluralism in Pakistan, clearly supporting secularism, using the founding authority of Jinnah — something the liberal community was in the habit of doing in the past. In fact, while the mainstream parties fashioned reactive policies against Musharraf, he adopted the only “intellectual” stance about the nature of the state in Pakistan.
He made a number of speeches during 2004 and 2005 about Pakistan’s foreign policy that tended to complete the MQM’s change of its anti-India stance — the very foundation of the political strength of the muhajir slogan and the 1947 exodus from a hostile land. He visited India and supported Islamabad’s policy of normalisation of relations with New Delhi. There was a general trend of coordinating with the European-American policy in South Asia.
In terms of political strategy — anticipating the post-9/11 world and the competing Indo-Pakistan strategies of survival and contest — the MQM has adopted a more “intellectual” stance than the anti-Musharraf coalition of forces relying on public passions for policy. The MQM, more readily than many politicians in the post-Musharraf period, continues to accept the UN Security Council Resolution 1373, participation in the anti-terrorist global movement and normalisation of relations with India, once again under the tutelage of the US and the European Union.
The national consensus is baying for the blood of Musharraf to atone for the sins of a state now condemned to enslavement by the very instruments it used to promote its strategy. The decline of the MQM, ironically, is a barometer of what is happening to liberal-secular elements who still oppose the further Islamisation of Pakistan in the face of terror.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’