June Issue 2007
Back to Square One?
The MQM headquarters in north London is abuzz with a flurry of activity. There has been a lot of toing and froing between Karachi, the MQM stronghold, and London, where the MQM supremo has been residing for the past 15 years, following his decision to go into exile.
The party faces difficult times ahead. The Tehrik-i-Insaaf chief, Imran Khan, is in town to meet British MPs and a battery of lawyers. And he says he’s carrying with him a bundle of evidence that will help indict MQM’s top gun Altaf Hussain, now a British citizen, for conducting terrorist activities from his London office. He says he owes it to his party members, who were among the targets of the May 12 carnage in Karachi.
May 12 has proved to be the MQM’s undoing. It has pushed them back by several years. The party’s efforts to redeem its image in the eyes of most Pakistanis, who have generally viewed the MQM as a party with “fascist tendencies” and “zero tolerance level,” have come to naught. The organisation is facing a lot of flak for its role in thwarting the chief justice’s journey to the Sindh High Court and the carnage in the city on that day.
Has the MQM learnt any lessons from the May 12 incidents?
One would like to believe that it has, given its toned-down rhetoric -”It is now time for reconciliation, political maturity and foresight,” says Farooq Sattar in an interview to Newsline — and its top tier’s efforts to reach out to other political parties — Sindh Governor Ishratul Ibad met with the PPP, MMA and ANP to condole the loss of lives on May 12.
However, the vitriolic manner in which the MQM initially responded to Imran Khan’s criticism of Altaf Hussain and the party, had MQM critics commenting, once again, on the party’s violent history. Wall chalkings branding Imran a “rapist” and a “dog” appeared overnight, and Khan’s entry in Sindh, where he was supposed to address a Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM) rally, was banned for a month. Not only that, the Punjab government was prevailed upon to disallow him to travel from Lahore for three days and death threats were hurled at him.
That Altaf Hussain subsequently asked for the wall chalkings to be removed and advised his supporters to show restraint did not assuage the fears that the MQM is not inclined to change anytime soon.
To add to the MQM’s woes, the Mohajir Rabta Council issued a list of what they branded “anti-mohajir” journalists, and subsequent to that bullets were found on the car windscreens of two journalists and a photographer, all working with foreign news agencies. The MQM has distanced itself from this list, but the allegations have stuck. Unfortunately, the MQM’s past “unsavoury” reputation precedes it.
Founded some 29 years ago as a student party to give voice to the legitimate grievances of the mohajirs, it subsequently pursued the path of violence and intimidation to consolidate its power. And Karachi bears ample testimony to that. The appearance of gunny bags, with tortured bodies of those ostensibly killed by the MQM, on a daily basis on Karachi streets is an image that remains etched in Karachi’s collective memory. As do the torture cells that drilled holes in many a dissident’s body.
The Urdu-speaking population of Karachi stands at around 48 per cent, not all of which supports the MQM. A substantial number back the Jamaat-i-Islami, Pakistan People’s Party, Sunni Tehreek and other religious and political outfits. But, the MQM’s clout is such that it has never allowed any other group to operate freely in Karachi. In fact, all other political parties and groups in the urban areas of Sindh will testify to the problems of working in the shadow of the MQM. In the past, workers of the People’s Party, Jamaat-i-Islami and Sunni Tehreek have complained that they have not only had to suffer threats and intimidation but several of their activists were allegedly shot dead in cold blood by MQM militants.
When the MQM decided to throw its weight behind President Musharraf, thousands of its members were either serving jail terms or being tried in the city courts. In fact, the entire party leadership had cases, ranging from arson to murder, against them. The last five years have seen a tremendous change in MQM’s fortunes: nearly all of its workers have not only been set free but are calling the shots in urban Sindh. Scores of cases against the MQM leadership and its supporters were thrown out of the courts for “lack of evidence.” It appears that the MQM and the army have quietly agreed to write off all the crimes they had allegedly committed against each other and make a new beginning.
Additionally, the MQM and its supporters have enjoyed unlimited powers in urban Sindh, making it appear as the strongest group in the country after the army. The MQM’s intelligence wing, it is believed, keeps a close watch on everything that goes on in Karachi. There are rumours that MQM informers have infiltrated every political and religious party in Karachi. Another wing of the party concentrates on ascertaining who is making how much money in the country’s financial centre. Accordingly, party leaders then allegedly approach these hapless businessmen for hefty donations.
Not surprisingly, they are showing increasing signs of affluence. Gone are the days when MQM workers would go from house to house on borrowed Honda 70 motorcycles to collect chanda (donations) for the party. The MQM was then a party of the middle and lower-middle classes, which was a new and welcome phenomenon in the elite-driven politics of the country. Party leaders were happy to wear a 250-rupee cotton kurta pajama. The trendier would be seen sporting a hundred-rupee shirt imported from Thailand. Today, however, party bigwigs wear designer shirts costing several thousand rupees. Some flash diamond-studded rings, others flaunt gold-plated cufflinks and expensive cell phones — and everyone drives a Pajero, Prado or, at the very least, a Honda civic. Many party leaders have also moved out from their old neighbourhoods in Nazimabad and Gulshan-e-Iqbal to the more upscale area of Defence.
Sources reveal that the party’s leaders and henchmen shuttle between Karachi, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur in search of lucrative deals. The manner in which some of Karachi’s prime land has been sold off to foreign developers for fancy schemes, in return allegedly for hefty commissions or kickbacks, has sent alarm bells ringing among the city’s urban planners and civil society.
At least two MQM ministers have earned so much notoriety for corruption that even senior party leaders were forced to acknowledge it. Several other former MQM militants have reportedly set up companies which exist only on paper, to secure lucrative government contracts. Others act as middlemen, earning hefty kickbacks in return for helping companies to win contracts. Insiders also reveal that two MQM ministers (one federal and another provincial) have their own militant wings. Both these ministers allegedly made their fortunes in shady business and real estate deals in Karachi.
However, with all this money pouring in, the party itself appears to have developed divisions in the ranks. MQM insiders claim that at the moment there are at least three groups within the party. In fact, the party chief often reminds his cadres that the day he dies, they will prey upon each other like dogs and destroy themselves. But their personal rivalries aside, they all remain loyal to, and afraid of, one man — Altaf Hussain.
The others don’t count, or so it seems.At least on two occasions, MQM leaders were summoned by the military command in Sindh to protest the manhandling of army officers by MQM ministers. In one case, an MQM minister had forced his way into a private golf club. When the head of security, a retired major, tried to stop him he was threatened by the minister’s armed guards. In another incident, a serving military officer was beaten up in front of his family when his car did not give way to the MQM minister’s motorcade. In both instances, the army reprimanded the MQM for its behaviour. In the second case, in which a serving officer was manhandled, sources claim that as the MQM leaders were leaving the meeting with senior army officers, the said minister was called back and given a thrashing. The MQM denies this and maintains that the minister’s guards had acted of their own accord in assaulting the army officer in the first place.
Its ostensibly close terms with Musharraf aside, the MQM’s relationship with the army has always been an uneasy one. The tension dates back to June 1992, when the army launched an operation against the party, accusing it of running a state within a state. In those days, the MQM held total sway over Karachi, running torture cells to “fix” political opponents and party dissidents, while several areas of the city were effectively no-go areas for the law enforcement agencies.
Hundreds of MQM workers and supporters were killed in the army operation, a substantial number in fake encounters. The party’s womenfolk were allegedly humiliated by the police and Rangers and thousands of its members were put behind bars. Seething with rage, MQM militants did not take this retribution lying down. They fought back with such ferocity that members of the law enforcement agencies started fearing being seen in the city in uniform. Policemen would put on their uniforms once they reached the safety of their offices. Many would hide their police ID cards inside their socks or not carry them at all. In fact, MQM militants kidnapped and killed over 200 law-enforcement officers. The infamous Khajji ground was the spot where blindfolded security personnel were brought and executed.
When the Rangers, under orders from the People’s Party Interior Minister, Naseerullah Babar, later took over this gruesome arena from the MQM, the execution platform was found littered with blood-soaked blindfolds and human flesh.
In the past five years, the MQM as a member of Musharraf’s coalition government has attempted to salvage its “killer” reputation by undertaking several development projects, including the building of roads, underpasses, bridges and parks.
However, following the events of May 12, the party is back to square one. It stands discredited and alienated from the rest of the country. Its leadership is now under surveillance in the UK, and the party is facing severe censure back home. So where does the MQM go from here?
Party stalwarts are attempting some damage control by making placatory statements and extending a hand of friendship towards other party leaders. But the MQM has a tendency to see Karachi as its personal turf and returns to its old ways of violence and intimidation each time it senses the danger of someone else poaching on its territory.
Unless the MQM is willing to shed its fascist tendencies, show tolerance for dissent and stop treating Karachi as its personal fiefdom where no other political party can trespass, its dreams of being viewed as a serious, mainstream, secular political party will continue to remain just that — a dream.