March Issue 2015
Interview: Wasim Akhtar, MQM
The recent JIT report regarding the Baldia factory fire has implicated some senior members of the MQM. But as per standard operating procedure, it seems whenever the MQM is implicated in a case, the party automatically disowns the member in question and denies any responsibility. That seems like a convenient way to deal with these allegations…
We have a very strange past with Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs). First of all they have all been politicised. The biggest example of this is MQM Haqiqi. The MQM was flourishing and spreading throughout Sindh in the 1990s, but the LEAs created MQM Haqiqi and then blamed the MQM for the ‘Jinnahpur Conspiracy,’ something that they now readily admit and that is on record.
Now if you take the example of the Baldia garment factory fire, the investigation into the incident had taken place one-and-a-half years ago. The DIG and CID had already submitted their report and the matter was in the courts, but suddenly this JIT report appears out of nowhere. And this report is so strange that even media anchors and analysts on TV say that there are so many loopholes and questions in it that they can’t understand why it has been brought up.
When the MQM condemns or criticises the LEAs, they bring up things such as the JIT report to put the MQM on the back foot. If you look at the evidence provided in the report, it is based entirely on hearsay from a suspect who had been arrested regarding an entirely different case. And using that, they started a media trial of the MQM. This is what we are against.
This is the same JIT report that was in the hands of Afaq Ahmed of MQM Haqiqi, who held a press conference one-and-a-half years ago and was reading from the report. The question is, how did this report come into his possession? There are a lot of question marks.
It’s not that we don’t own up to any member of ours who may have been involved in unlawful activities. If one of our members is caught doing something unlawful, it should be investigated and he should be arrested and punished in accordance with the law. But we have a lot of reservations about the Baldia issue, and we have chosen to let the courts decide.
So you’re saying that these allegations are politically motivated?
Why aren’t other parties treated the same way? Why do the LEAs specifically target the MQM?
It’s because our leader Altaf Hussain, and the Rabita Committee, have objected to how the Karachi Operation is being conducted. Thirty-six of our party workers have been extra-judicially killed, and many are missing. So where should we go?
When this operation started, we requested the prime minister to make a committee to oversee how the operation was being conducted. But that committee was never formed.
Our people are being kidnapped. They go missing and three days later their corpses are found. And when we raise our voices against such treatment of our people, old cases like the Baldia fire and the May 12, 2007 incident are dug up.
We are not against the operation. In fact, we are the only party that asked for the targeted action. But this is not the way to do it. While our people are being victimised, the extremists and militants, whom the operation is supposed to target, are creating strongholds, they are kidnapping and they are giving out parchis for bhatta.
You mention bhatta — the issue of extortion has become synonymous with the MQM for several years now. Industrialists and businessmen, all claim that paying bhatta to the MQM is simply the cost of doing business in Karachi. Do you refute this?
This is propaganda against the MQM. Our party has openly called out such activities. In fact, the governor issued an ordinance against all such activities. We do not want anyone from our party to extort from an industrialist or even a small shop owner. We condemn all such actions.
Every industrialist in Karachi knows that the Aman Committee, which both Uzair Baloch and Zulfiqar Mirza are patrons of, have openly given out parchis for bhatta. Many people from the business community will tell you that they have received a parchi at some point. There have been some cases where businessmen have complained to us that someone using our name has been involved in such activities. And we ourselves have made sure that he is captured. Sure, there are times when there are individual failings, but it is not our party policy.
So are you saying that the MQM has never been involved in bhatta?
Again this is all propaganda. We don’t need bhatta. If Altaf Hussain, sitting in London, makes a call and asks 100,000 workers – who can assemble within an hour’s notice — to pay five rupees chanda every day for the party, how much money does that alone add up to?
We have good supporters; the business community supports us. Overseas Pakistanis who are our followers send us donations, which is how our party functions. The same is the case in Karachi and Hyderabad. Why would we even need to take bhatta?
Our name has been used in the past, and continues to be used. There are some people who are against us because we are against the status quo. We don’t want this political system to continue, and we are against feudalism. The feudal parties don’t want us to prosper.
But why is it that the MQM has always been accused of extortion? And why haven’t other parties such as the PPP or the PML-N ever been associated with this practice?
It’s because we are poor people. We are a poor party. In the beginning they stamped us with this label of bhatta. On the other hand, all of Pakistan knows that since the PPP has come to power, they have made good money, whether it’s through commissions or kickbacks. They will not be accused of bhatta, but when it comes to bribery there is no party in the whole country known to be more associated with the practice. Even if the PPP is accused of bhatta, that label just doesn’t fit them. The accusation against them is of corruption. We are poor people so we are accused of surviving on bhatta, even though we survive due to chanda. We run hospitals, ambulances, clinics and schools, which is where we spend our money.
Billions and trillions of rupees have been moved outside the country to London and Dubai, by PML-N and PPP stalwarts. But nobody calls them out. That’s bhatta too. If a young man from my party snatches 5,000 rupees from someone, in my eyes that’s nothing. That’s an individual failure. But all the money that is moved out of the country is not considered money-laundering nor is it called bhatta.
Who do you think is behind these attempts to “malign” the MQM as you say?
Everybody when it comes to the MQM. Everyone ranging from political parties, to religious parties, and elements within the LEAs want to see the MQM’s name muddied. But when these same parties want to take advantage of us, they all show up at Nine Zero to gather votes. Supposedly we are terrorists, we are extortionists, we are bad guys, but suddenly they want our support. That is a question that must be posed to them.
That brings up the question of political opportunism. Recently, the MQM has acquired the reputation of being an opportunist party; that you joined the PPP government when it was politically beneficial and broke away when it wasn’t. Does the MQM have a clear and cogent policy when it comes to making political decisions?
Politics is a game of power. When a political party is formed, it’s not with the intention of staying in the opposition. Parties and individuals struggle to get into power. So with every election in which we win seats, our aim is to be in power because we want to solve the problems of the people. And to do that, sometimes we have to work with whatever party is at the helm, which in Pakistan has been the PML-N or the PPP.
But when the PPP started pressurising us unjustly, when we were deprived of funds in certain areas despite the quota based on the 60-40 formula, and when we saw that all the jobs were going to PPP jiyalas, we had to break away because our people, who elected us, wanted jobs.
Coming to Karachi, there is a notion that the MQM largely controls the city. That the MQM has the ability to shut down the city based on a single call from Altaf Hussain all the way from London. Why is there such a fear of the MQM?
This, again, is merely propaganda. Karachi is a city in which if any action is taken against the rickshaw-wallahs, for example, they will come out on the streets and close down the main intersections and you’ll hear firing on the streets. All the political parties conduct jalsas and protest in Karachi, whether it’s about Kashmir, or Punjab. It’s not true that it’s the MQM that people fear.
Whenever we protest we ask people to join us. We let people decide whether or not to close their shops. We ask the transport sector to join us, but we never force them to. In fact, it is other parties who brandish weapons during political rallies or protests. In any of our recent protests, no weapons were ever displayed. The idea that the MQM is some kind of monster to be feared is just not true.
If any of this were true, we would not have been voted for in the nine elections we have contested. The people have the choice to vote for another party, but they continue to vote for us.
So do you deny the notion of the so-called ‘militant wing’ of the MQM?
Yes. I don’t believe this is true. It’s very easy to point fingers. As I mentioned before, hundreds of my people have gone missing, some have been extra-judicially killed. Now if you pick up an 18 or 20-year-old and put him through third-degree torture, he will inevitably turn into a terrorist when he is released. He will find the SHO, or whoever tortured him, and kill him. It’s easy to point to such cases and say that the MQM has a militant wing.
So it’s not the responsibility of the MQM, it’s the responsibility of the LEA officers who mistreat citizens. This is not the way to handle crime. They are exacerbating the situation and then blaming it on the MQM.
In the past few years the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has emerged as a significant political force. With the PPP’s hold in Sindh dwindling, and the PTI making inroads in the province, especially in Karachi, do you see it as the main threat to the MQM in future elections?
I wouldn’t say they’re a threat. I would say that they are a newly emerging party. They have an attractive manifesto, and we need to see what they do with their government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). If they achieve something in KP that will of course affect the other provinces as well.
As far as Karachi is concerned, they have gained some popularity, especially from the vote bank of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the PPP, and even some supporters of the PML-N in Defence and Clifton. But thankfully, our vote bank is intact. I believe we are gaining popularity day by day and the MQM is fine. We pray for the PTI and hope that they do well for the country because there are many things in their manifesto that are similar to ours.
The MQM has appeared to have a love-hate relationship with the army. What would you say is the MQM’s relationship with the army now?
I think it’s getting better. The army has taken a major step in fighting terrorism with Operation Zarb-e-Azb and we support them. We are the only vocal party against the TTP and other banned outfits, so you could say we are on the same page in some respects.
But there are some people within the army who are against the MQM and its policies. They don’t want a liberal and moderate party to prosper or the message of Altaf bhai to reach other provinces. They actively work against the MQM and don’t miss an opportunity to malign the party and this manifests itself in public disagreements. Altaf bhai is a very clear-thinking person and so he plainly calls out what he feels is wrong.
My question to the establishment is, who is killing so many thousands of our workers? Who killed Altaf Hussain’s brother and nephew? They had no political affiliations.
In the past one-and-half-years, Altaf Hussain has dissolved the Rabita Committee four times. As an outsider, the impression one gets is that there seems to be discontent within the MQM’s ranks. Is this indicative of a possible rift in the party?
Altaf Bhai is not satisfied with some of the people working for him. The process is on ongoing. Bhai is looking into every case, an inquiry is being conducted into every person in the Rabita Committee and those who are cleared are being allowed back. Those who have charges against them are being removed. I think it’s a good process. We are all humans and we can go astray. So you could call this a cleansing process, which may seem strange to people on the outside, but it’s something that must be done and Altaf Bhai is very clear about it.
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.