March Issue 2018

By | Newsbeat National | Published 6 years ago

A small group of friends sit in front of a muted TV screen flashing headline news, in a flat in Karachi Central District. They are having a heated debate on the brewing political tension in Karachi. More specifically, the ongoing crisis in the ranks of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), the most dominant political force in the provincial capital for the last four decades, and its breakaway factions.

Seated among them is an elected general councillor, who left the MQM-P after getting elected on its ticket, and joined the Mustafa Kamal-led Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP). He keeps reiterating his stance that Altaf Hussain has become irrelevant in the politics of Karachi, and that the MQM’s days are numbered. The earlier it realises this, he says, the less it would be mired in embarrassing controversies, and the better it would be for its supporters, who remain hopeful of the party’s revival.

He is backed by another PSP worker, recently released on bail after spending a year-and-a half behind bars for his alleged involvement in a murder that had occurred a couple of years back, during a strike call given by the MQM.

The host of this gathering is a loyalist of the London group of the MQM, referred to as MQM-L. He takes pride in calling himself an ‘Altafist’ and ‘wafaparast’ (one who hasn’t betrayed). Sitting beside him is his father — a disillusioned Mohajir voter in his 70s, who has dissociated himself from all the factions in the recent divide. He criticises Altaf Hussain, calling him a heartless coward, who sits a thousand miles away, watching his people and party dying.

The gathering is interesting. Its participants argue, contradict each other, sound frustrated and lament the MQM’s present state. Altaf Hussain loyalists have always believed that he who betrays the MQM Quaid deserves to be killed. Mustafa Kamal, on the other hand, uses the most unsavoury language against Hussain, bewails Mohajir politics, and sees a city without the MQM as a solution to Karachi’s woes.

“We live in the same locality, and have been associated with the MQM for years,” says an MQM loyalist. “Our friends from the PSP recently parted ways with the MQM-P, for understandable reasons, which is why I have no complaints against them.”

Both, MQM-L loyalists and PSP workers have a grouse against the MQM-P, which, led by Dr Farooq Sattar, emerged after Hussain’s fateful August 22, 2016, speech. The host blasts the MQM-P leadership for betraying the party founder, its workers, sympathisers, and families of those workers who have been killed, or gone missing, or are facing trials in courts.

The recently released PSP worker echoes the stance of MQM-L loyalists. He names half a dozen party workers who are behind bars, and accuses the party of doing nothing except giving false hopes to their families. He points out that the families of the detained or missing party workers are faced with economic hardships, and that the party has not extended a hand of support to them.

“Faced with similar circumstances, I had to leave the party and join the PSP, which helped bail me out,” he continues. “There are countless other cases in which party workers got relief after joining the PSP or the Pervez Musharraf-led All Pakistan Muslim League (APML).”

There is little acknowledgement of the fact that the releases of the party workers had to do with the ‘invisible hand’ behind Mustafa Kamal’s re-emergence on Karachi’s political firmament. And understandably so.

The political scenario has changed drastically after the law enforcement agencies’ operation, specifically against the MQM, which started in 2013. Violence is no longer an option in politics. Political scores cannot be settled through violent outbursts. This makes the tug of war between different factions of the MQM understandable.

Karachiites, whether they support the MQM-P or not, find the party’s performance disappointing. “Apart from the debate on their role in the post-Altaf Hussain period since the August 22 speech, most of us came to terms with the change,” says a disgruntled party worker from Baldia Town. “We accepted Sattar as the party head, because he is certainly the most respected person after Hussain.” Hussain himself initially endorsed the transition, he adds, and retracted the remarks made on August 22, but the MQM-P parliamentarians stooped low in coming up with a resolution against Hussain in the Sindh Assembly. Ironically, it didn’t get them any relief, he maintains, as their demands were unmet. These included the release of detained and missing workers, the reopening of party offices, and the transfer of powers to local governments. “Now we are curious to see how the situation develops,” he says. “Sattar seems to be facing the same sort of problems that he once unleashed on Hussain.”

The recent crisis within the MQM-P emerged in the first week of February, when differences on the allocation of party tickets for the recent Senate elections resulted in a rift. This led to a further split within the party, as two groups — the PIB (Pir Illahi Bux Colony, Sattar’s residence) faction and the Bahadurabad faction (the newly built party office), engaged in a war of words through press conferences and TV appearances.

It all began when Sattar, while finalising the names of candidates for the Senate elections at a coordination committee meeting, insisted that his deputy and close aide, Kamran Tessori, a new rich businessman entrant to MQM-P, be placed at the top of the list. The meeting ended in chaos as the others disagreed with his choice.

In a follow-up meeting in the absence of Sattar, the coordination committee, presided over by Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, ruled against Tessori. He was removed from the committee and suspended from the party for six months. Sattar termed the meeting in his absence, a violation of the party’s constitution.

In the backdrop to this development, the Bahadurabad group accused Sattar of amassing powers through amendments in the party’s constitution, and replaced him with Siddiqui, as party convener. Sattar alleged that he was removed from the position to make way for the former president and COAS, Pervez Musharraf — an accusation rejected by the Bahadurabad group and Musharraf himself, who contends that the MQM-P’s ethnic politics is not in tune with his ideals.

Sattar dissolved the coordination committee, bringing in a new set-up through intra-party elections and got himself elected convener. Both groups forwarded their own list of candidates for the Senate to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Thus ensued a legal battle; both the groups approached the ECP for a decision in their favour.

People, who have supported the party since its inception, expressed mixed feelings over the recent controversy.

“Beyond the drawing-room talk and anger against the MQM-P leadership, people were disappointed with the way internal differences were being aired in public,” says Mehmood Ali, a resident of Orangi Town. “It was infuriating to see them fighting in public for Senate tickets. They have caused further disillusionment among party supporters, owing to the poor performance of the MQM-P-led local government.”

The two groups banded together a day prior to the elections to present a united front. It proved to be too little too late. They lost all but one seat in the Senate elections — that of Dr. Farogh Naseem of MQM(B).

There are people who yearn for the return of that era when Hussain was in total control of the party affairs. They believe that he could still make a comeback on the political scene.

“Altaf Bhai has resumed his political activities,” says one loyalist, “after dealing with his health issues. He has recovered significantly and seems to be prepping himself up for another stunt. He may just decide to return and face all the charges against him. And then, one never knows with the establishment – at one juncture, they tried hard to bring the MQM-P and PSP together to rein in the PPP.”

However, a seasoned party worker was not as optimistic about a possible future role for Altaf Hussain in the country’s politics. “We don’t have any option other than supporting the MQM-P in the elections,” he says. “The party in London is unaware of the problems we have been facing here. Our sons are picked up simply on the basis of tip-offs from petty criminals in our locality, who work as police informers, for publicly expressing support for Hussain. We do not favour the era when Hussain was at the helm of the MQM, due to the violence that prevailed the city in the years prior to the 2013 general elections.”

“For us, it was really difficult to own the party then, due to the politics of violence. Now serious efforts are being made by the senior rank to come out of the dark shadows of that period. However, there are people who romanticise that era. They are the ones who benefited from the strong-arm tactics and high-handedness of the party members; and then there are those who feel let down by the present leadership, which is very different from the controlled and centralised command of Hussain.”

Interestingly, a certain section in the MQM views Musharraf as a potential saviour of the MQM, given that he was a generous supporter of the party during his tenure. Karachiites have their own reasons for viewing him favourably. One was the improvement in the country’s relations with India, which eased the visa process and resumption of the Khokhrapar-Munabao Railway service.

For the families split between Pakistan and India, and the traders and businessmen who rely on informal trade between Pakistan and India for cosmetics, tobacco items, and garments, this was a blessing.

However, Musharraf seems to have changed his stance now, and is openly expressing his support for India’s nemesis, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), who are opposed to any kind of relations with India.

Musharraf aside, there are many who see a silver lining in the recent upheaval in the party ranks. Those who distanced themselves from the party have become active once again. These include some members of the Sattar-led co-ordination committee. What brought them out was the fear of a return to the ’90s. People have not forgotten the role Amir Khan played in forming the Haqiqi faction of MQM, along with Afaq Ahmed. These are excruciatingly painful memories for Mohajirs. However, these fears are being termed outlandish by supporters of the Bahadurabad faction, because the split has not yet occurred. Moreover, Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui leads the Bahadurabad faction — and not Amir Khan.

“Things are messy,” says one eternal optimist. “There will be upheavals and reshuffles, but hopefully, these will be for the better.”

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order