The MQM has to change to survive
Almost two weeks back, BBC aired a short documentary of allegations against Altaf Hussain concerning the murder of the Imran Farooq, incitement of other counts of violence, and laundering of over 400,000 pounds. Hosted by a well-respected British journalist and expert on Pakistan, Owen Bennett Jones, the documentary makes a compelling case against the leader of the MQM, and points out that the UK law enforcement authorities have launched a comprehensive investigation into the charges, with the determination and intent to find conclusive results. In the aftermath, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, during a visit of Pakistan, declared that the police investigation of Altaf Hussain shall not be interfered with by the government. As a result, over the past week or so, the media waves have been abuzz with snippets of news about the pending UK criminal investigation against Altaf Hussain, its criticism by MQM leaders in Pakistan, a phony resignation by Mr Hussain himself, and the general predictions about the future and leadership of the MQM.
This development, in a long and checkered history of the MQM, brings to the forefront a number of existential questions for the party: Will Altaf Hussain, the one and supreme leader of the MQM, be tried and convicted for the charges against him? And if so, will he still continue to serve as the leader of MQM? If not, who will lead the party in his stead? Can anyone fill the muddy shoes of Altaf Hussain, who is seen as a saint by some people and as the devil by many others? Will anyone command all of the MQM in the way that Altaf Hussain has, or will splinter groups appear, and eventually break up the party? Is there is a way for the party to survive as one unit, maybe even thrive, in the future? And what of the legacy of fractionalism and violence left in the wake of Altaf Hussain’s MQM? What of the no-go areas of Karachi, two decades of stop-start war with the law enforcement agencies, and hundreds of body bags? Is there a way for the MQM to divorce itself from this legacy, and embrace the future as a progressive and peaceful party?
Answering some of these questions, requires a glance into the party’s past.
The seeds of MQM can be traced to the student organisation, All Pakistan Muhajir Student Organisations (APMSO), founded in 1978 by Altaf Hussain. As this student organisation grew increasingly political and influential, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) was born in 1984, with the mandate to lend political voice to those who had migrated to Pakistan at the time of the country’s independence (the Muhajir). By 1997, however, the name was changed to replace the word “Muhajir” (Migrant) to Muttahida (United), in an attempt by the MQM to expand its base and grow its constituency.
The MQM came of age in the 1990s, demonstrating electoral dominance over the urban centres of Karachi and Hyderabad. This allowed the MQM to form a coalition with whatever party came to power in the centre, as a result of which the MQM has remained part of every federal government since 1988 (with the exception of the few years between 1992-1997). But the political success of the party has failed to hide the fact that under the controversial leadership of Altaf Hussain, the party has developed a reputation of violence, murder and extortion. Buzzwords such as ‘target-killing’ and ‘no-go-areas’ became a part of the regular vernacular of Karachi. Young boys, in their mid-teens, clothed with MQM flags and a Kalashnikov, became the most feared sighting in urban centres of Sindh. As a result, in 1992, under the instructions of the then federal government, the MQM was targeted by the Pakistan Army in “Operation Clean-up”, which resulted in several hundred deaths across the shanty towns of Karachi. During the 1992 violence, Altaf Hussain fled the country when warrants of arrest were issued against him in connection with a murder and has since remained in self-imposed exile in London.
The notorieties of MQM have also bestowed several international tributes to the party as in 2001 the US State Department threatened to put MQM on the list of terrorist organisations and in 2006 the Federal Court of Canada declared MQM as a terrorist organisation (not allowing party members to visit and stay in Canada).
Surprisingly, away from all this, on the other end of the spectrum, there is also another, equally stark side to MQM: the party has one of the most efficient and effective political delivery system in Pakistan. It has tremendous grass-root party infrastructure, with the ability to design and develop programmes and initiatives for its constituents, such as the Khidmat-e-Khalq Committees of social welfare initiatives during the 1990s, and the Karachi local government administration of Mustafa Kamal in 2005. In fact, so effective and transformative was MQM’s stint in power in the local government during the 2005 term that in 2008, Foreign Policy (the magazine) released a Global Cities Index which named Mustafa Kamal as Mayor of the Moment (along with Berlin’s Klaus Wowereit and Chongging’s Wang Hangju).
Somewhere between these extremes – of violence and deliverance – MQM has to find its true identity as a political party. In so doing, the MQM leadership must be mindful of the fact that the generation of Karachiites who grew up under the shadow of Altaf Hussain, has now been replaced by a new and more perceptive group. Unlike those who followed Altaf Hussain during the decades when MQM came to power, the constituents of Karachi no longer divide themselves into Muhajir or Sindhi. They no longer vote simply according to their ethnic associations. A new generation has come of age. A generation that looks beyond the colour of the skin, or accent of speaking Urdu when choosing their representatives. And this shift was seen in the popular support given to Imran Khan during his jalsas in Karachi and across Sindh.
In this new age, the MQM can no longer afford to bank on its historic and traditional voter-base, who will stick with them, regardless of their violent antics. It is time for the MQM to break away from its past, and embrace the future voters with a message of peace. It is time for them to shed their anchor of the yesteryears and look for leadership outside the cadence of a telephonic voice.
And how better all this can be done than for the MQM to stop defending the actions of Altaf Hussain, allowing him to stand trial for his actions, and turning towards a new and young leadership that is not seeped into violence and controversy.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: [email protected]