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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.

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, fearing that his enemies, led by the state intelligence agencies, were closing in on him. His anti-Talibanisation, secular-liberal stance and his hold on urban Sindh appealed to a UK leadership worried about radicalisation creeping into expat British Pakistanis. He thereafter lived in London without distancing himself from the organisational pyramid of the MQM. He could have looked after himself much better had he the intellect to do so. A cult will always point to the implied godhead of its leader and eschew intellectual reasoning.

There are many cult figures in Pakistan who manifest a non-intellectual tendency to excess. This excess is often expressed in hate speech. Hate speech in turn is inculcated through the popular mode of address of the religious leader. The sermonising tradition in Pakistan is based on a sharp sense of the loss of utopia (injustice).

Altaf Hussain has been accused of hate speech in the UK. His telephonic addresses to Pakistan are violent to the point of being comic, but remain realistic because of his remote-controlled strategy of deploying party elements. The “angry” cult leaders in various degrees today are the following: Imran Khan, who, like Altaf Hussain, controls seats in parliament, but is given to heated rhetoric, now gradually seeping into his followers in the form of violence.

Another cult leader with violent rhetoric is Tahir-ul-Qadri, alias Sheikh-ul-Islam, at the top of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), who has opted out of politics but pledges “revolution” through Islamic “street power”, which he controls from abroad like Altaf Hussain. But, unlike Hussain, he has looked after himself by reason of superior intellectual gifts. Unlike Hussain, he has abstained from excessive food consumption and managed his colossal global wealth much better.

Hafiz Saeed of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) is a fiery hate-speech expert with untold wealth, backed by non-state actors, with a growing ability to penetrate the state and ultimately run it through his cult. He stays away from electoral politics but has the organisational skill comparable to Altaf Hussain and Tahir-ul-Qadri. Like Hussain, his health may be undermined by excessive food consumption. When the deep state needs a “long march” to scare off its perceived enemies, Saeed leads with money and men, to the astonishment and dismay of the other religious parties participating in the “long march”.

Living in London, Altaf Hussain is no longer the dapper figure he was. He should have managed his finances better too, like many Pakistani nationals and leaders who have their wealth stashed away in the UK. The technique of flying into a rage, borrowed from the religious cleric, should have been modified after the MQM became the only modern-liberal party in Pakistan, affording shelter to such minority victims of the predatory state as Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis and Hindus. But the cult prevailed.

From Hitler to Saddam, the strongman fades after overreaching himself. This is the fate of the cult leader too, his lack of realism reinforced by his worshipping flock. Christ’s last words to his mother Mary were tough because as a mother she was scared that he would overreach, as he did when he attacked the Jewish temple, and didn’t really follow the cult. The cult leaders of Pakistan are threatened by this flaw of miscalculation that compels them to overreach.

In the prototype, the death of the cult leader leads to the death of his flock. Often, it is a collective suicide ritual. But on ground in Pakistan, the passage of the cult leader may lead to internecine violence among his followers. And if the MQM dies, the alternative will not be a peaceful Sindhi party but the Taliban, which thought should cause all Pakistanis to lose sleep.

That’s perhaps why Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and most parliamentarian leaders, unwilling to die at the hands of the Taliban and the deep state’s non-state actors, have decided to side with the MQM as its leader faces a possible court trial in the UK.

Ideology undermines intellect, replacing free inquiry with the mantra of frozen agitprop. That’s why some Pakistani political parties are cult-led and non-intellectual. “Visceral” will not morph into “cerebral”. As the original leader fades away, charisma will not descend on any intellectual alternative but on the family of the cult leader. Altaf Hussain is too big to be replaced by his daughter.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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