June issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

In an ironic change of fortune, Afaq Ahmed Khan, chief of the breakaway faction of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, the Haqiqi group, was arrested in the early hours of the morning on April 3 in Karachi. For 16 months he had been dodging the same security forces that orchestrated his and his small band of militants’ victorious parade into the city on June 19, 1992 in official vehicles, and who patronised his party for almost a decade.

From wanted MQM militant to the establishment’s protegé to prisoner facing scores of criminal charges, Khan’s roller coaster political career is a telling saga of how our security establishment and its agencies often create, use, and then unceremoniously, often callously, dump politicians, workers and militants alike. Afaq Ahmed Khan — a man from a lower middle class Karachi family — is a prime example of such machinations.

In the typical fashion of Pakistani politics, the establishment of the time tried to reconstruct Karachi’s political structure, setting the stage for one of the bloodiest eras in Karachi’s history, during which thousands of people were killed. Khan’s small faction of the MQM Haqiqi was cobbled together by the authorities in the early ’90s by galvanising dissidents of the mainstream Mohajir Qaumi Movement, considered at that point to be the biggest security risk by the agencies and police alike.

With the launch of 1992′s notorious operation clean-up against the Altaf Hussain-led original MQM, the MQM Haqiqi seized key neighbourhoods seen as the power-base of “mohajir politics” backed by security personnel.

Within hours, the MQM (Altaf) group had been displaced — even if just temporarily — albeit only to be replaced by the MQM Haqiqi whose credentials and modus operandi were equally, if not more suspect than its parent organisation’s. In the dark years that followed — under former premiers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto — hit-and-run killings, kidnappings, deaths by torture and extra-judicial executions by law-enforcement agencies became the order of the day, as the two factions of the MQM slugged it out on Karachi’s streets and the establishment went for the MQM (Altaf)’s jugular.

Though the party was badly shaken and jolted, lost many of its front-line leaders and was even forced to change its name to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement on July 27, 1997, it survived the onslaught because of its grassroots support and massive organisational network.

Nonetheless, all the while it remained out of official favour, even as the establishment turned a blind eye to the Haqiqi group’s antics, which included the violation of virtually every rule of law.

However, while neighbourhoods including Landhi, Malir, and for several years Lines Area and Liaquatabad remained under the control of the Haqiqi group, despite the best efforts of the establishment of that time and the group’s attempts to enter into alliances with other parties — including hard-line Sunni Muslim groups — they failed to win any popular support and performed poorly in the elections.

Status quo continued for several years, but after the coup of October 1999, the new government launched an initiative to halt the cycle of violence between the two rival groups. However the MQM (Altaf) was still not seen to be trustworthy enough to be allowed a free hand in the city. And when the MQM boycotted the local elections, the Jamaat-e-Islami-backed local government filled the void.

A gradual change in fortunes for the Haqiqi began following the October 2002 general elections, in which the MQM (Altaf) — despite some upsets — dominated the urban areas of Sindh, while the Haqiqi managed to win only a lone provincial assembly seat.

Direly in need of the MQM (Altaf)’s support to bolster its position, the government did an about-turn and started turning the screws on its protege. In the first phase of this change of policy, the Haqiqi offices were shut down and a crackdown on its militants was launched. Soon after, it apparently dawned on the administration that the famous White House or Bait-ul Hamza in Landhi — the Haqiqi headquarters — was an illegal construction. Bulldozers and workers moved to pull it down, as the top brass of the Haqiqi went into hiding.

According to sources, the authorities offered top leaders a safe passage out of the country. However, Afaq Khan refused the offer, apparently in the misplaced belief that his utility for the establishment was not over.

Meanwhile, the MQM (Altaf), part of the federal government as well as the major coalition partner in Sindh’s provincial government, kept the pressure up on the establishment to take the Haqiqi leadership to task and completely wind up the group’s operations, failing which it threatened to pull out of the government.

Finally, in a slow-paced operation, the police arrested more than 750 Haqiqi workers and leaders before ultimately throwing the dragnet around Afaq Ahmed Khan.

“Had the top leaders of the party been arrested in the first swoop, it would have meant trouble in the city,” said a police official. “So the government strategists went for party supporters first. And as we saw, there was hardly a violent reaction to Afaq’s arrest.”

With Khan’s arrest a long-standing demand of the MQM had finally been accepted. Following this, Altaf Hussain, the MQM’s self-exiled leader, announced clemency for MQM dissidents who had joined the Haqiqi group and their families, and urged his workers not to target them.

Does this mean the turf war between the MQM (Altaf) and the MQM Haqiqi is over? For the time being it seems to be. As long as the MQM (Altaf)’s alliance with the government lasts, Afaq Ahmed Khan and his men are likely to stay in the safe custody of prison. But given the vagaries and quirks of Pakistani politics, this honeymoon could end in a blink. Meanwhile, the now resuscitated MQM (Altaf) should make the best use of this time, and the opportunity presented it to make amends for the past. It may not be able to undo the damage done, but it can contribute substantially to bring peace to the beleaguered city of Karachi and the urban areas of Sindh.