Where’s the real MQM

March 13, 2016

Following Mustafa Kamal and Anees Qaimkhani’s press conference, there’s an outpouring of alarm, rage, embarrassment and confusion in the city and within the party

Where’s the real MQM

Treachery is unforgivable in Altaf Hussain’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). It’s the worst of sins. Inexcusable. As one of the party’s fond slogans states: "…a traitor deserves only death".

Back in the early 1990s, when Mohajir Qaumi Movement-Haqiqi was carved out of the party by a senior leader Afaq Ahmed, a decade long internecine tit-for-tat killings followed. Karachi bled and several hundreds, some say, thousands, perished.

That spate of violence left a permanent mark on the party and in many ways helped shape its structure. The most telling consequence of the bloody rift is perhaps the cult of Altaf Hussain: a figure who is above the party -- a supreme leader.

"A party is often made up of a group of people, who can disagree," says a senior MQM worker while talking to me at Nine Zero, where the media gathered late Wednesday night, to cover a speech by Altaf Hussain, "but the Quaid is an individual. The party revolves around him. And we follow him and not the party."

A nazriati karkun (‘ideological worker’) of the MQM, as they are called, nurses a special revulsion for the traitor. "Because we have suffered the consequences in the past and we know how it feels," he adds.

After former Karachi mayor Mustafa Kamal and ex-deputy convener Anees Qaimkhani’s press conference last week, I interviewed several activists and members who have held important positions in the party and found an outpouring of alarm, rage, embarrassment -- and confusion.

The kind of defections that have come now are unprecedented. However, the workers point out that the new nameless party announced by Kamal is unlikely to affect MQM’s strongholds in the city unless he is joined by dozens others like him. Meanwhile, confusion reigns. As one worker says: "When MQM-Haqiqi episode happened, Bhai was in Karachi and the party was going through a practical war, so we were united. But now we have a political face to save and the media is too harsh and loud -- the stakes are of a different level."

They cited several factors including lobbyism and indecisive shuffling of party structure in the last few years, which resulted in this crisis. But there are no two opinions that it is a conspiracy by the establishment to break MQM.

The allegations made in the press conference by Mustafa Kamal were nothing new. Hardly anybody was ruffled by them. But what alarmed many was his audacity and the sight of the man sitting next to him -- Anees Qaimkhani.

The former deputy convener was one of the most trusted lieutenants of Altaf Hussain. Qaimkhani hails from Hyderabad and has been associated with the party since it was still a student organisation. "In Nine Zero, he exuded fear and respect like nobody else," says a young MQM activist.

One of the top organisers of the party, Qaimkhani practically ruled Karachi as Altaf’s bad cop for most of his career. "He headed the core of the party, as the man responsible for the day to day management of MQM through its 26 sectors and around 200 units," he adds.

From distributing seats to MNAs and MPAs to making sure that the party wins every election, Qaimkhani was the man responsible for most of the things that the party did but likes to keeps under the wraps.

His presence beside Mustafa Kamal in the conference shocked and perhaps hurt many. "I can’t still believe that it’s Anees bhai," says a 35 year old unit member in Guslitan-e-Jauhar, who is associated with the party since he was 19. "He was the go-to man for every problem the workers faced."

Evaluating the recent fallout, a senior member of the party concludes that in many ways it was Altaf Hussian’s fault that he trusted some of his men more than he should have. He explains that previously the party prided itself on the accountability mechanism that is in place. And Altaf Hussain, who technically has no political position in the party, remained the face of MQM.

For the members, positions were temporary privileges -- something that comes and goes. For instance, in the MQM, a former minister can end up with the responsibility of running Nine Zero’s kitchen. "People are not important. The Tehrik (Struggle) is"; so was the motto.

But in the past decade, the party began producing heroes, he says. And interestingly, none of them is with the MQM today. "As the saying goes, absolute power corrupts." He mentions Governor Ishrat Ul Ibad, former Mayor Mustafa, Kamal and Anees Qaimkhani, and there might be many more. "All these men had started feeling indispensable within the party."

Insiders say that the current breakaway faction developed their differences with the London Coordination Committee over many issues during Pakistan People’s Party’s government. But the induction of Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui and Amir Khan was the last straw. When the London Coordination Committee appointed these two senior MQM members in Karachi’s Coordination Committee, things took a turn for the worst.

Karachi was going through its worst years as MQM was fighting for its strongholds against Pakistan People’s Party-backed Lyari gangs and the Awami National Party. Indiscriminate ethnic killings continued breaking records of early nineties, especially from 2010 to the run up to general elections 2013.

Amid the madding violence that continued, Anees Qaimkhani was "taking care" of MQM’s interests through his trusted lieutenant Hammad Siddiqi, the head of Karachi Tanzeemi Committee.

But when the London Secretariat thought it was time to change the linchpins on the ground, as words of assurance were often given by Pakistan People’s Party, the men running the affairs in Karachi did not like the idea. They resisted, tried to convince that the ground realities of the city are way too complicated and cannot be handled "merely politically".

But London had its way and Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui was called from the USA after a decade of exile and Amir Khan, a stalwart political leader and one of the founders of MQM-Haqiqi who later returned, were first included in the Karachi Co-ordination Committee and later given added responsibilities.

"Amir has his own boys in areas like Malir, Shah Faisal Colony and Landhi, some of MQM’s strongest of strongholds," says, a mid-level worker, who was active in those years but is keeping a low-profile these days for the ongoing operation. Qaimkhani and those close to him including Mustafa Kamal felt their time was coming to an end. "There came a point when the difference became so intense that the two factions allegedly began going after each other’s men."

In May of 2013, Altaf Hussian while speaking to a crowd declared that criminals will be purged from the party and spoke openly about land-grabbing, extortion and other illegal activities his workers were involved in.

The new party setup took over but never really settled, as the fissures ran deeper and many leading faces took a backseat or quietly bowed out of responsibilities. Given the perpetual reshuffling of the Karachi’s Coordination Committee, the London secretariat seemed to have failed to smoothly run the affairs and the ongoing Karachi operation only made matters worse for the party.

On March 7, 2016, when Dr Sagheer Ahmed, a former minister, joined Mustafa Kamal, many MQM leaders were called to Nine Zero the same day and asked to take a vow pledging they won’t backstab the party. Senior members were worried that defections at unit and sector level is going to hurt the party more than the known faces.

In all the press conferences, Kamal has been speaking to the activists and families of those killed in violence as, at the lowest level, they form the backbone of the party. Analysts say that more people are likely to join the new block and if the dissidence continues it may spell  disaster for the largest political party in Karachi.

However, it’s too early to say how the whole affair pans out in the days and months to come.

Where’s the real MQM