It was May 7, 2007. On a summer day in Karachi, violent street battles between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement on one side, and lawyers and workers of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP) on the other, had left 40 people dead, a majority of them from the ANP. The MQM had blockaded the roads to prevent the ousted chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, from entering the city. Plumes of smoke rose from Sharah-e-Faisal, Karachi’s main road, as battles raged through the day with lawyers and political workers trying unsuccessfully to remove the huge containers that the MQM had strewn across every road in the city. Meanwhile, Chaudhry and the police were locked in a stand-off at the airport. That day, when the MQM sealed its long alliance with military ruler General Pervez Musharraf in blood, was a turning point from which neither the party nor its leader Altaf Hussain managed to recover.
A dozen years later, the plaintive appeal by Hussain to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to give him asylum in India — “because my grandfather is buried there, my grandmother is buried, thousands of my relatives are buried there, in India, I want to go there, to their graves, I want to pray” — came on the heels of other attention-seeking statements by him over the last few months, such as blaming Pakistan’s ISI for the attacks in Pulwama, Kashmir, or praise for the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgment, at perhaps the lowest point of his political life.
The MQM is fragmented, what is left of it, and its leadership has broken away from Hussain’s hold. Where the party could once bring Pakistan’s financial and business hub to a halt with just one dog whistle from London, it is now only fighting to stay relevant. It has no patrons in the establishment, and none abroad. Her Majesty’s government, which gave Hussain asylum as he fled a violent party feud and an imminent military crackdown in Karachi, and was happy to host him for nearly 30 years, is now going to put him on trial on terrorism charges, over a speech he made in August 2016, to his followers in Pakistan, inciting them to violence. And even if there is some truth to the allegations that R&AW used the MQM to further Indian interests in Pakistan, the recent changes in India’s own policy towards its complex and difficult western neighbour, and the MQM’s diminished influence, mean it carries little value for Delhi. What Hussain says against Pakistan may be good for the media feeding frenzy in Delhi and rattle Pakistan’s cage now and then, but it has little value on the ground.
For the first time, Pakistan’s most enduring political personality (other than the army), its cat o’ nine lives, seems to have no friends or saviours on the horizon. At least not as yet. But for the four decades he has been active in Pakistan’s public life, Hussain’s politics and his ability to make the MQM count without being physically present to lead it, is one of the more fascinating stories of the sub-continent. Karachi was the city where Hussain built his political fortunes and his, and the MQM’s, notoriety. From his self-exile, he had absolute hold until 2016 over his party, which in turn dominated Karachi through a combination of Mohajir nationalism; instilling fear in dissidents,critics and political rivals; and cadres built on blind faith in the leader. His theatrical speeches over the phone to rallies of the faithful across cities in Sindh were comical and absurd to the uninitiated, but they were never without political meaning.
Hussain’s emergence at the end of the 1970s as a student leader grew out of a nascent Urdu-speakers’ nationalism. In the years after Partition, the educated Urdu-speaking migrants had filled leadership roles in the new country’s government, politics and business. But with Punjabi reassertion, and with Ayub Khan’s decision to shift the seat of government to the newly created capital of Islamabad, Mohajirs had seen loss of their influence. The MQM was successful in turning that loss into a politics of victimhood of those who had left their lives in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar and elsewhere, but were marginalised even in the promised land.
It has been said that the party, which pit itself against Sindhi elites and the significant Pashtun population of Karachi in its claim to represent the Mohajirs, was a creation of General Zia ul Haq, as he believed it could take on Benazir Bhutto and the PPP more effectively than the Jamat-e-Islami.
Whatever be the truth of that, the promise and hope Hussain held out for Urdu-speakers of Pakistan won the MQM enough votes for it to become Pakistan’s third-largest party by the 1990s, until 2013. While the MQM’s politics was all in Karachi, its success in elections gave it leverage as a “king maker” both at the provincial and at the national level. In 1999, in an effort to grow of its ethnic skin and cast a wider net, it replaced ‘Mohajir’ in its name with ‘Muttahida (united)’. Efforts to dislodge it from the city by the PPP, representing Sindhis, and the ANP, claiming Pashtuns, were futile, but resulted in spiralling violence, from which the MQM was no shrinking violet.
Hussain’s strongest and most glorious phase was between 1999 and 2008, when General Pervez Musharraf, a Mohajir himself from Delhi, was in power. But, even at that time, Hussain did not dare return to Pakistan, fearful of the many enemies he had made at home. He candidly admitted that, in Pakistan, you had to do business with the army to survive. “The choice before us in Pakistan today is not Musharraf or democracy but between army and even more army,” he had said at a media conclave in 2004, on his first and last visit to Delhi.
On that visit, he told journalist Sheela Bhatt in an interview that he felt so much at home that he had never felt like that anywhere else — “Aisa apna laga jaise apna kahin aur kabhi nahin laga”.
His parents were from Agra and had migrated to Pakistan only reluctantly, he said. He won hearts in Delhi by saying that Muslims were killing Muslims in Pakistan and “[p]erhaps the idea of Pakistan was dead at its inception, when the majority of Muslims chose to stay back after Partition, a truism reiterated in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971”.
The MQM has always had an acute consciousness of its Mohajir links to India, and has frequently given voice to it, which has in turn fuelled talk that Mohajirs are an Indian fifth column in Pakistan. In Pakistan Punjab, consequently, the revulsion for the MQM borders on the extreme.
P.S.: In the intervening night of May 6 and 7, 2007, this correspondent, stuck outside Karachi airport because of the blockade mentioned earlier, dialled the MQM for help. A party functionary soon arrived and asked me to get in the car. We met several blockades, and at every one of them, this MQM leader got out, introduced himself as a high party official, me as an “important guest from India”, and got the “boys” to open a way for the car to go through.
The next day, some of those blockades were sites of violent clashes.
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