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The making of Farooq Sattar

Updated November 19, 2017

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Photos by White Star
Photos by White Star

In one go, Dr Farooq Sattar took out three adversaries: Mustafa Kamal, exposing him as a tantruming political toddler; the ‘establishment’, which wanted two parties merged; and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Altaf (MQM-A), whose Rabita Committee was easily outmanoeuvred simply because it doesn’t exist on the ground.

Or at least that’s the (intended) perception of what occurred within 24 hours between November 8 and November 9.

Pir Ilahi Bux (PIB) Colony has been home to many actors of yesteryear. And on November 9, it provided a stage for another riveting performance. It came from a man who had spent a year leading the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) without ever appearing to be its quaid. It has taken more than a year for the MQM-P to have Dr Farooq Sattar acknowledged as a “leader” and it came as a result of an inadvertent opportunity. Even more ironically, it arose from what was initially taken as a flip-flop.

Sattar’s “decision” to enter into an alliance with the Mustafa Kamal-led Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) on November 8 drew great ire from the rank and file of the MQM-P. Many see Kamal as an identity traitor — Altaf Hussain is one thing and the Mohajir identity an altogether different thing. Kamal was disowning both, arguing that the Mohajir identity needed to be consigned to the bin. Altaf Hussain or not, an attack on the Mohajir identity has never been tolerated in the MQM. Irrespective of strategy and wishes, the alliance would not have found many takers in the rank or file.

The chaotic political developments in Karachi over the past week seemed to indicate weakness and manipulation. But inadvertently, they have also resurrected the flailing leadership of the MQM-P’s chief

The joint press conference with Kamal was seen as Sattar’s weakest point. In the face of a revolt from within his own party, he was forced to backtrack the next day. But Sattar’s ‘flip-flop’ could not have showcased him better as the rightful heir to Altaf Hussain.

Late night emergency press conference by an MQM chief? Check.

Sullen announcement of resignation in face of lack of solidarity from workers? Check.

Vociferous calls for ‘Bhai’ to take back his decision? Check.

Eventual relenting to ‘pressure from the workers’? Check.

Perhaps the only new element to the performance was the surreal and unexpected appearance of Sattar’s aged mother who backed the calls for him to take back his resignation.

Those present at the occasion swear by the brilliance of Sattar’s performance. Not only had he made headlines during primetime on news channels, he had suddenly strengthened his grip over the MQM-P. This was not the case even a couple of weeks ago. Sattar, the former mayor of Karachi and the first to rise from the MQM platform, is widely considered to be a man of the people. He is a social animal of sorts, he likes meeting and greeting people, he likes being among his constituents.

In the recent by-polls for the provincial assembly seat of PS-114, for example, Sattar himself was on the ground on election day. In comparison, neither Asif Ali Zardari nor Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari ventured in the field — they had a party organisation doing that for them.

Another factor that went against Sattar was his overexposure to the media. This was in part because the party was short of credible faces but also because Sattar is willing to take on media assignments with far greater regularity than other party leaders. Certainly Altaf kept his direct interactions with the media to a minimum. And similarly, Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have only appeared on the media as a privilege. The overexposure of Sattar to the media had hurt his credentials as a leader of the people because he was unable to build an aura and clout as a leader.

But on Thursday, as Farooq Sattar found his voice, noises from within MQM-P suggest that it has given great lift to the organisation. A great void of leadership has finally been filled.

TEETHING TROUBLES

If facial expressions can speak a thousand words, then Farooq Sattar’s face revealed an anxiety over Mustafa Kamal’s demand of removing the existence of the MQM altogether
If facial expressions can speak a thousand words, then Farooq Sattar’s face revealed an anxiety over Mustafa Kamal’s demand of removing the existence of the MQM altogether

When he first assumed control of the party, the enormous boots that Sattar was expected to fill after Altaf Hussain didn’t quite fit to size. In part this was because his response to the many crises engulfing the party was mired in confusion. For example, while the families of missing and incarcerated MQM activists sought relief, the new MQM leadership organised a cricket match to lift spirits.

The MQM handed to Sattar was a shadow of its original form and size. With an activist base entirely scattered, MQM-P activists claim that activities such as the cricket match were meant to encourage camaraderie and remove the demoralisation that had set in. On the other hand were the families of missing and incarcerated MQM activists, who complained that the party’s legal aid committee had been unable to plead their cases in court. They felt that “non-serious” activities did not take into account the gravity of their situation.

[The narrative of] “real problems” in the MQM taking place between 2008 and 2013 has assumed greater significance ever since the announcement of the “arrest” of Hammad Siddiqui. Sooner or later, both PSP and MQM-P leaders claim, Siddiqui will be announced as PSP’s latest star.

But a wider problem in the MQM-P was the confusion that reigned supreme after the party’s dissociation with Altaf Hussain. Initially the perception within the party was that under Sattar, they would carefully negotiate troubled waters and eventually return the party to Altaf Hussain, whenever the political climate became conducive for that eventuality.

This perception was broken by the All Pakistan Muttahida Students Organisation (APMSO), which revolted against the Sattar regime, terming them as traitors. Those who went against Sattar argued, for example, that “outsiders” such as Barrister Mohammad Ali Saif had verbally abused Hussain in party events while the leadership of the party stayed mum at his diatribe. The APMSO subsequently split; the bigger faction remained loyal to Altaf Hussain while a new one emerged to plead its allegiance to Sattar.

A major factor that went into the mechanics of this party-wide revolt was the perception that Sattar was in cahoots with the PSP in a “conspiracy” against Altaf. Kamal’s associates maintain even today that Sattar was the “original” chief of the PSP when it was first being launched, that instead of Mustafa Kamal it was Sattar who was earmarked to be the new faction’s chief. This account, however, is contested and denied by MQM-P officials.

Ultimately Sattar didn’t leave the MQM because, as one PSP source put it, “something changed at the last minute.” Another says that the PSP’s name, flag and electoral symbol were all to be decided by Sattar — a major reason why these elements were only decided on March 23, 2016, some 20 days after Mustafa Kamal and Anis Qaimkhani entered the scene in Karachi.

Whether he disagreed with the formation of a new faction, Kamal’s anti-ethnicity line, or whether he was held back by the establishment, ultimately Sattar stayed loyal to the MQM. While great swathes of the file maintained great loyalty with Altaf Hussain, many in the rank looked up to Sattar for clarity.

Post August 22, 2016 — the day of Altaf Hussain’s notorious diatribe — three clear centres of power emerged in the MQM-P: Farooq Sattar, Amir Khan, and Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui. A year later, Siddiqui’s hold has been lessened after he lost critical support from MQM-USA, of which he was the chief at one time. Much of his constituency has been taken over by a man named Shahid Mustafa, a veteran of the Altaf Hussain-led MQM. He is also fighting a health battle, which has meant that, beyond an advisory role, Siddiqui has largely been inactive on the ground. Aamir Khan, meanwhile, retains his clout in the party.

But in the year since August 22, 2016, what remained uncertain was Farooq Sattar’s constituency. His contemporaries such as Aamir Khan and Waseem Akhtar retain constituencies of their own, as do juniors such as Faisal Subzwari and Ali Raza Abidi. Sattar has never been elected from the PIB Colony constituency; this is because the party would decide where he would contest from.

Now, however, those issues appear to be settled.

MQM-P VERSUS PSP

As the military-led Karachi Operation gradually chipped away at the MQM’s militant arm, the party lost much of its teeth. There were few mobilisers on the ground as the party reeled from a crisis of leadership. Post August 22, the MQM-P lost many of its offices too as the Rangers razed any structure deemed to be constructed on grabbed land.

Such was the blow dealt to the MQM-P by these measures that even old foes, the Afaq Ahmed-led Mohajir Qaumi Movement (commonly known as Haqiqi), staged a rally to celebrate the party’s dissociation with Altaf Hussain. Haqiqi expected that it would now be easier for them to fill the vacuum created.

Meanwhile the PSP seemed to be popping up in areas with offices and structures that were previously MQM strongholds. A striking tactic of their intrusion was the hoisting of Pakistan flags in areas they felt had been annexed. In other words, it was the triumph of Pakistani nationalism over Mohajir nationalism in localities that were deemed to be strongholds of the MQM.

But while the MQM-P engaged in the politics of respectability, the PSP was filling a vacuum of political patronage. PSP secretary general Anis Qaimkhani kept in touch with young activists behind bars, some with heinous charges, providing emotional as well as logistical

support to them. Qaimkhani was promising to have all charges dropped against them if they entered the PSP. Indeed, the first entrants into the PSP were activists released from jail who had found a way out with a clean chit against the crimes they had committed.

Put another way, these young men weren’t technically coerced into joining the PSP but many joined of their will.

But another factor became crucial in the migration of MQM activists into the PSP. When the first round of arrests took place under the Karachi Operation, some of those returning from incarceration returned with tales of gruesome torture. This warned the others of the consequences that awaited if they didn’t relent to the Rangers’ demand of quitting the MQM and joining the PSP instead.

And while many activists might not have relented, they faced great pressure from their families to spare them the ignominy and anxiety of their loved one going missing or put through torture. If their son or husband wasn’t quitting the MQM himself, families stepped forward to have their loved ones sign the PSP entry form. Before they were released, many old MQM activists were forced to sign affidavits stating that not only would they not return to the MQM, but that they would also work in the PSP with the same vigour and dedication they displayed for the MQM.

Initially many of those who returned harboured ambitions of biding their time before switching loyalties again. But from the upper echelons of the PSP came the narrative of the MQM (and even the MQM-P) taking them for a ride. Many of those who returned from lock-ups now feel deserted by their old party. Most felt that they had committed crimes in the name of identity politics, but nobody from the old party came to their rescue when things got tough.

But MQM-P officials remain hopeful that the army of activists that are now under the umbrella of the PSP will switch loyalties “when the time comes.” As one senior leader put it, the MQM-P’s current focus is on constituents and not activists — according to one leader, “90 percent of PSP activists are in touch with us.”

A newer factor that has come to play on the ground is the General (retd) Pervez Musharraf-led All Pakistan Muslim League (APML). Much like the PSP, the APML too is feeding on old MQM cadres, providing similar guarantees that Qaimkhani had been providing. In fact, on the night of November 8 when Sattar and Kamal conducted a joint press conference at the Karachi Press Club, it was a delegation of APML activists that arrived with a box of mithai to celebrate what was being viewed as a merger of the two parties. A few days later, Musharraf issued a statement that an alliance between the MQM-P, PSP and the APML can defeat the PPP.

Meanwhile party leaders of the MQM-P, including Sattar, reject the possibility of the MQM going anywhere or compromising on the Mohajir identity. They maintain that, as a matter of principle, a smaller body should merge into a larger one, if at all a merger is being deliberated.

SATTAR’S NEW DIRECTIONS

In recent times, the leadership of the MQM-P has been emphasising that the “real problems” in the MQM took place between 2008 and 2013, an era when the MQM was operationally controlled by Anis Qaimkhani. This line is oft-repeated in the MQM-P since it has become the defining narrative of the MQM-P.

The real problems alluded to by many include the harbouring of target killers, sectarian hit men, land grabbing, extortions, arson and street crime in its ranks. The carnage on May 12, 2007; the lesser-known arson in North Karachi which claimed the lives of 40 people, including 22 children; and the 2012 Baldia factory fire are all swords of Damocles hanging over those associated with the united MQM of Altaf Hussain.

And it has assumed greater significance ever since the announcement of the “arrest” of Hammad Siddiqui, former chief of the MQM’s Karachi Tanzeemi Committee. Sooner or later, both PSP and MQM-P leaders claim, Siddiqui will be announced as PSP’s latest star.

Without a doubt, Siddiqui provides an organisational presence and assertiveness that is hard to find otherwise. But crucially, his presence in the PSP means that Mustafa Kamal has been able to collect all mid-tier leaders with the experience of running a political organisation in Karachi. And while they were mid-tier leaders in the old MQM, they are all critical actors in the PSP.

Consider the case of Raza Haroon. Part of the “cultured” representatives of the old MQM, Haroon was badly beaten up at old party headquarters Nine-Zero over alleged disloyalty to Altaf Hussain. As a measure of repenting and re-proving his loyalty to Hussain, he was reassigned to the MQM’s literary wing. Haroon then took charge of translating Hussain’s book Falsafa-i-Mohabbat [Philosophy of Love]. While Hussain had relegated Haroon to a position of irrelevance, today Haroon is the secretary-general of the PSP.

Sattar’s MQM-P has seen the elevation of old mid-tier leaders into the Rabita Committee as well as the rise of a new mid-tier leadership. The latter in fact includes young women, being groomed to assume greater roles of responsibility in the party.

The one exception to this rule is Kamran Tessori, one of the incumbent deputy convenors of the party. The other two deputy convenors, Waseem Akhtar and Shahid Pasha, have risen organically and through the ranks to assume the positions that they do today. But Tessori, a jewels trader, was inducted into the party after the MQM-P struggled with financiers for everyday operations. His elevation is in part an acknowledgment of bankrolling the party in its tumultuous times.

Sattar’s greatest achievement till now had been to ensure that any disenchantment with his decisions are democratically and politely resolved. Tessori and Akhtar had run into a tiff after the former accused the latter of embezzling funds. The incumbent mayor was then elevated to the position of deputy convenor so as to pacify his concern that an outsider was suddenly enjoying great say in organisational affairs.

HERE TO STAY

The received wisdom is that while the establishment meddles in the affairs of political parties, it does so only where certain fissures already exist. To say that one or the other of MQM-P and PSP is a creation of the establishment is a folly. Leaders of both parties had legitimate grievances against the old leadership and the ad-hocism that was at play in running the party.

But while the PSP arrived with the overt and covert backing of the establishment, change in the MQM-P arrived internally and as a matter of opportunity. And it was this change that found great support in the echelons of power in Sindh and Islamabad. What Sattar has been unable to sort out is how to deflect the pressure of the establishment, which continues to hold the MQM-P ransom for crimes committed in another age and political context. Farooq Sattar and Aamir Khan both have cases of treason filed against them. The cases are being heard in an anti-terrorism court in Karachi. The apprehension from within the party is that these cases can be used to turn the tables on Sattar whenever the need for that arises.

But when it comes to politics proper, one of the great differentiators between Farooq Sattar and Mustafa Kamal is their attitude towards the founder of the MQM. While Kamal abused away, Sattar acknowledged Altaf Hussain not only as the founder but also the man responsible for getting Mohajirs political representation and power. In the eyes of the Altaf Hussain supporter, Sattar earned some brownie points but not more. Meanwhile, the founder of the MQM has been releasing audio and video messages on social media, largely denouncing both Sattar and Kamal as traitors.

Irrespective of the line being issued in London, Sattar enjoys the advantage of the tehreeki arm of the united MQM being in disarray because it has no leaders on the ground. Altaf Hussain has been enjoying a great audience on social media but the reach of social media is dwarfed by mainstream media. As a result, his message is only being communicated to diehard activists and supporters with access to social media. Meanwhile the media bar on anything to do with Hussain means that Sattar has been able to project his vision on to the party, slow and tedious a process as that might be. Whether this translates into votes is another matter altogether.

On the night of November 16, Sattar emerged as the third power player in Mohajir politics. And although internal issues and external pressures do exist, the road to the MQM finding its teeth again has become clearer.

The writer is a member of staff.
He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 19th, 2017