Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


View from US: Altaf bhai in Clifton


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Altaf Hussain’s Teen Talwar address by now gone viral for the veiled threats it contained reminds me of another day, another year. It was the summer of 1986. Dictator Ziaul Haq was still in the saddle. Clifton Road in Karachi witnessed two defining moments that will go down in history as catalysts of change. Two young advocates for egalitarianism arrived on the scene within a month of each other. Their single message was to challenge Zia’s status quo. The first to land was Benazir Bhutto from a long exile in London. It was the month of May and Karachi was on fire. The heat, notwithstanding we awaited her arrival. Evening papers, including the defunct Star, sister publication of Dawn brought out a whole supplement on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter that sold out within a couple of hours.

Benazir was to drive past Teen Talwar (erected by her father) to reach her family home at 70 Clifton. Police and para-military had already taken up positions to prevent the snowballing of her procession as her cavalcade came down the Clifton Bridge. I didn’t even need to step out of my apartment located bang on Clifton road to catch a glimpse of Ms Bhutto as she would drive past. No such luck. Minutes before her drive through, the air thickened with noxious clouds of tear gas. It even entered our homes. Crowds who had lined the road took shelter, only to regroup and defy the tear gas attacks one after another. Word soon spread that Benazir had changed her route and was now headed towards Kakri Ground (if I remember correctly) where she would address a public meeting. We quickly hopped into our cars and tried reaching the venue only to be stopped and turned away but not before being told gruffly by angry uncouth security men to stop taking photos and get lost.

A month later we again gathered to greet Altaf bhai on Clifton Road near Teen Talwar. As founder of the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM), he was the man of the moment. His powerful oratory, political gravitas, libertarian approach presented a heady mix of mojo and homogeneity that appealed to the elites of Clifton and Defence fed up with Zia’s militarisation.

Relatives and friends, especially women, encouraged each other to join the MQM. Remember emails, mobile phones or the social media had yet to be born. But the phone landline was a handy tool of mass communication. “He’s coming this evening at seven,” phoned a hyperactive cousin-in-law who had already become a card-carrying member of MQM. “Make sure you and your whole family are there”, she urged, adding, “Tell all your friends he’s coming”! He came and he came on time! Preceding his simple arrival without a band baja, thank God! There were young boys and girls distributing their party’s literature, flags and even boxes of mithai! Everything worked like a breeze — we were told where to park, where to stand and what to expect by polite and helpful ushers. We were even told when the event would end.

I was eager to have a close glimpse of Altaf bhai. “I think I caught his eye,” I told everyone around. “He even smiled at me.” No, said the others. ‘He was looking our way and when he spoke, he directly addressed us’. While jostling for his attention, we were at the same time just having a good time. It was festive. There was music. The cool sea breeze fanned our overheated spirits and soothed our frenzied excitement. He was standing in an open car with a mike in his hand. He looked young, energetic and full of hope. A rock star. He spoke in chaste Urdu with fire in his belly. His voice was powerful yet euphonious. We were mesmerised and won over that evening by MQM’s political ideology.

Two years later Nature intervened. Dictator Zia along with his top military generals perished in an air crash. Karachi came alive once more when the election fever reached its height. On a balmy November day in 1988, Benazir’s PPP won the general elections. The establishment was not too thrilled. It tried to prevent her from taking the oath of prime minister. But the nation was on her side. Resplendent in a green silk shalwar kameez with her mother and husband beside her, the triumphant 35-year-old Benazir became the first woman prime minister in the Muslim world.

Her first words on arrival at the PM secretariat in Islamabad were:

We gather together to celebrate freedom, to celebrate democracy, to celebrate the three most beautiful words in the English language: “We the people”.

As the elected prime minister, her first stop was at Nine-Zero in Karachi where she went to call on Altaf Hussain with an invitation to form a coalition government. The MQM had emerged as the leading party in Karachi. The partnership ended with Benazir Bhutto getting the sack in October 1990.

Enter Nawaz Sharif as her successor. During his tenure the MQM’s militant wing was accused of torture, extortion and death of many in Karachi. Daily there were horrific details of how mutilated bodies packed in gunny bags were discovered. Corpses with their bones drilled and shattered were a common torture tool by murderers wanting to spread a wave of terror in Karachi. Altaf bhai vehemently denied the serious terrorism charges his party was accused of. But with rumours of a military action against the MQM, the founder quietly slipped out of the country on the night of December 21, 1991.

Fate had opened magic casements for Benazir Bhutto and Altaf Hussain. They were the face of triumphalism against the evil forces of dictatorship. They were to be the messiahs who were to lead the masses towards the road to freedom, progress and prosperity. With a swagger of youth, they were to re-energise a demoralised nation and make Pakistan join the comity of civilised countries where justice, equality and development were at a premium.

Today, 27 years later, the two young cataclysmic figures who came to Clifton and left us with a bagful of hope and promise are gone, one from this world, and the other from this country perhaps never to return.

Karachi is the unfortunate city once of lights where darkness prevails, murder stalks the streets, ethnic and sectarian violence casts its deadly shadows and the Taliban call the shots. Election 2013 was meant to stall the decline and stop the heavy toll of deaths. Instead, the same faces that brought ruin are back in the saddle. Even the aging Sindh chief minister who helplessly sat by and watched people killed like flies has earned another five years in the same job. Altaf bhai’s party is doing what it has done since he left 21 years ago — fighting terrorism charges.

Comments (28) Closed

Jalaluddin S. Hussain Jun 09, 2013 07:34pm
It is a case of half glass full. Some of the political actors may be tested hands but the political power this time rest with the frustrated masses who have seen it all in the last 65 years. Let the new leaders PERFORM within the proverbial 100 days! If not they will be shown the door by forces which we might not even recognize - they will have blood in their eyes and their faces fully covered!
Muhammad Ahmed Mufti Jun 10, 2013 07:44pm
Let's call a spade a spade. Rural Sindh has neither accepted Mohajirs as Sindhis nor do they seem to be poised to accept them as equal citizens of the province in foreseeable future. Sindhis are not even willing to allow town governments in Karachi or any other urban center. The underlying motive is to deny Mohajirs any sense of citizenship in Karachi or Sindh. So MQM or no MQM, in current setup the future of Mohajirs seems to be doomed. The alternate to this setup is the division of Sindh and that will create a Balkan like situation in Pakistan. Hence there is no short term solution to Mohajir misery. In long term Mohajirs should join mainstream parties like PTI and get themselves educated.
Raja Islam Jun 10, 2013 07:47pm
There is no comparision between Benazir and Altaf. One being an educated upper class aristocrat and the other a student leader who still behaves like one. MQM continues to fight criminal charges because it has indulged in all kinds of crime and still continues to do so. Try writing against it and see what happens. For those of us who live in Karachi, crime threats and intimidation are a harsh reality and it is hard to speak the truth and survive.
Em Moosa Jun 10, 2013 01:58pm
Do you personally know him?
anony Jun 10, 2013 02:07pm
And where'd you get that information from, mr ajay.
Mustafa Razavi Jun 09, 2013 05:24pm
Benazir was egalitarian?, egalitarian comes from the word "equal". The whole point of being a Wadera in not to be equal to a Hari. I think our feudal system is next only to Indian caste system in being a counter thesis to egalitarianism.
Logic Jun 10, 2013 10:44am
@Em Moosa: I'm sorry just because Pakistani's opinion differs from yours, you accuse him of hatred to the core of taassub. How do you know that that is the reason. Do you personally know him??? Could his opinion not be for any other reason for example...lets say him telling the truth???
Zack Jun 10, 2013 06:08pm
Em Moosa your logic makes no sense here!
Karachi Wala Jun 10, 2013 06:15pm
I think you have a point here....Ajay.
Raja Islam Jun 10, 2013 07:49pm
That is entirely a fact. The hordes who came in from India pushed out the indigeneous population and brought with them crime, corruption and violence.
Em Moosa Jun 10, 2013 03:58am
Same old hatred to the core of taassub which never gave the country any thing positive and will never in future.
SBB Jun 10, 2013 01:13am
You mean just like it was snatched from the Sindhis by those who gave great "sacrifices" for Pakistan?
K.K. Fakhta Jun 09, 2013 01:41pm
Thank you for a nice recount of factual events. I would have just added a few more words at the start about how Karachi first descended in to this violence and a few words at the end as advice to Imran Khan and his attempt at mesmerizing Karachi. I try to do so below. It is unreasonable to say that MQM wins Karachi due only to violent techniques. The reason why they win Sindh is that no other political party offers the Urdu speaking Karachi Voter a choice. MQM was formed as a defense against the terrorism first initiated by Mr. Gauhar Ayub after the electoral defeat of Fatima Jinnah against Ayub Khan when he headed processions of truck loads of armed Pathans in the poorest areas of Karachi which were at that time completely disarmed. This behavior continued in the 70
BRR Jun 09, 2013 03:22pm
This is what happens with political parties where there is a cult-like following, and the messiah has absolute control over it and treats it as his / her fiefdom. People in Karachi and Sindh had better get over hero worship and graduate into participatory politics where several other leaders are encouraged to make their presence felt in the political parties with opportunities to represent several different voices - not likely to happen in next 50 years.
ajay Jun 10, 2013 09:07am
Muslims of the subcontinent who are mostly hindu converts them selves....bulk being so called you cannot differentiate...mate
IBN-E-ASHFAQUE Jun 10, 2013 09:12am
A leopard does not change its spots. Imran Khan is not biased towards karachites.
Bahi Jun 09, 2013 11:31pm
How come Karachi, once Paris of East is so hopeless that they have to look thousands of miles away for directions. Why can't that beautiful city produce a leader who represents the entire Karachi, not just one group. Where is that leader? Please come forward, your city is calling you.
alp Jun 09, 2013 12:02pm
got it
fida sayani Jun 09, 2013 02:36pm
My Beautiful Karachi of pre-partition is debauched by the hordes from rest of south Asian sub-continent. As a result the good citizens of Karachi, the Hindus, Zoroastrian's and Christian have fled from Karachi.
Raja Jun 09, 2013 11:15pm
He has terrorized people of Pakistan in past, continue to do in present and will continue to do in future. That's the fact ...
hashmi Jun 09, 2013 02:37pm
Do not go on propaganda try to under stand how violence and terrorism came to the country .There is no fun in quoting half sentences of any speeches and raising furor on it .
RF Jun 09, 2013 01:39pm
I can relate to your feelings, having seen that atmosphere in the late 80s, of hope and triumph, both in Clifton and District Central, given so strongly by the educated, energetic, and progressive MQM. It is painful to see how things turned up. Mustafa Kamal's small patch of a few years, did bring back some nostalgia and made many think that maybe, and just maybe, things will find the passage that was lost in 1992. But I like many others in Karachi continue to hope and lend my support to the party. One has to believe.
aslam minhas Jun 09, 2013 07:53am
Ethnic and linguistic politic is never lasting. Charisma of a leader does count. Compare Benazir wih Zardari and Altaf with Imran. Please do read Mr. Shaheen Sehbai's column in 'Jang' that he wrote in praise of MQM on the bidding of a party leader!
Najamuddin Jun 10, 2013 10:02pm
The founders of Pakistan had won their Country from British after long peaceful and democratic freedom movement through dialogues and struggle. Like founder fathers of India and USA had also won their freedom from same British Rule. But none of the Indian or USA Rulers or political leaders took refuge by establishing their safe havens on the soil of same British Empire except the Pakistani Rulers and Political Leaders. This draws a clear difference between the patriotism and integrity of both the groups?
pakiboy Jun 09, 2013 07:08am
not a bad one m8 .. but MQM is here .. hope is here .. only we have to reach above the bias we have over each other ... karachi is always a golden egg for pakistan .. and everyone is trying to snatch it ..
Ayyaz Jun 09, 2013 07:11am
With only hidden hands responsible for de-peacing Karachi, I wonder if there is a Dark Knight to rescue the city !
alhah wasaaiee Jun 09, 2013 01:33pm
I had expected a little more from teh author; this is a very politically naive 'socialite' type article
Paksitani Jun 09, 2013 10:40am
Altaf has no charisma rather he has shown his ugly inner by threatening the innocent. This article is useless at the least.