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July 9, 2018

Saleem Shahzad, a dreaded name in Karachi’s politics


July 9, 2018

Back in the day, he wielded enough power to shut down Karachi within minutes through just a phone call from London. As a founding member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Saleem Shahzad, was a dreaded name in the city’s politics – a kid from Karachi who lived in self-exile in London but micromanaged the city’s affairs on a daily basis.

The news of his death on Sunday ended a chapter in Karachi’s chequered history, which was mostly violent, but punctuated with peaceful intervals. Shahzad’s long battle with a terminal disease and eventual demise not only sums up his career, which was marked by failed attempts at a re-launch but it also explains how radical politics takes its toll on a man’s personal life.

As cancer crept in, Shahzad made some sweeping decisions in the later parts of his life that only led to poverty and isolation. Abandoned by his former comrades, Shahzad was a lonely man on his death bed. A man who once had the power to impact the lives of millions, and that too for years, died a loner.

Suffering from liver and kidney cancer since 2015, Shahzad died in a London hospital on Sunday where he was admitted after his condition deteriorated two days ago.

The political career of Shahzad, whose real name was Syed Salimul Haq, dates back to early 1978 when he was a student at the Urdu Science College, Karachi. He began with participating in student politics after joining the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organiation, a student outfit which eventually led to the formation of the MQM. In 1984, he became the vice-chairman of the student group.

When the MQM was formed during the same days, Shahzad was made the party’s vice-chairman. In the 1987 local government polls, he was elected councillor and then elected chairman of the Karachi Municipal Corporation’s Financial Committee.

In the 1988 general polls, Shahzad was elected MNA from the then NA-185 constituency, comprising Orangi Town, by bagging more than 82,000 votes, defeating the Pakistan Peoples Party’s Afaq Khan Shahid, who secured 18,545 votes. He won again from the same constituency in 1990 when he secured more than 93,000 votes.

However, after the launch of the military operation against the MQM in 1992, he fled the country and had been living in self-exile in London. From the London secretariat, he controlled the party affairs and directed party leadership over phone calls.

According to a retired police officer deputed in Karachi, Shahzad mainly supervised the party’s militant wing, which was why he was booked in several terror cases, including the infamous case of Major Kaleem case, which involved the alleged kidnapping and torture of the army man. Multiple cases have been registered against Shahzad at various police stations in Karachi.

In 2009, Shahzad was expelled from and then taken back into the MQM. In 2013, he was sidelined by the party and a year later his basic membership was suspended indefinitely for violating party discipline. At that time, the MQM said that it was not in any way responsible for his business dealings.

He returned to the country on February 6, 2017 and was arrested upon his arrival at the Karachi airport. He was later released from prison on June 2.

There were reports before his arrival to Karachi that he had also been in touch with former Sindh governor Dr Ishratul Ibad and former military ruler General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, discussing a formula for reunifying the various MQM groups. However, not a single faction of the MQM-Pakistan and London chapters nor the Mustafa Kamal-led Pak Sarzameen Party had shown any interest in his return to the country.

In Karachi, he faced severe health issues after the cancer diagnosis and was not in a position of pay for his treatment. He could not even afford to submit a surety of Rs1.8 million in the court, according to his lawyer.

On Shahzad’s request, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan in April 2017 asked its Karachi leaders Ali Zaidi and Imran Ismail to meet him in prison and provide him financial assistance for his cancer treatment.

In October 2017, he and the Muhajir Ittehad Tehreek chief Dr Saleem Haider announced to hold a convention of Muhajir parties to ‘save’ the Muhajir vote bank in the province’s urban centres, including Karachi. But the plan did not materialise.

Later, Shahzad announced to form his own political party. Talking to The News in an earlier interview, Shahzad said he was interested in contesting from Orangi Town whose residents had elected him MNA twice in the past. However, in January this year, he met Imran Khan and the party “welcomed” him in its folds.

In June, he had sought court permission to leave the country in order to receive medical treatment abroad, which he was granted.

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