Politics and exile: The story of Altaf Hussain

Updated 11 Jun 2019


Billboards of Muttahida Qaumi Movement leader Altaf Hussain. — MQM.org
Billboards of Muttahida Qaumi Movement leader Altaf Hussain. — MQM.org

Politics and exile: The story of Altaf Hussain

Altaf Hussain is the founder and chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Previously known as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, Hussain’s party started off as a political group with the aim of representing the Urdu-speaking community which had migrated to Pakistan due to Partition. Hussain currently lives in London where he has been in self-exile for the past 20 years.

Hussain was born on September 17, 1953 in Karachi. He obtained his early education at a public school in Karachi’s Azizabad neighbourhood, a middle-class locality in Karachi where the MQM chief spent his early years and his youth. He later enrolled at the University of Karachi to study Pharmacy and graduated from the program in 1979.

Hussain’s political career began during his student years in KU when he and Azeem Ahmed Tariq founded the All-Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO).

Formed in 1978, APMSO gained a massive following within a short period of time.

And although it did not perform well in KU’s 1980 student union election, APMSO managed to double the number of its votes with its inclusion in the anti-Zia United Students Movement (USM) during the 1981 union election.

In 1984, key APMSO leaders launched the Mohajir Qaumi Movement – a political party that was to serve as student organisation’s senior partner. The party was publicly launched by Hussain in Karachi’s Nishtar Park in 1986. Ethnic strife and continual bouts of urban conflicts were nearing a climax at the time and MQM quickly gained recognition with a good number of supporters in Karachi and parts of lower Sindh.

Under Hussain’s leadership, MQM swept the 1988 election in Sindh’s urban areas, emerging as the third largest party. It entered into a cooperation agreement with Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), enabling it to become part of the government. However, differences developed between the parties and in 1989 the alliance fell apart.

In the 1990 election, MQM again emerged as the third largest party forming an alliance and a coalition government with Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), the leading party at the time. The coalition partners had a falling out in 1992.

Both PPP- and PML-N-led coalition governments tottered on the edge of collapse, after Hussain and his party withdrew from the coalitions.

Hussain’s party boycotted the 1993 National Assembly election but won a considerable number of seats in the Sindh Assembly election, proving MQM to be a powerful political party in Karachi.

In 1997, MQM changed its name from Mohajir Qaumi Movement to Muttahida Qaumi Movement in order to develop from a party representing a single community to one that could play a greater role in national politics.

Hussain is a highly charismatic leader who attracts the unwavering support of his backers. This may be among the reasons that make MQM a tightly-knit, cadre-based group.

In the early 1990s, the MQM chief went into exile as the government at the time conducted an operation in Karachi. The operation, said to be directed against “terrorist” and “criminal” elements in Karachi, resulted in effectively becoming action against MQM and with it Karachi was caught in the middle of a war involving law enforcement agencies and political parties. Hussain’s elder brother Nasir Hussain and nephew Arif Hussain were also killed during this period of violence.

The MQM has been accused of using violent tactics to attain and retain political power. On the contrary, Hussain has said that the state and other political parties have targeted MQM and its workers ever since its formation.

In 2009, it became a part of the ruling alliance in the centre and MQM leaders Dr Farooq Sattar and Babar Khan Ghouri were inducted in the federal cabinet.

Viewed as the man who controls Karachi from London, Hussain came under fire last year in May 2013 for his televised speech across Pakistan where he allegedly demanded the separation of Karachi from the rest of Pakistan if the public mandate of his party was not acceptable to the 'establishment.' Hussain's party later clarified saying it was taken out of context.

On April 22, 2014 the MQM joined the PPP-led government in Sindh. The party received slots of two ministers, two advisors and a special assistant after joining the government.