"I am the one who will lead urban Sindh in future"

Interview of Farooq Sattar

Farooq Sattar has often referred to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) as his first love (and first wife). He joined the All Pakistan Mohajir Students’ Organisation (APMSO) in 1989. And some say he has never looked back. At 28 years of age, Sattar became Karachi’s youngest ever mayor. He has also served in the federal cabinet. He assumed the party’s reins after moving to oust Altaf Hussain as the MQM’s supreme leader. It did not last long for the Rabita Committee removed him from the post just two years later. In this profile interview he talks about what is next in store for him and the party. Following are excerpts:

The News on Sunday: The last two years have proved a somewhat rocky road for you. Following MQM founder Altaf Hussain’s now infamous hate speech of August 22, 2016 - for which you were also charged -- your star began to rise. Indeed, within 24 hours of the crackdown you achieved the unthinkable: replacing the ‘Bhai’ of Karachi. You spearheaded the minus-Altaf move. Yet detractors conclude today that you have lost what little you had achieved. What do you say to them?  

Farooq Sattar: First of all, no one can match my political acumen, temperament and my contact with the masses. I am a man of the people. I don’t need ‘someone’ to have my back. I know that I am the one who will lead urban Sindh in the future.

Secondly, it was my drive to hold the Mayor of Karachi, and other senior leaders accountable, that sealed my fate. I was the biggest stumbling block to their vested interests. I was in possession of reports and investigations confirming that senior members had misused their party positions. I had to draw a red line. And I firmly believe that I was toppled so that the minus-Altaf formula could be realised. The MQM was shoved to the ground.

TNS: Do you now regret granting immunity to senior party leaders back in June 2017, before you were removed from the leadership?

FS: I had called a meeting of five or six senior members to tell them that I wanted to draw a line under all financial malpractice. I wanted them to fast. Because enough is enough! To be honest, I wasn’t concerned with the question of assets - accumulated by whatever means. What I went for was reconciliation -- an NRO of sorts -- because I knew I had to take them along.

TNS: Towards the end of 2017, you and Syed Mustafa Kamal held a joint press conference to announce the joining of hands between the MQM and Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP). Yet just a day later, you signalled that you wanted no part of this ‘deal’. Is the MQM a democratic party?

FS: That was purely a compulsion of circumstance. For the simple reason that an alliance with Kamal [the founder and current leader of the PSP] was presented as mandatory. I resisted this move until the eleventh hour. But MQM leaders Faisal Subzwari and Khawaja Izharul Hasan wouldn’t budge.

You see, there were some within the party, including a senior leader, who expected our November 5 jalsa to fail politically. The idea being that the party leadership would tell me that allying with Kamal was the only option left on the table. But, to me, the idea of leaving the MQM for another party was akin to suicide. Thus my November 8 press conference, in which I announced my resignation from the party leadership, was a drop-scene on the conspiracy stage. For instance, that presser managed to distract attention from those receiving (MQM-Pakistan leader) Aamir Khan on his return from Umrah. He had expressed displeasure over the MQM-PSP merger even though he was very much in the loop.

TNS: How do you view the current situation? There have been rumours that Kamal and the PSP are supported by certain powers. Is that still the case?

FS: Kamal and his party leaders have in the past hinted about some sort of invisible support. But given the outcome of the general elections [where he contested for one national and two provincial assembly seats and failed to win any] - it would seem that certain powers now understand that he is not up to the task. At least, this is my reading of the situation. Although given his recent preparations for the upcoming local government elections - I am inclined to think that this support has not been entirely withdrawn. That being said, some PSP leaders are interested in joining me. But I am not so keen on their proposals. My priority is strengthening ties with MQM-P workers because I want to save the party.

Altaf Hussain didn’t listen to us and insisted on taking out the rally on that day (May 12, 2007). Majority of Rabita Committee members in Pakistan and London opposed the move on the grounds that this would lead to clashes with rival parties.

TNS: There was a time when the MQM was described as the Establishment’s favourite party. What do you think has led to the current fissures?

FS: In my opinion, the powers-that-be decided right after the 2008 general elections to ‘remove’ the MQM from the political scene. The party founder was frustrated at being effectively shunned by the country’s high-command, which provoked him into making certain statements. These were increasingly difficult for us to defend over here in Pakistan.

A very senior official of a premier (intelligence) agency once asked me to control the MQM founder. To which I replied: you are better positioned to do so. I added that if a message were to come from your organisation - it would have more impact. The rather arrogant response was that they were not going to waste any more time on our leader. While he acknowledged that there were those on both sides who were trying to build bridges - he also pointed out that some individuals were intent on fuelling hatred. Today, when we look at the Karachi of 2019, we should be in no doubt that the latter have succeeded. But things are changing. I am going to lead again.

TNS: How do you respond to lingering allegations that the MQM and APMSO were supported by General Zia-ul-Haq to counter the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)? Does the MQM have clean hands?

FS: We were an organic party. But yes, it’s true that the PPP was targeted by the Zia regime. That was unfortunate. By contrast, we were allowed to grow. I don’t know whether it was intentional or not but we were given a free hand. By this, I am not saying that Altaf Bhai was in the Army’s pocket. But a party that was created in the name of the Muhajir was being tolerated by a civil-military establishment that was otherwise dominated by Punjabis. The quota system and the Sindhi Language Bill (1972) , both of which were fully supported by Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, fostered hostility with our Sindhi brothers and created ethnic tensions. Let me conclude by saying that the establishment was only too happy to see its rule strengthened as Sindh lay divided.

For our part, we continued to work very hard; without help from any quarters. And after eight years of steadfast commitment, we held our first big rally at Nishtar Park on August 8, 1986. By which time we had firmly established ourselves as the party representing all Muhajirs and not just students. After all, the MQM came into being in 1984 in its original form - Muhajir Qaumi Movement - with a mandate to eradicate feudalism.

This remains an issue close to my heart. I studied at the Liaqat Medical College for a few months and was on the receiving end of a racist Sindhi nationalist sentiment. I cannot describe the humiliation I felt every time I realised that I would never be accepted as a Sindhi. No matter that my forefathers sacrificed their businesses as well as their very lives to migrate to Pakistan. Ethnic identities therefore matter when it comes to staking a claim in participation politics, access to justice and education.

TNS: The MQM has, to a large extent, become synonymous with militancy. Is this a just assessment and, if so, what are the root causes?

FS: Militancy was never party policy. But, yes, every student organisation had wings that supported violence as a means of self-defence. The problem is that these were misused. Additionally, the ethnic violence that sparked both the Qasba Aligarh and Pakka Qila massacres as well as the state’s own brutal response combined to push the Muhajir youth towards militancy. So let us say that it was reactionary violence.

TNS: And what about the violence of May 12, 2007?

FS: Altaf Hussain didn’t listen to us and insisted on taking out the rally on that day. A majority of the Rabita Committee (RC) members, both here in Pakistan and in London, opposed the move on the grounds that this would lead to clashes with rival parties. But Altaf was enamoured with Gen Musharraf and this influenced his decision. He believed that the latter had done a lot for the party and that we were, in turn, duty bound to counter the procession by Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry - the chief justice of Pakistan whom President Pervez Musharraf had removed. But what ensued did untold damage to the positive image that we had worked so hard to build.

Our political blunder was not securing permanent concessions from Musharraf. We should have lobbied for the abolition of the quota system, the introduction of land reforms and a local government law. Similarly, we should have parted ways with the PPP government in 2008-2013.

TNS: Where does the MQM stand today and what is your future with the party?

FS: The minus- Altaf and -Farooq formulas mean that the MQM today has not only lost its appeal but also its credibility and connectivity. If things remain as they are - the future does not look at all bright. That being said, I strongly believe that party workers will return to me after the dissolution of the local governments. We will be able to reclaim the party. And two years from now I will have formed a supreme policy forum to be handed over to the next generation of workers. Pakistan needs a united party in Karachi. At the moment there is nothing but political vacuum. The way forward therefore is to level the playing field and ensure that disgruntled and disconnected MQM members come together under a single banner. I am confident that this will happen sooner rather than later.

TNS: There have long been reports of the Karachi Tanzeemi Committee (KTC) wielding ultimate power and not taking direction from the top leadership, including Altaf Hussain. Is there any truth to this?

FS: Two individuals remain head of the KTC. I don’t wish to name names but, yes, they were indeed out of control. Moreover, I would also like to point out that while the MQM and Altaf Hussain can be held to account for certain criminal activities committed by the KTC, such as alleged arms smuggling, the question remains as to why the law enforcement agencies did not put a stop to this sooner. Or at least approach someone like Ishrat-ul-Ebad, the then Governor of Sindh, to alert the party as to the goings-on. After all, the latter was a well-known middle-man.

TNS: How would you assess your political career?

FS: Look, first of all, I have never felt insecure within the party set-up. Nevertheless, whenever the party was on a joy ride, enjoying the good times, I would be relegated to the backbenches. And the opposite would happen when the party was passing through a rough patch. But let me be clear, I stood resolute. I neither left the country nor the MQM. Indeed, I have always understood the party ideology very well. While our leadership was charismatic - its understanding of the people was less than perfect. One explanation could be insecurity, which prevails everywhere in every part of Pakistan. But coming back to your question, I am satisfied with my political career, I have seen both good and bad times but I never compromised on my ideology. Thankfully.

"I am the one who will lead urban Sindh in future"