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The Kamal challenge

Updated March 19, 2016

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The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Is Mustafa Kamal’s open challenge to MQM leader Altaf Hussain a repeat of the 1992 formation of the Haqiqi faction and will it meet the same fate is a question many political commentators have been trying to answer for more than a week now.

There are similarities no doubt as in essence both were rebellions. There are many dissimilarities too the foremost being that in 1992 Altaf Hussain was present at Nine Zero in Karachi and his stranglehold over the party’s rank and file was complete.

One could argue that the loss of Afaq Ahmad who, till then, used to run the enforcement arm of the party was far more debilitating. However, within a matter of weeks then senior leader Saleem Shahzad (who too is currently out of favour with the leadership) reportedly recruited and trained a force of highly motivated young men, said to be mostly teenagers from Orangi numbering around 300, to take on the dissidents.

Soon, Afaq was besieged in his Landhi stronghold. A journalist who rode in a police armoured vehicle into the area gave a vivid description of the noise when dozens of bullets rained on the vehicle as it came under fire by Altaf loyalists shooting from multiple directions near Afaq’s headquarters, the ‘White House’.

Editorial: MQM in flux

A little later, I also remember leaving The News office one day, where I worked then as a reporter, when a colleague stopped me on the pavement outside and introduced a well-built moustached man of medium height as Afaq Ahmad.

Believe me, for the 10 minutes we stood chatting and discussing the city’s politics I remained quite tense, fearing a hit squad of the people Afaq Ahmad had challenged would try to take him out, and us in the process, as he had exposed himself on the street totally unarmed.

Afaq Ahmad is known to have had the support of the military’s intelligence agencies as also that of the paramilitary Rangers. Thus, he managed to survive the onslaught on his stronghold and was also able to hit back at Altaf loyalists in areas under his control.

But, at no point, did this translate into political support as subsequent elections demonstrated in even his strongholds of Landhi, Korangi and Lines Area. The Altaf-led MQM was soon able to create alternative structures to replace the loss of the Afaq-led militant wing and establish its physical domination once again. This was consolidated during the carte blanche the party got during the Musharraf years.


To anyone who follows Karachi’s politics it is clear that Mustafa Kamal & Co do not pose a serious threat to Altaf Hussain.


Now let’s look at the challenge of Mustafa Kamal & Co. They demonstrably did not return to stake a claim to the city riding the Rangers APCs (armoured personnel carriers) but the fact that MQM insider Anis Kaimkhani is backing the former mayor indicates that the dissidents have muscle on their side too.

The first few days after the duo’s announcement have seen some known MQM faces joining them and if this were to continue party leader Altaf Hussain, or those who run the party from London on his behalf, will have a serious headache.

One factor that needs attention is Mustafa Kamal’s call that an amnesty be considered for the party activists who are in custody or whose arrest is being sought by the authorities. Side by side with reports (though entirely speculative in nature as we speak) that some key members of the former Karachi Tanzeemi Committee are also likely to join, that makes for interesting reading.

It was only last year when Karachi Tanzeemi Committee-backed militants had taken on the armed wing of the party loyal to Altaf Hussain. It seemed to have lost ground and disappeared from the scene. Nonetheless the challenge in itself was significant and seen as the direct consequence of running the party by remote from London.

Some say people like Hammad Siddiqui of the former KTC are currently in Dubai and poised to return. This despite Siddiqui being cited in the so-called JIT of the Baldia Town garment factory fire where it was alleged that the incident was the result of arson after attempts at extortion failed.

Given that the Rangers seemed to have defanged the militant wing of the party and neutralised it how would an attempt to rope in former militants make any sense? Well, the only scenario in which it would make sense is if the exercise at creating or engineering a new leadership to take over from the current MQM top guns is different from such exercises in the past.

Who knows if the national security architects are trying to apply the same argument that they seem to be applying to Lashkar-e-Taiba and certain similar organisations: encouraging them to morph from their terrorist ethos into more acceptable democratic entities. Experts call it mainstreaming.

While the evidence of any success of this mainstreaming project is hard to come by, what has happened in the case of the religious-based militant parties is that while some of their leaders may agree to be mainstreamed after appeals to their patriotism, their rank and file doesn’t readily abandon the path of jihad as they see it.

The effect of mainstreaming on more secular yet equally tightly run militant cadres is an experiment whose results at least I will keenly await if it is actually being attempted. It would make an interesting case study.

To anyone who follows Karachi’s politics it should be clear that Mustafa Kamal & Co do not pose a serious threat to Altaf Hussain as no matter how accurate their charges may be against their former leader, the multitudes in urban Sindh won’t believe them.

So I suppose the success of Project Mustafa Kamal has to be predicated on the removal from scene, whether on health grounds or because of legal reasons, of Altaf Hussain. If that condition is not met the challenge will fizzle out soon.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2016