April issue 2015
Uneasy Lies the Head…
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is in the eye of a storm yet again. The MQM’s tussle with the state and its alleged involvement in crime and terrorism finally led to the Karachi Operation against the party.
The March 11 raid at the MQM headquarters, Nine-Zero, was not something its first tier leadership had expected. Yes, MQM’s star activists were arrested from various parts of Karachi over the past several months. Yes, bodies of many of its “missing workers” were found with bullet holes and marks of severe torture. But the raid at the headquarters came as a bombshell for the MQM leadership and its rank and file.
Little wonder then that a couple of convicted killers, who were on the run, and many others allegedly involved in heinous crimes were arrested by the Rangers from Nine-Zero and its vicinity during the unexpected early morning raid.
MQM’s central leader Amir Khan was also among those who were arrested. Initially, a Rangers’ spokesman said that Amir Khan was being taken only for questioning, but he was later formally arrested and his remand taken for questioning. Amir Khan’s arrest, too, came as a shock for the MQM because this dissident leader of yore had long been rehabilitated and got clearance not just from the party, but apparently also from the establishment. Amir Khan was acquitted in all the past cases and no fresh ones have been registered against him since he rejoined the mainstream MQM in 2011, after parting ways with MQM’s Haqiqi faction.
But the raid on Nine-Zero and the arrest of key workers and central leader Amir Khan proved just the beginning of the Rangers’ planned push against the MQM. Some skeletons and ghosts from the past were also set free to torment the MQM and its supreme leader, Altaf Hussain.
Saulat Mirza, a MQM militant and death row convict, made sensational allegations against the party high-command in a recorded video which was released to the press hours before his scheduled hanging in the high-security Mach jail on March 19. The crux of Mirza’s message was that he and many others like him were used and then discarded by the party. He confessed to murdering KESC’s Managing Director, Shahid Hamid, at the behest of Altaf Hussain — a charge which has strongly been refuted by the party and the MQM leader himself.
Nevertheless, the damaging statement by Mirza opened up a Pandora’s Box of allegations against the MQM from all hues and shades of public opinion. Political rivals — especially Imran Khan and his PTI — and the mainstream and social media have all turned their guns on the MQM, which was once viewed as a sacred cow and beyond criticism because of the fear it aroused in the hearts and minds of supporters and opponents alike.
The MQM’s criticism of a death-row convict being allowed to record a statement which was then leaked to the media seems valid. The timing of Mirza’s video statement, the postponement of his execution at the last hour and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s advice to the president seeking a further delay — he has reportedly been given a month’s reprieve — underlines the political angle of the case and has generated an unnecessary controversy where ideally none should have existed.
The media-hype, the footage of arrested MQM officer bearers and activists and the discovery of a huge cache of arms and ammunition is reminiscent of past such operations against the MQM. However, as compared to the 1990s’ operation against the party, this time it is mainly its criminal or so-called ‘militant wing’ which is being targeted. The MQM’s mainstream leaders continue to enjoy political space, which was denied to them, especially during the 1992 operation.
“The aim is to defang the party… target criminals and terrorists,” contended a security official, requesting anonymity. “All those MQM parliamentarians, office bearers, leaders and workers who are clean have nothing to fear.”
The MQM finds itself on the ropes because of the increasing wave of public opinion against the nexus between politics and violence. Although the party has got some support from former president, Asif Ali Zardari and his PPP, there is an overwhelming tide of public opinion against it across the country.
In the battle to win over public opinion, the task of the MQM’s first tier leadership is made more difficult by Altaf Hussain, who often takes extreme positions during his lengthy speeches and interviews to various news channels.
One day his supporters find him slamming the military leadership, including the top bosses of the ISI; the very next day – sometimes barely after a few hours – he is seen retracting and apologising for his statements.
“The raid at Nine-Zero, the arrest and killing of workers, the continuing media trial and efforts to usurp the MQM’s mandate by artificially bolstering other forces, specially the PTI, has greatly disturbed Altaf Bhai,” confides a senior MQM leader. “I agree that he should not make any rash statements, but look at the circumstances… we are being targeted despite all our support for Operation Zarb-e-Azb and even the operation in Karachi.”
Hussain’s on-again, off-again criticism of, or support for, the military explains the MQM’s dilemma. A number of local front-line leaders of the party want good working relations with the military establishment and sincerely back its efforts against terrorism and religious extremism, but the presence of the militant wing in its own ranks and the perception that some leaders remain involved in anti-state and criminal activities creates distrust — for which the party is paying the price today.
Although Altaf Hussain remains firmly ensconced in the saddle, for the first time his rivals are publicly demanding that a new leadership take over the helm. MQM-watchers say that this will not be possible in the near to mid-term. And any effort to create an alternate leadership within the MQM or forcibly remove Hussain would only backfire and pose a bigger security challenge in the restive megacity of Karachi.
Therefore the operation in Karachi must be seen to be above board and target all the political players who support crime and terrorism in any way, including those in the ranks of the PPP, the ANP and various other religious and nationalist parties.
At the same time, political space must be provided to all leaders of these parties, including the MQM, who are relatively clean and not directly involved in running criminal and terror mafias.
The coming by-elections for NA-246 — the MQM stronghold and the symbolic seat of power due to the presence of the party headquarters there — must be free, fair, transparent and peaceful. The face-off between the MQM and PTI in this constituency on April 23 has more of a symbolic value and will, perhaps, be the most watched by-election in the country. Any attempt to artificially steal the seat from the MQM will damage the entire credibility of the operation.
For the MQM and its supreme boss, this is a moment of reckoning. Many of the party’s hardcore, militant members may feel betrayed and cheated and could even turn their guns on the moderate elements within the party, but this is the time for the MQM to sever its ties with them. It has the potential to play a positive role as a middle class and secular force in the country. But it will have to reinvent itself — a task which is perhaps easier said than done.