A case of missed opportunities, Altaf Hussain ought to regret the wrongs he has done to his party and his community
The life and politics of Altaf Hussain make up a classic case study of Pakistani politics — how leaders and parties are made and promoted by powerful quarters and dumped after they have been used. His is a case of ‘missed opportunities’. Altaf Hussain could have changed the discourse of his community in a positive way and bridged the rural-urban divide. But what happened over 35 years was nothing short of a ‘long nightmare’. His recent appeal to the Indian prime minister for help and asylum speaks volumes of his frustration and political isolation. Even those who still have a soft corner for him have been disappointed.
I have known him for almost 39 years. I first met him at the Karachi University in 1980. Coming from a lower middle class family, he was the leader of an emerging student group called All Pakistan Muhajir Students Organisation (APMSO). I was a student of mass communication those days and an active member of the Progressive Front.
Altaf Hussain should blame nobody but himself for what he is facing today. Never in our political history did any party come into being from the platform of a students group and reached the popularity comparable to Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). Once the single largest party in urban Sindh, the second largest party in the province and the third largest in the country, MQM practically exists no more.
His own community — ‘Muhajirs or the Urdu-speaking’ —followed him blindly and voted him into power for years. But the same people were later held hostage and terrorised. Had such power been used for progress and development of the cities that voted for the MQM, he would have gone down in history as a man who changed the life of his people. Only he knows the reasons behind suppressing and terrorising media houses and journalists to an extent to which no other political party had ever done. It was the same media and journalists who condemned and exposed ‘extrajudicial killings’ of MQM leaders and workers during army and police operations from 1992 to 1996.
His motorbike, a 50 CC Honda, is still parked at his 90 Azizabad residence. He had used it to launch his political journey as a student activist and later kept it as a ‘symbol’ of middle class politics. Altaf was first banned from electronic media by Lahore High Court after a provocative speech at a rally in Hyderabad in January, 2015. It was all over for him after August 22, 2016 when he raised an ‘anti-Pakistan’ slogan and led to the attack on an ARY bureau office.
In his political career, he faced many revolts and rifts. This led to a series of killings of pro-Altaf and pro-Afaq militants. Altaf Hussain was named in hundreds of FIRs since 1979, when for the first time he was sentenced to nine months for allegedly burning a Pakistani flag during a protest demonstration outside the Mazar-i-Quaid. The last FIR was registered in 2016 for raising anti-Pakistan slogans.
The Establishment used his political strength and ‘terror’ to destabilise political setups from 1988 to 2013. Had he listened to sane ‘advice’ from former governor Dr Ishratul Ibad, Syed Mustafa Kamal and Dr Farooq Sattar to stop making provocative public speeches things might not have gone to such extent.
The last time some ‘powerful quarters’ tried to use the ‘MQM card’ was in the 2014 dharna. Who knows better than Dr Ibad, who is now writing a book Wo Jo Mai Keh Na Saka, what message Dr Tahirul Qadri communicated to Altaf Hussain for joining the dharna and why from 2010 to 2012 the identity of Dr Imran Farooq’s alleged killers, despite their arrest, as not made public.
One has to wait and see the outcome of two high profile cases in London — hate speech and the murder of party’s co-founder and first secretary general Dr Imran Farooq. Dr Imran Farooq was the man who had shared the Honda-50 with Altaf and Honda-70 with the founding chairman, Azeem Ahmad Tariq, who too was assassinated at his house in Karachi on May 1, 1993.
The trio of Altaf Hussain, Azeem Ahmed Tariq and Dr Imran Farooq had one thing in common i.e. they all belonged to lower middle class.
During his school and college days he was associated with the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT) and took part in the anti-Bhutto movement in 1977. Those were the years when Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) was leading Muhajir politics in urban Sindh against the quota system and domicile requirements.
One of the MQM veterans has disclosed that the first formal meeting, which named Altaf Hussain as ‘Quaid-i-Tehreek’, was held at the rooftop of a house in Liaquatabad. “Altaf Hussain was not present in that meeting as he was in the US. Initially, someone proposed the name of Azeem Tariq.”
The man who politically groomed Altaf was late Akhtar Rizvi, a former leader of the National Awami Party (NAP). He brought Altaf close to Jeay Sindh founder GM Syed and played a key role in bridging the gap between Muhajirs and Sindhis, something which the Establishment did not like. The 1988 massacre in Hyderabad of over 250 people, mostly Muhajirs, followed by the killing of over 100 Sindhis in Karachi the next day ended this. All this happened a month before the November 16, 1988 elections, which for all practical purposes polarised Sindh. The PPP swept rural Sindh and the MQM got hold of the urban Sindh.
About the retaliation in Karachi, president of Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) Anis Qaimkhani, who was In-charge of Hyderabad MQM in those days, told me, “Altaf called an emergency meeting at 90 and asked us not to react. But, by the time his message was communicated to the sectors and units, many Sindhis had been killed in various parts of Karachi.” It was a turning point in MQM.
Despite being a coalition partner of the PPP, the MQM was asked to vote against the Benazir Bhutto government in 1989. But, the move was defeated though later her government was sacked by the president in 1990. The MQM become a part of the anti-PPP coalition but never knew what was coming up. After the 1990 elections, the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, replaced Gen Aslam Baig with late Gen Asif Nawaz. Gen Nawaz, who had served as the Karachi Corps Commander, knew about militancy within the MQM.
In December, 1991, the then chief minister, Jam Sadiq Ali, told Altaf, “He is coming after you and your party. My sincere advice to you is to go to London till things get better.” Earlier, Altaf’s two most trusted aides, Afaq Ahmad and Aamir Khan, who practically controlled Karachi, had developed differences with him and quit the MQM. So, he knew things were getting bad. He left in January, 1992 and never returned. The clean-up operation was launched in June.
In 1995-96, army was withdrawn and the PPP’s second government launched a massive police operation to end the MQM militancy. The hallmark of the operation was extrajudicial killings in which several hundred MQM workers were killed. In retaliation many policemen, including some key characters of the operation, were killed.
After General Musharraf’s military coup in 1999, his Establishment practically revived the MQM. This was the best and the last chance for Altaf to return to his constituency as he was personally advised by Musharraf. He almost handed over urban Sindh to the MQM through unwritten but unprecedented powers to governor, disbanded its rival Haqiqi faction, put Afaq and Aamir in jail and released massive funds for the development of Karachi. How the MQM was used on May 12, 2007, was yet another example of violent politics.
Altaf’s last political blunder was when after the 2013 election he passed some remarks against the ‘Punjab and the Establishment’, which annoyed the then premier Nawaz Sharif who cancelled his telephone call to London, which had been arranged jointly by Ishaq Dar and Babar Ghauri in pursuit of better PML-MQM relation.
Honda-50 and 90 Azizabad would remain non-functional and so will the politics of Altaf Hussain, who missed the chance of going down in history as the man who brought Sindhis and Muhajirs close by ending the rural-urban divide. In politics you don’t get many chances particularly after the kind of power Altaf enjoyed. He missed the opportunity, leaving the future of Muhajirs uncertain. It is time for him to reflect on his decisions and to regret.
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang. Twitter: @MazharAbbasGeoThe writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang