Altaf Hussain addresses a crowd at MQM’s first convention at Nishtar Park, Karachi, August 1986 — Courtesy Pictoral Biography of Altaf Hussain
Altaf Hussain addresses a crowd at MQM’s first convention at Nishtar Park, Karachi, August 1986 — Courtesy Pictoral Biography of Altaf Hussain

Manzil unhey milee jo shareek-e-safar na thay (Those who reached the destination were not even part of the original journey). – Mohsin Bhopali, Urdu poet

Many years ago, a community crossed a hastily drawn border and learnt to call a new country home. The community was the chief proponent of the idea of that country, and so, although its numbers were relatively few, it formed a large part of the country’s ruling elite. Whether it considered itself a community at the time, in the strictest sense of the word, is unclear: millions of people migrated at Partition, but the term ‘Mohajir’ now has a very specific meaning. What we do know is this: Within the span of a generation, the community credited as the chief architect of the nation became its most vocal ‘victim’.

Many reasons are given for the subsequent mobilisation of the Urdu-speaking community and the rise of the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM): it was predicated on a demand for greater jobs in the state apparatus, including the civil bureaucracy and the military; it was an organic awakening of identity consciousness; it was an inevitable outcome of Pakistan’s unstable politics, driven in some part by the fact that the political elite comprised refugees.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that the pendulum swung the other way, perhaps too far the other way, and the Mohajirs – specifically the migrants from Muslim minority states and provinces in India – emerged as a ‘fifth nationality’ in Pakistan. Suddenly it was August 8, 1986, and Nishtar Park was a blur of bodies in thrall to the voice of a single man: Altaf Hussain. Later, the crowds swelled even further and Hussain, still a young man in his thirties, demonstrated just what he could do.

Main teen tak ginoon ga (I will count up to three), he roared at a rally held under the shadow of Quaid-e-Azam’s mausoleum in 1989. Uss ke baad aap sab bilkul khamosh ho jaayengey (After that everyone of you will become silent).

A quarter of a century later, and now from thousands of miles away, Hussain can still make Karachi fall silent whenever he wants.

Humein manzil nahin rehnuma chahiye (We don’t need the destination but the leader)

The lanes of Azizabad are cluttered, not congested, but you can imagine how they might prove unwelcoming to a vehicle of some heft. In 1989, so the story goes, then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s big black limousine got stuck in its narrow alleys, unwittingly illustrating the accusation most frequently tossed at her party, that it was comprised solely of elites. It was a particularly bad day for Bhutto, it seems: her coalition government was teetering towards collapse and the trip to Hussain’s home, by then the undeniable centre of politics in the city, was a last-ditch attempt to smooth out differences. It worked — a new agreement was signed. But a few months later, the MQM threw in the towel and joined the opposition.

Altaf Hussain welcomes Benazir Bhutto to the MQM headquarters in 1988 — Courtesy A Pictorial Biography of Altaf Hussain
Altaf Hussain welcomes Benazir Bhutto to the MQM headquarters in 1988 — Courtesy A Pictorial Biography of Altaf Hussain

Naturally then, there is no photograph of this meeting on the walls of Khursheed Memorial Hall, the custom-built headquarters of the party. You’ll find many other photographs there though, a veritable ode to the life of the party leader: Hussain as a pensive-looking child, as a young man astride his iconic Honda 50 motorcycle, meeting an array of local politicians and foreign dignitaries in the small sitting room of his modest home, the original Nine Zero located a stone’s throw away from the secretariat building. “People seem to think ‘Nine Zero’ is some sort of furtive code,” complains a party leader. “But its only really just the last two digits of the residential landline phone there.”

Although it was the birthplace of the party – Ahmed Saleem Siddiqi, a party veteran, recalls the early days of the MQM when more than a dozen young men would squeeze themselves into the front room of the house, often spilling out on to the street outside – Nine Zero was never really its official headquarters. That was Eight Nine, a small set of rooms in an apartment building in Liaqatabad, which were taken over by members of the breakaway Haqiqi faction at the start of the military operation against the MQM in June 1992. The only thing that could hastily be retrieved from that office was a fax machine, according to Haider Abbas Rizvi, a senior MQM leader. At the time, the government lacked the technology to track correspondence via fax so the machine became the party’s ‘virtual hub’, moving from one secret location to another through members in hiding. The codename for the machine was ‘Ilu Centre’, he says, after a Bollywood song popular at the time.

But while the official party office was closed down – and it is curious that for a party so attached to nostalgia and the notion of lost glory, the MQM has not attempted to regain control of Eight Nine – Nine Zero was kept open, if only for symbolic reasons, by women and men too old to be targeted by security forces. Some of them are still the gatekeepers of the house; according to Rizvi, they only became MQM supporters after their sons were targeted in the operation.

Hussain had left for London by the time Operation Clean-Up commenced in Karachi. But it seems that his absence only added to the importance of his house and headquarters – particularly for a community whose political narrative is weaved around the idea of loss. Indeed, a visit to Nine Zero can feel a bit like a pilgrimage: a trip to the house of an entity who isn’t physically present, but whose imprint is visible everywhere. Apart from the photos lining the walls of the secretariat and Hussain’s portraits in all nooks of the neighbourhood, there are framed quotations dispensing advice on the nature of power: Baghair aqal-o-shaoor aur fehem-o-farast ke taaqat ke istemaal kay nataaij humesha manfi nikaltey hain (Using force without using wisdom and knowledge always produces negative results), reads one; Taaqat ko khuda ka ati’a samajh magar uss taaqat ko haasil kar kay khud ko khuda na samjho (Treat power as a gift of God but don’t try to become God after acquiring power), says another. Intriguingly, there is no graffiti, no demands for a rehnuma (leader) within Azizabad, like the one you spot almost everywhere else in Karachi.

Writing in the Herald in October 1987, Arif Hasan noted that the unrest in Sindh was because the “old order had changed” and consequently, so had its terminology. A young person is not a tabaydar (obedient follower) except sarcastically, he wrote; he has no mai baap (masters of his destiny), he is not a masahib (companion) nor a mureed (devotee) and he has no pir (spiritual guru). He addresses his leadership as bhai (big brother) and chacha (uncle) rather than sahib, janab, huzoor and saeen. Thus the battle lines were drawn. But yet somewhere down the line, the MQM – a harbinger of this changed order – appropriated the terminology of the old. Hussain is sometimes referred to as ‘pir’ and even if it can be argued that the word is employed defiantly, or perhaps ironically, there is no denying the reverential status he enjoys: some of his followers believe that he has healing powers; others see his imprints in leaves. One photograph displayed at Khursheed Memorial depicts him lying on a bed with pigeons perched on his person instead of “flying away after release.”

Birds perched on a weakened Hussain during his six-day hunger strike in 1990 — Courtesy A Pictorial Biography of Altaf Hussain
Birds perched on a weakened Hussain during his six-day hunger strike in 1990 — Courtesy A Pictorial Biography of Altaf Hussain

There is a story behind this photograph. In April 1990, shortly after he left the Bhutto government and joined the opposition, Hussain announced a fast unto death to protest “state terrorism”. Twenty young men reportedly fainted upon hearing the announcement (a worker said that when Hussain was recently arrested in London on June 3, he too saw a dozen young men collapse to the ground). Another hundred decided to join the fast, spending their nights in tents outside Nine Zero; others travelled from outside Karachi to persuade Hussain to give up his fast. Hussain gave speeches from inside his house, which were broadcast to the people outside. Only women and children were allowed to visit him inside, and they would come outside and report that he looked pale and unshaven. Women read the Quran and men beat their chests, a direct reference to Karbala and Muharram mourning, which was also referenced in Hussain’s speeches. He ended the hunger strike within six days, without the government meeting any of his demands, but the move appeared to have been a political success, insofar as it strengthened his links to his party workers. The more Hussain appears to pull away, the more his esteem grows in the eyes of his followers.

Zahida Begum was one of the workers who kept Nine Zero open during the 1990s. She recalls dragging the phone outside the house and sitting in a group under the neem tree listening to Hussain’s phone calls from London. “He’d tell us to leave if we were scared, that the party was all about give, give, give, that there was nothing there for us to take.” She told him then that she wasn’t going anywhere — but she admits now that there were times she was scared. There were times when she had to drive the HiLux that Altaf Hussain used to own (the Honda 50 was by now a relic of the past) because there were no men to do the driving, she says. “I froze, I couldn’t open the door,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine driving the car that belonged to my Quaid, sitting in his seat.” Even now, at Nine Zero, she says she can’t bear to sit on the sofa where Hussain would normally sit.

Sometime during the 1990s, she says, her husband got fed up of her political activities and told her to bring them to an end. She left him instead.

Dukhi dilon ka chaaragar, ghamzadon ka humnawa, Jhuka nahin, bika nahin, Altaf azeem rehnuma (The healer of the aggrieved, the leader of the bereved He didn’t bend, he could not be bought, Altaf the great leader)

The neighbourhood street outside Nine Zero is referred to as Quaid’s Avenue (the Quaid here referes to Hussain). The nearby landmarks are all tributes to (Mohajir) leaders of the Pakistan Movement: Jinnah Ground, Mukka Chowk. Quaid’s Avenue appears to always be brimming with activity: sometimes there is a small rally, sometimes there is filming taking place, sometimes young kids are playing cricket on the street. The children’s games damaged some trees recently, a party worker says, and they were duly scolded. But when Hussain found out, he scolded those who had scolded the children. “He said if the trees or bushes were damaged, we should plant some more. If they were damaged again, we should plant them again. But no one can scold the kids.”

The neighbourhood street outside Nine Zero is referred to as Quaid’s Avenue (the Quaid here referes to Hussain).

Khursheed Memorial Hall, which houses the party secretariat, is located smack in the middle of an Imambargah and an Ahmadi mosque. At a recent rally celebrating the 36th anniversary of the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation, the front runner of the MQM, Hussain referred to Ahmadis as ‘Ahmadi bhai’ – political suicidal for any other leader today – and broke off in the middle of his speech to pay tribute to transgenders. Women figured prominently in the rally celebrations – they were present in the audience and on stage. Towards the end, as fireworks lit up the sky, party workers did the bhangra to an MQM anthem set to the tune of a popular Seraiki song. Many observers find it difficult to square this image of a secular, pan-ethnic party (which is the image that the party largely sells to outside powers such as the US and the UK) with the darker side of the party’s history, especially the militarised politics of its earlier years, which still occasionally rears its head.

Apnay markaz se agar nikal jao gey, khwaab ho jao gey, afsaano mein dhal jao gey (If you get away from your centre, you will disappear from the world of reality)

Over a thousand workers from outside of Azizabad come to Nine Zero everyday, a large part of them volunteers. “Those who help us out with chores, we call them ‘muawwan’ saathi,” says a party worker. Nine Zero appears to actively cultivate a neighbourhood feel, in large part because it is a mohalla (albeit heavily guarded) more than a conventional party office complex, but also because of the nature of the organisation, with its emphasis on brotherhood and fraternity. It is one factor in attracting young people to Hussain’s cause even today, and in taking the oath of placing blind trust in him, without ever having met him in person. Young people feel as if they are part of a greater movement, linked somewhat to identity consciousness, but also to something broader than that. One young party worker relates how overwhelmed he was when a sitting member of the provincial assembly from the MQM offered him a ride home on his scooter. Another narrates having heard that, when Hussain was still around, he would cook meals for party workers every day.

Since the late 1990s, the party has also actively tried to cultivate a more mainstream image of itself (officially changing its name from Mohajir to Muttahida being one manifestation of this), and even though this has only been partially successful (speak to an MQM worker and the ‘we’ he refers to will almost always implicitly refer to the Mohajir community), it is visible to some extent in Azizabad. Hussain chose Nabeel Gabol, an ethnic Baloch, to contest elections from Azizabad, for instance.

But when the party is structured in a strictly hierarchical manner, to what extent can brotherhood be organic, and to what extent is a rigid system of ‘control’ the means to implementing a spirit of fraternity?

Answers to these questions will determine whether Nine Zero can retain its pull as a centre of gravity for Mohajir politics in the years to come.

This story was originally published in Herald magazine's July 2014 issue



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