May Issue 2010
Left in the Lurch
Abandoned by mentors and hounded by rivals, the founding duo of the MQM Haqiqi, Afaq Ahmed and Amir Khan, stand in the political wilderness today. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment on April 7 by a court set up in Karachi Central Jail for the kidnapping and murder of Farooq Siddiqui in 1992. There seems little light at the end of the tunnel for the two leaders who, more than two decades ago, did the unthinkable and dared to defy Altaf Hussain – the supreme leader of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement of yesteryears and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement of today.
The apparent near-fatal blow to their small political fortunes do not stem from the betrayal of their patron saint and lingering confrontation with the mainstream Muttahida alone. The split in the ranks of MQM Haqiqi and the bitter parting of ways around three years ago further eroded Afaq’s and Amir’s already diluted strength.
Afaq leads his own faction of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, while his one-time inseparable ally, Amir, has his group called the MQM Haqiqi. In jail, the two have been bitter rivals and on the streets, their followers are at loggerheads with one another. Afaq still has the support of hard core loyalists and workers, but most of his first-tier leaders including Younus Amir, Asif Shaheryar and Feroze Haider, have joined hands with Amir.
The phenomenon called the Haqiqi is a perfect case study of the sordid and murky underworld of Pakistani politics, which involves baffling intrigue, brutal urban violence and organised crime. It also underlines how the country’s powerful army establishment and sensitive security apparatus bend laws and violate the basic rules of the game for short-term tactical gains and, in doing so, how they use and abuse politicians, political workers and militants-cum-criminals. In this vicious game of chess, the street guns are often fed, armed and financed by this or that section of the state security apparatus.
The bloodletting which started in the early 1990s due to political dissent in the ranks of the Altaf Hussain-led MQM continues even two decades after that gory divide. During this period, the pendulum of state patronage has gone from one extreme to the other, changing the fortunes of key players overnight and resulting in the killings of thousands of others. There have been a brief lull in the intra-MQM gang war and a slow down in the tit-for-tat killings, but it has never stopped. The business of terror has not run out of steam and gunny bags remain in demand – even today.
Altaf’s MQM, which was considered to be the number one enemy of the state by the powerful institution of the army, is now viewed as a politically correct force. The pragmatism of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf gave this controversial political force not only a new lease of life but also political legitimacy. And the party has tried to make the best use of it by trying to carve out a new image for itself. The President Asif Ali Zardari-led PPP picked up from where Musharraf left off. Despite inherent contradictions and a clash of interests with this urban force, it managed to perform the high wire balancing act and kept the Muttahida solidly on its side.
The two dissidents – Afaq and Amir – have long fallen out of favour with the very forces that once patronised and supported them in the hope that they would emerge as an alternate force (to Muttahida) in parts of urban Sindh, especially Karachi. But all the careful assessment and plans failed to transform the leaders and their group into a popular force.
Horses were changed in the middle of the race soon after the 2002 general elections. As the Altaf-led Muttahida managed to slowly regain lost ground, the pressure gained momentum against Afaq, Amir and their followers. The necessities of practical politics demanded the two leaders be put behind bars with the reopening of cases against them – ranging from murder and abduction to torture and the possession of illegal weapons. Afaq faced charges in 14 cases and Amir in six. Both were acquitted in all except one, for which they were sentenced to life imprisonment.
It has also been a hard life for their followers. Many have been forced to leave their homes and migrate to other cities or take refuge in non-Urdu-speaking neighbourhoods of Karachi – mainly Pakhtun settlements – in fear of their lives. The division in the ranks of the two dissidents has further weakened their workers. That too, at a time when their nemesis has a firm grip on Karachi and other parts of urban Sindh, and is also trying to expand to other parts of the country. It has left Afaq and Amir’s factions more vulnerable and exposed.
Khalid Naqshbandi, who runs the media section of Afaq’s MQM, states the reason for the fallout between Afaq and Amir. “Amir wanted to patch up with Altaf Hussain, which we considered as treachery because he and his party have the blood of our martyrs on their hands. It is against the very grain of the principled stand that we took on June 18, 1991, when we challenged the policies of Altaf Hussain. Amir and his group then tried to remove Afaq as chairperson and wanted to seize control of the party; they were suspended from the party in April 2007 for breach of discipline.”
“The Election Commission recognised us as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, while Amir had to register his party as the MQM Haqiqi,” adds Naqshbandi.
A contrary view is presented by Feroze Haider, one of the leaders of Amir’s faction. “Afaq Ahmed lacked political acumen. Instead of his central committee, he used to bank more on his kitchen cabinet, which comprised of gun-toting hotheads. He never listened to any political advice and lacked the flexibility of a politician, who sometimes has to retreat for the larger interest.”
“Afaq headed the party for more than 10 years and during that time not once did he hold party elections. He failed to achieve any goals – there was no strategy. He ran the party as if he had inherited it,” Haider adds, bitterly.
Police say that Afaq’s group has had to pay a bigger price on the streets of Karachi in the tussle between the mainstream Muttahida and the two offshoots. Official police figures show that more than 20 of Afaq’s loyalists have been killed between January 1, 2010 and the end of April, but according and Afaq’s party, 40 people have lost their lives. The Muttahida in turn claims that it is in fact their workers who are being targeted and 36 of its members have been killed in the first four months of 2010.
“They claim every dead person as their own, which is mere propaganda,” says Shoaib Bokhari, a senior leader of Muttahida and a provincial minister in Sindh. “Target killings have been the norm of this city for a long time. There is so much frustration and pent up rage. But we have never stopped anyone from carrying on with their political activities.”
In the words of Naqshbandi, “Everybody knows who has not been ready to tolerate the Mohajir Qaumi Movement from day one. But the police are not even ready to register an FIR because the assassins are part of the government.”
A senior police official, requesting anonymity, maintains that most of the major political parties are involved in the bloodletting, and the rampant tit-for-tat political killings in Karachi. “The problem is that the Karachi police are not trained to combat such crimes. With a strength of 35,000 troops, we are spread too thin. And when we arrest someone, there is a lot of political pressure; MNAs and MPAs visit police stations to free the accused,” says the official.
Amir’s group wants to reach some sort of a compromise or reconciliation with Muttahida, a move which, according to them, will secure peace in Karachi. But for Muttahida, reconciliation is out of the question.
“Altaf bhai has forgiven the murderers of his family members, but what about thousands of party workers who were killed by them? Our supporters will never accept reconciliation,” says Bokhari. “This does not mean, however, that we want violence.”
Both Afaq and Amir’s factions say that they want to work as any other legitimate political force in Karachi. But Bokhari calls into question the legitamacy of the two groups. “There were countless vehicles that were hired for the rally on April 7 when the verdict for the case was due. From where does the money come for their operations and all these weapons? Either it is coming from extortion, or hidden hands are providing it to them. When I was in jail for four-and-a-half years, no one gave me 10 rupees.”
The Afaq faction, which wants to make no amends whatsoever, has accused the Muttahida of making a video of their workers when they assembled at the Central Prison for the verdict. According to a senior police official, they allege that the video is being used to identify and target members of their party.
There seems to be little hope for change – at least for the time being. However, while the duo has been cornered on the political chessboard, their lifeline has not been pulled out altogether. They are indeed in a state of political coma, but are allegedly being preserved for some rainy day by a section of the establishment. In the murky waters of Pakistani politics, fortunes change overnight. Haven’t we seen this happen so many times before, even with leading politicians?
Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.
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