Altaf Hussain and the future of his political movement

Shaukat Qadir looks at the history and possible future of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement as its leader faces charges in the UK.

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Earlier this month Altaf Hussain was arrested by the British police on suspicion of money laundering, before being released on bail four days later. During his incarceration, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – the political party he heads in absentia from London – brought Karachi to a halt with its protests.

Mr Hussain created the Muhajir (Émigrés) Qaumi Movement in 1984, which later became the Muttahida. By 1987, Mr Hussain’s MQM had virtual control of Pakistan’s main port and metropolis, Karachi, as well as Hyderabad.

It was inevitable that the ethnic Sindhis who had welcomed the émigrés from India would resent the takeover of their two largest cities by these “guests”.

This gave rise to a “turf war” for control of Karachi. The war extended itself to include Pashtun and Punjabi settlers in Karachi, as well as other political parties.

But the MQM was too well-organised and equipped and very soon had a stranglehold in both cities and was busy eliminating all rivals.

Under Benazir Bhutto, an effort was made to tame the MQM in 1989 and 1990.

By 1992, MQM members had targeted and killed hundreds of their opponents and followers. Mr Hussain, and some other MQM leaders were accused of murder. Having got wind of the army’s impending operation in Karachi, Mr Hussain fled the country to seek political asylum in UK. Since then he has been based in London.

While the accusations levelled against Mr Hussain could have been politically motivated, any examination of the events in Karachi would certainly have raised questions regarding the conduct of his party.

These are questions that should have given rise to second thoughts by the UK government, before granting him political asylum. But they didn’t.

What is more, for many years, Mr Hussain enjoyed extraordinary security at the expense of the UK government.

The reason for this defies understanding. Though not in large numbers, there were some critics of this decision. George Galloway, a well known MP in the UK, has been unrelenting in his criticism of the UK government for harbouring and protecting a renowned criminal.

This was Mr Galloway’s comment when Mr Hussain was arrested: “Today after a lot of hard work and some courage and determination the London-based gangster Altaf Hussain is under arrest. I take my hat off to the police and denounce the British political class who remained silent and complicit with the murder, mayhem, crime and extortion organised from London by the Godfather of Edgware and Karachi. Long live Pakistan. Pakistan Zindebad!”

Perhaps the MQM has significant clout in British political circles, because Mr Hussain was granted a British passport in 2002.

Meantime, his prolonged absence from Karachi began to impact and cracks began to appear in the monolithic structure of MQM. Inevitably, purges followed.

Things might have continued unchanged had it not been for the murder of Imran Farooq in London in 2010.

Farooq, also high up in the MQM hierarchy, was known to have disagreements with Mr Hussain and was suspected of attempting to create a “Forward Bloc” of like-minded people in the MQM.

Despite Mr Hussain’s efforts, he remained high on the list of suspects of the murder. Though little physical evidence was available, there was enough circumstantial evidence to support this suspicion for Scotland Yard to remain unrelenting and, finally, obtain a search warrant in 2012 and again in 2013.

The discovery of more than £400,000 (Dh2.49m) in cash in Mr Hussain’s possession resulted in the accusation of money laundering. Whatever political support Mr Hussain might have enjoyed in the UK, he lost it when he spoke to his party from London, after the 2013 elections in Pakistan, threatening to unleash violence in Karachi.

This was too much for them all.It seems that like all political despots, Mr Hussain has reached the end of his political career in Pakistan. Cracks have been visible in the top hierarchy of MQM for some time and these are likely to widen. Mr Hussain would do well to pick his successor at the earliest moment.

It is unlikely that he will. Despots create lots of enemies and he cannot risk their wrath by appearing weak at this critical juncture.

It is unlikely that the MQM, a party born from, and successful due to, violence will suddenly become benign. However, there are signs of wisdom in some of its leaders. One can but hope that better times are in store for Karachi – although last week’s events bode ill for that thought.

Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer