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View from US: Altaf bhai in Clifton

June 09, 2013

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.