GEO TV generally has little difficulty recruiting staff. And yet there was one vacancy recently that it could not fill. The channel wanted a look-alike for a popular satirical show in which actors play the parts of leading politicians. It was a job offering instant stardom and good money. And not a single person in Karachi was willing to do it.
The man Geo TV sought to satirise was Altaf Hussain, the leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). And the reason no one applied was the fear that if Altaf Hussain were not amused by the performance, the actor playing him would be murdered.
Anxiety about the MQM is not restricted to Pakistan. One member of the British House of Lords who has been openly critical of the party recently said: “If I went to Karachi now I would be killed.” Another peer has similar worries: “This is one issue I don’t ask questions on. I have my child to worry about.”
The man who has everyone looking over his or her shoulder does not even live in Karachi. For more than 20 years, Altaf Hussain has operated from the north London suburb of Edgware, beyond the reach of Pakistani prosecutors. He is almost completely unknown in the UK: his four-million-plus devoted supporters live thousands of miles away.
It’s difficult to know how many murder cases have been registered against Altaf Hussain, but perhaps the most authoritative number was released in 2007 when the then president, retired General Pervez Musharraf, implemented his National Reconciliation Order, granting most of the senior politicians an amnesty. One of the biggest beneficiaries was the Muttahida chief, against whom 72 cases were dropped, including 31 allegations of murder. The MQM rejects all the murder charges lodged against Mr Hussain.
When Pakistan was created in 1947 it had a population of 70 million. As well as the Bengalis in then East Pakistan, there were four main indigenous groups: the Sindhis, the Baloch, the Pakhtuns and the Punjabis. Partition brought a new element: Muslims who migrated from India. They were called the Muhajirs and most settled in Karachi, which was then the country’s capital. This is the group represented by the Muhajir Qaumi Movement or, as it’s now named, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
At first the Muhajirs fared well. As many had spearheaded the Pakistan movement, they slipped naturally into leadership positions. But their disproportionate influence could never last. By the 70s a political backlash, especially from Punjabis and Sindhis, was in full swing and many Muhajirs found themselves unable to secure jobs or even places in schools and universities. For a group that thought it had the right to govern, it came as a heavy blow. And the first man to exploit the Muhajirs’ sense of grievance was Altaf Hussain.
In 1988 MQM candidates broke through, and suddenly the party was the third largest in the National Assembly and has dominated Karachi’s politics ever since. Mr Hussain has periodically flirted with demands for some kind of territorial settlement: “When everyone else had a province,” he said in March 1984, “we said the Muhajirs should have one too.”
But for the most part he has accepted that such a demand is plainly unacceptable to the rest of Pakistan and has restricted himself to demands for greater Muhajir rights within the existing national framework.
The MQM’s most vocal critic today is cricketer-turned-playboy-turned-Islamist-politician Imran Khan. In 2007, portraying himself as the man who dared to confront even the most entrenched political interests, Imran Khan paid a visit to London’s Metropolitan police to hand over, he claimed, evidence of Mr Hussain’s wrongdoing. Apparently unimpressed with the quality of that evidence, the police did not bring any charges and Mr Khan let the issue drop.
But in May this year when one of his best-known party activists in Karachi, Zahra Shahid Hussain, was shot down outside her home, Imran Khan openly accused the MQM of her murder. Thousands of his social media-savvy supporters were encouraged to complain to the British police. More than 12,000 did so and the police responded by formally investigating Altaf Hussain’s London activities.
There are a number of strands to the Met’s inquiries. First there is the issue of whether the MQM leader is using his London base to incite violence in Pakistan. In assessing that, the police have a huge amount of material to sift through, much of it online. At his birthday party in 2009, for example, he regaled his guests with a remark aimed at Pakistan’s rich landowners and businessmen: “You’ve made big allegations against the MQM. If you make those allegations to my face one more time you’ll be taking down your measurements and we’ll prepare your body bags.”
Because he is in London, Mr Hussain addresses rallies in Karachi over the telephone. Crowds gather to listen to his voice through loudspeakers. In one such speech he had this message for TV anchors: “If you don’t stop the lies and false allegations that damage our party’s reputation, then don’t blame me, Altaf Hussain, or the MQM if you get killed by any of my millions of supporters.”
Most of his threats have been aimed at people in Pakistan, but at least one was directed at a UK journalist, Azhar Javaid, who asked a question once too often. At a press conference in September 2011 Mr Hussain warned Mr Javaid that his “body bag was ready”.
Addressing those whom he accused of denying the Muhajirs their rights, in December last year, Altaf Hussain ranted: “If your father won’t give us freedom just listen to this sentence carefully: then we will tear open your father’s abdomen. To get our freedom we will not only tear it out of your father’s abdomen but yours as well.”
Partly because of the difficulty of establishing unchallengeable translations of Hussain's words, it might be months before the police decide whether to recommend a prosecution. In the meantime there is talk of a private prosecution. George Galloway, an MP and a long-time MQM critic, recently set up a fund to pay the legal fees of such an initiative.