Fading of the strongman

Altaf Hussain is no longer the figure he was. Yet, the MQM draws support because its alternative is the Taliban.

The MQM violence was compounded by Pakhtun violence in the turf war that ensued. The MQM violence was compounded by Pakhtun violence in the turf war that ensued.
Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published on:July 3, 2014 12:02 am

The 60-year-old Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader-in-exile, Altaf Hussain, was dramatically arrested on June 3 from his home in North West London. He was to be interrogated on the recovery from his home of several hundred thousand pounds that he could not account for and was therefore exposed to a charge of money-laundering. He is currently out on bail.

On hearing the news, his “fortress” Karachi immediately closed down, with a few buses symbolically torched by his devotees. The MQM is the fourth-largest presence in the National Assembly of Pakistan. Karachi has 20 seats for the lower House, out of which 17 were won by the MQM in the 2013 election.

Altaf Hussain is the MQM’s leader with a cult. The charisma has arisen out of the fear — and resultant violence — a migrant arouses in the land he adopts after immigration. When, after 1947, Hindus vacated the four cities of Sindh where they formed majorities, they were not replaced by the rural Sindhi-speaking population but by the Urdu-speaking immigrants from India. On the basis of an odd rule, majority populations mostly live in the countryside while the vulnerable minorities feel safe in the cities. The Hindus of Sindh and Punjab were mostly urban while the Muslims were rural.

The cult of Altaf Hussain is based on the security he gave to the muhajir (migrant) by opposing local violence with migrant violence. A “gangster” MQM removed the stigma of a rogue organisation by taking part in elections and returning enough representatives from urban Sindh to parliament, to become a political make-weight in central alliances while ruling Sindh in tandem with the rural-based Pakistan People’s Party.

Hatred of the MQM is primal in Sindh because the migrants are “trespassers”. In Punjab too, there is an antipathy that is less easily explained. The outgoing Punjabi Hindu urban majorities were quickly replaced with rural Muslims from Pakistani Punjab and from Indian Punjab. The feeling against the Indian Punjabis was watered down by their shared language. But the Urdu-speaking urban Muslims arriving from India quickly found that they were not welcome in Lahore and, thereafter, most of them quickly took the train to Karachi where there were secretarial jobs waiting for them in the new capital.

The MQM’s dominance of Karachi and strong presence in the major cities of Sindh were disturbed by the influx of the Pakhtun through internal migration. In Karachi, the majority population is Urdu-speaking; but Karachi is also the biggest Pakhtun city in the world, comprising both Pakistani and Afghan Pakhtun. Because of the Pakistani state’s involvement in proxy wars, the Taliban Pakhtun turned against the state after it joined the global war against terrorism post-9/11. The MQM violence was compounded by Pakhtun violence in the turf war that ensued.

Altaf Hussain fled to the UK in 1992, …continued »

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