What's behind the rift?

Published March 4, 2018

Remember Mian Muhammad Azhar? A former mayor of Lahore, he was once a man who enjoyed the trust of the Sharifs. In Nawaz’s second term as prime minister, however, Azhar revolted against his party chief over what he said was Sharif’s ‘undemocratic approach’ to governance. He cited Nawaz’s reliance on his kitchen cabinet to run both the government and party affairs, much to the detriment of the country and the party. This position found takers in the rank and file, and soon, many followed Azhar out of the Nawaz League.

The party he’d go on to form in 2002 was named the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q). With Nawaz being chucked out of the picture by General Pervez Musharraf, Azhar’s PML-Q was primed to take over Punjab and the federal government as well. Things took an unexpected turn for Azhar in the national polls that followed — he was defeated in both constituencies he contested from.

This dealt a strong blow to his position as party chief: how could someone who did not wield influence in his home constituency be deemed fit to lead the party?

Those who had won, with ease, were the Chaudhry Brothers: Shujaat and Pervaiz Elahi. In due course, the duo took over the reins of the party and the PML-Q became synonymous with the Chaudhry Brothers. Meanwhile, the founder of the party, Mian Azhar, was consigned to the bin of political expediency.

Two groups now claim to represent the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan and both claim legal and ideological superiority. But the reality on the ground is far more blurred…

History seems to be repeating itself, this time in Karachi, as another crisis of leadership brews in the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P).

Carved out of the united MQM led by Altaf Hussain, the MQM-P was supposed to be a different kind of MQM: against violence and against conflict. And while MQM-P leaders have largely managed to achieve these two objectives, the MQM-P has remained a party that revolves around cults of personality.

The danger to Farooq Sattar’s position as the chief of MQM-P was always that he’d end up as the new Mian Azhar. The ongoing tiff inside the MQM-P is, in part, a move to remove Sattar from party leadership since his cult of personality has failed to prevail over the cult of senior party leader Aamir Khan.

Sattar’s greatest weakness, like Azhar’s, is that he, too, doesn’t have a constituency where he wields absolute influence. This leaves Sattar in a position of vulnerability: those with greater influence in the party could overturn his candidature at any opportune moment.

And that moment did arrive.

On February 5, the Rabita Committee (Central Coordination Committee) of the MQM-P conducted a tell-all presser, berating Sattar for “selling out” the MQM to establishment cronies. Another leader proclaimed that things couldn’t go on being run as they were for the past year or so by Sattar. With the committee on one side and their leader on the other, a deadlock commenced.


While voters believed that the MQM-P Unity Rally in Hyderabad, in December 2017, was to reignite support, it was organised for internal consumption to dispel the idea that there was an ongoing tiff in the leadership | MQM-P
While voters believed that the MQM-P Unity Rally in Hyderabad, in December 2017, was to reignite support, it was organised for internal consumption to dispel the idea that there was an ongoing tiff in the leadership | MQM-P

The perception delivered by the Rabita Committee of the MQM-P was that the party was in danger of becoming “another faction of the Muslim League.” Far from maintaining its roots as a “workers’ party”, party chief Farooq Sattar, they alleged, was compromising on the MQM’s political culture and its fundamental facets of ideology.

Rumours were abuzz since the turn of the year that disagreements between senior leaders of the MQM had morphed into fissures. Central to this divide was the issue of the party’s constitution — the allegation was that a new version was being drafted to give Sattar absolute control over party affairs.

If the argument that Karachi has always voted anti-establishment is given credence, then the fiasco presents an opportunity for both groups to claim that they are more anti-establishment than the other.

Opposition to Sattar was broadly categorised as the “Aamir Khan group” — the man who not only has a constituency but also wields significant organisational clout. This group’s position was that having once gotten rid of Altaf Hussain, they didn’t want to create another like him. Post the chaos of August 22, 2016 — when events had precipitated the party’s break with Hussain — collective wisdom had prevailed to navigate the party out of troubled waters. Why was it that now, that the collective was being sidelined?

The straw that broke the camel’s back was nominations for Senate elections. With four seats up for grabs, the nomination of Kamran Tessori became hotly contested, with the Rabita Committee presser on February 5 declaring that Tessori was being favoured over loyal workers who had sacrificed decades for the party. “MQM is not for sale!” thundered senior leader Faisal Subzwari as he insinuated that money had changed hands in return for a Senate seat.

In theory, the principles laid out by the Rabita Committee were sound and the struggle for internal democracy seemed to have begun in earnest. In the first few days of the conflict, the idea that Sattar wanted to become another ‘Altaf Bhai’ and enjoy absolute power in the party also took root. Sattar’s currency of politics has mostly been respect and losing that would mean that he’d also lose any constituency that the party nominated him to represent.

But while the notion of internal democracy is alluring and romantic, the reality is less sanitised.

What started off as a constitutional struggle has now morphed into ideological realignment. And while both groups currently maintain that the MQM-P is united, the seeds of a permanent split have already been sown.


The two protagonists in this saga have been Kamran Tessori and Farogh Naseem. Both men are imports and have not risen through the ranks of the party. Both of them were nominated for Senate tickets. And it is their nominations that has hastened a tussle of power in the MQM-P.

Tessori, a jewels trader, currently facilitates MQM-P interactions with the security establishment. He is tasked with ensuring that reports of activists going missing are immediately communicated to the security establishment and their release is sought. And since he is also a moneyed man, he has been able to bring together other financial backers whose investment now runs the party headquarters.

Naseem was brought into the MQM fold when General Musharraf was in power. Enjoying Musharraf’s trust, Naseem pledged to represent the MQM in various cases without charging a fee. In fact, Naseem would go on to represent Altaf Hussain, too, but for a fee. And while hundreds of MQM activists have remained in jail, Naseem has not been thrown into the courtroom to have them exonerated.

In the ongoing spat, Tessori was deemed to be a man of the establishment, alleged to be forming groupings in the party, and bribing Sattar for his seat. Meanwhile, Naseem was deemed to be interpreting the party constitution in such a way that Sattar could be disposed of.

Neither of these versions is entirely accurate.

Tessori’s entry into the MQM-P was actually facilitated by Aamir Khan. And his being elevated to the rank of deputy convenor was, in fact, proposed by Naseem. At the time of the PS-114 elections (which the MQM-P eventually lost), it was Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui who went to Tessori’s house to tell him that the Rabita Committee had decided not to leave the electoral space uncontested and that he’d be contesting from the MQM-P platform. Tessori is said to have spent six million rupees on his election campaign.

But once Tessori lost the elections, machinations to de-seat Sattar began in earnest.

A giant panaflex poster of Aamir Khan as the new chief was raised on one of the main arteries of the city. This was in July, 2017. Sattar loyalists point to this as the first ‘anti-constitutional’ act of Aamir Khan.

Then came the matter of the proposed merger with the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), in November 2017. In the public imagination, Sattar was deemed to have gone rogue in trying to bring the PSP to the fold of the MQM-P even though other party leaders had also been involved in the process. And while workers revolted against any proposed merger, Aamir Khan, in Dubai at the time, sent messages to workers to arrive at the airport and receive him as they would for a party leader coming home.

Posters were made and circulated in MQM WhatsApp groups depicting Aamir Khan as the new chief. And some grassroots units also began preparing to give him a hero’s welcome. But at the time, Sattar was saved by the Rabita Committee’s assertion that they didn’t want to de-seat their leader.

Then came the matter of the party constitution. In fact, Naseem urged Sattar to make changes to the party constitution that would give him more power to define the direction of the party. He compiled a new draft but then told the Rabita Committee that this was happening behind their back. Sattar claims, however, that the new draft would have to go through the Rabita Committee for it to be accepted. The party constitution submitted to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), meanwhile, remains the old one.

Both incidents created great distrust. On the one hand, Sattar was flabbergasted about how he was thrown under the bus on the matter of Tessori, the rumoured merger with the Pak Sarzameen Party, and the constitution. “All these decisions were being made by the collective but only I was left to face the music,” says Sattar in an interview with Eos.

On the other hand was the suspicion that Sattar wanted to bring in his people into the office-bearers of the MQM-P in an attempt to dilute Aamir Khan’s organisational influence.

What exists today, after internal fissures within the MQM-P have been thrown into the media spotlight, is two organisational structures — one led by Farooq Sattar and the other by Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui. Sattar has conducted intra-party elections and installed a new Rabita Committee. But on the other hand, the original Rabita Committee has stayed intact under Siddiqui. Aamir Khan, who supports Siddiqui, meanwhile, has announced that he harbours no ambition of ever becoming the party chief. Siddiqui enjoys the trust of many ideological cadres and his candidature was deemed ideal in a bid to unite the warring groups but the legal process of removing the party head was a stumbling block. The legal jousting is being heard by the Election Commission of Pakistan.


Senior leaders Faisal Subzwari and Aminul Haq address the press on behalf of the Rabita Committee | MQM-P
Senior leaders Faisal Subzwari and Aminul Haq address the press on behalf of the Rabita Committee | MQM-P

Demoralisation is often the outcome of political splits — comrades one day suddenly become bitter rivals the next, and not all activists survive the demoralisation that sets in. Paradoxically, however, splits also generate great political activity. Rival factions want to show each other that they have greater strength in numbers, that their moral position is being vindicated, or even that their organisation is more robust and vibrant.

Although both Sattar and Siddiqui have described the ongoing situation as tat’heer, or cleansing, it resembles a split.

This is, of course, the first time that an intra-party dispute of such gravity is not being decided by Altaf Hussain. Also unprecedentedly, barring a scuffle or two, the dispute has remained weapon-free. And it has most definitely not been played out on the streets of Karachi, either.

Instead the dispute has seen multiple tit-for-tat events to showcase greater strength in numbers. It has witnessed both sides using the same party name, flag and party songs. It has seen various subordinate units and wings pledge allegiance to either of the two. It has seen general workers meetings by the respective groups being heavily attended. It has seen the notion of the constitutional struggle underway being played up by both sides. And both sides also claim moral superiority after full houses at their respective events.

The MQM has historically been at the wrong end of state violence multiple times. Ideological party literature details the process of political engineering employed when such an eventuality takes place. Those who collude in this process are automatically deemed traitors, and in a different time, were liable to death. Those whose loyalties and character are questioned once can spend decades trying to shed the labels attributed to them.

The MQM-P is woven from the political culture of the united MQM. And so, those following Khalid Maqbool have been branded the “saazishi tola”, or conspiratorial gang, by the group led by Farooq Sattar. Similarly the terms being used to describe Sattar’s camp is “mauqa parast” [opportunist] and “shakhsiat parast” [member of a cult of personality].

These labels have not come about in a day but are a product of what someone did at some point in time.

The saazishi tola, for example, refers to the role of Aamir Khan most recently in the August 22 fiasco, at the Karachi Press Club. Many leaders — active and inactive — point to his role in inciting Altaf Hussain to make his incendiary remarks that day. The impression given by Aamir Khan during his speech before Altaf’s was that not only were there scores of families of missing MQM activists at the press club, but that there was widespread anger in the camp for the violence being committed against ‘their’ people. The insinuation of saazishi tola, therefore, is that Aamir Khan and his band of supporters colluded in the “minus-Altaf formula” and are doing so, once again.

Similarly the mauqa parast tag aimed at the Sattar-led group refers to those who are allegedly sticking by Sattar in order to rise to the upper echelons of the party ranks or to keep their positions of power. Most MPAs have stayed loyal to Sattar. Those in the Siddiqui camp also allege that the real opportunism lies in the clamour for power and violating the party constitution to do so.

But ultimately, a split is often decided on the basis of a narrative. Warring sides both have their version of events and realities. Some of it is real, some is constructed. Sattar can make a genuine claim for party leadership as can Siddiqui. The old Rabita Committee can make as genuine a claim for legitimacy as the new one. And both sides can make genuine claims about their narrative being the right one.

In one version of events, for example, Sattar has already become Mian Azhar. “Chai pila kar wapas bhej daingay [We’ll serve tea to him and then send him back],” is what Aamir Khan replied to a reporter when asked what would be his response if Sattar reached the party headquarters. The insinuation was that with a new convenor in place and a Rabita Committee functioning, there is no compulsion to welcome Sattar as leader of the party. In their set of realities, the party has moved on from the fiasco.

At Sattar’s residence, however, the idea that “another August 22” has taken place is repeated as fact by Sattar’s comrades. Indeed, Sattar’s residence has once again been opened up to the party as a temporary headquarters. Most present are convinced that the forceful removal of the chief represents a violation of the party constitution at the very least; in their set of realities, this episode is an attack being made on the MQM as a political reality.

There is also a question of who stays loyal to whom. The ongoing conflict has seen splits in nearly all districts in Karachi. Labour wings have also split; a majority has headed to Siddiqui. Hyderabad has gone with Sattar while internal tremors have also seen the MQM-P’s Punjab operations split. One faction has pledged loyalties to Sattar; this faction was dissolved by the Rabita Committee. There are currently two Punjab operations at work in the MQM-P, even if their impact in the larger picture is only symbolic.

Such situations eventually arrive at a point-of-no-return. At the very least, the current dispute in the MQM-P is an internal struggle for party leadership in the garb of tat’heer. But if neither group blinks, taqseem [split] is a very real eventuality.


Those loyal to Sattar claim that his isolation was the intended objective of the Rabita Committee’s presser but that it had the reverse impact. Not only did leaders respond to his tweet to reach his house but workers also joined in. Even those inactive woke up to have a say.

But it was in the days to follow that the stature of Sattar became clear.

As the conflict played out in the media, it became obvious that a duality had been created: Farooq Sattar versus Aamir Khan. Those who understand the differences between the two explain that the two “cannot work with each other, let alone under each other.”

Aamir Khan has the additional disadvantage of having been one of the founders of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement-Haqiqi, the first breakaway faction of the Altaf-led MQM. Older cadres have historically viewed him with scepticism: apart from his alleged role in August 22, his Haqiqi associations only add to their theory that the tearing apart of the MQM-P is to divide the Mohajir vote bank to the benefit of other factions.

As the Rabita Committee revolted against Farooq Sattar, those in Aamir Khan’s camp and those pushing his candidature as leader of the party all congregated at the Bahadurabad headquarters of the party. Around Aamir Khan were faces that many recognised as MQM representatives.

This presented an opportunity to exploit for the ideological cadre of the united MQM, many of whom are not recognised faces and did not find space in the post-August 22 power set-up in the MQM-P. They sensed that the party chief was being driven into a corner by Aamir Khan; many understood this as the MQM under attack. It is for this reason that many of those pictured standing besides Sattar in his pressers are faces not traditionally associated with the MQM in the media.

After the first duels played out in the media, however, Sattar found support from unexpected quarters. Those inactive in the tehreek, either because of demoralisation or due to fear, arrived at the party chief’s residence to prop support. Many familiar faces from Nine-Zero also arrived to serve him. And as Sattar divulged at a press conference, PSP’s Anis Qaimkhani and Haqiqi’s Afaq Ahmed — ostensibly both his adversaries — also called him to reassure him that they will not exploit the situation to weaken his hand.

Another crucial element to his support came from the local government — not employees of the government but councillors elected on MQM tickets.

The MQM had assumed control of a Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) that had been stripped of meaningful powers. But with performance in local governance being central to the MQM’s revival, the senior leadership of the party initially focussed all efforts on effective service delivery. And for a time it worked, before local governance started reflecting the power struggles within the MQM-P.

The party had won three districts of the city in the local elections. Together, the three DMCs are handed about 400 million rupees every month to handle their affairs. The incumbent mayor, Waseem Akhtar, as well as two district municipal corporation (DMC) chiefs, stand today with the Rabita Committee. The third DMC chairman, Rehan Hashmi, has pledged allegiance to Sattar. Hashmi’s constituency has the most number of union councils — more than the other two DMCs combined.

The sub-plot here is that Hashmi was perceived to not be fully vested in MQM-P politics when the party first assumed control of the local government. As a result, his administrative district received a cold shoulder from the upper echelons of power. The other DMCs fared better, as there was little doubt about their loyalties.

But this also meant that grassroots complaints against the mayor’s administration kept piling up. Matters were compounded when it transpired that the mayor had issued local government development contracts to members of the Rabita Committee. Another allegation pertains to the utilisation of development funds, around eight million rupees, to buy a bullet-proof vehicle.

As the fissures grew between Sattar and the Rabita Committee, councillors who had been left disillusioned gravitated towards the party chief. Sattar had scheduled a meeting with Mayor Waseem Akhtar on February 7 over the disbursement of developmental funds and allegations of their misuse. But since February 5, as the party fell into crisis, the scheduled meeting has gone on the backburner.

Councillors, particularly from Hashmi’s district, argue that Mayor Akhtar’s reluctance to be held accountable points at some sort of corruption at play. And Sattar acknowledges the weight of these allegations: “It is a fact,” he tells Eos.

He believes that the local government’s priorities did not match his own: “I am not interested in carpeting roads,” Sattar proclaims. “I am interesting in solving the trash problem, sewerage systems and water supply.”

Akhtar’s presence in the Aamir Khan camp, along with Sattar’s perceived siding with local representatives, resulted in many from the union councils pledging their allegiance to the party chief.


Women of the Siddiqui-led group capture the allegations against Kamran Tessori
Women of the Siddiqui-led group capture the allegations against Kamran Tessori

The lasting image of the intra-party elections organised by Sattar was of two women, lounging on the grass in the field where the event was held. Sattar had just delivered a rousing speech and cast his vote, and was finally leaving the venue after getting rid of one bunch of supporters. As the vehicle moved towards the gate, the two women hailed down his car as if they were hailing a taxi. Sattar stopped.

“Waada karein party nahin tootay gi [Promise us that this party will not split],” said one.

“Pehlay hee buhat nuqsaan ho chuka hai, [We’ve suffered heavily as it is],” chimed in the other.

“Meree poori koshish hai ke cheezain ikhathi rahein, meray dil main un ke leeay koyi keena nahin hai [I am doing my best to ensure that things stay together, I have no ill feelings towards them],” replied Sattar.

As the exchange depicts, the MQM still retains its hold over large swathes of the Urdu-speaking population.

As a united entity, the MQM would often manufacture conflict in an attempt to stay significant. Using an issue of relevance, the MQM would arm-twist its adversaries and seek to extract political mileage out of the conflict generated. This way the party stayed in the news and indeed in its voters’ imagination.

After August 22, the MQM no longer remained in a position of manufacturing conflict. Its militant wing had been pummelled, its offices were sealed, and its leaders and activists were being picked up, sometimes without cause or arrest warrants. For more than a year, party activities were centred on picking up the pieces and stringing them together in order to give the party organisation some semblance of shape, order and discipline. Ironically, once out of troubled waters with the establishment, at least somewhat, the habit of manufacturing conflict has reared its head again. This time, however, the guns have been turned inwards.

Perhaps, the idea behind generating a conflict was for the MQM-P to find a spark and provide some momentum to its 2018 election campaign. Indeed, the one saving grace to emerge from the MQM-P conflict is that its electoral campaign has automatically gone in full swing. Sectors and units, even those without offices, have seen increasing visits by leaders of the two warring groups.

In the words of one worker, “leaders who’d become haughty and would wave at us from a distance are now stopping to enquire after us. Everyone is on the ground.” Although the events are directed at each other (and at the media), the message being taken to the party worker and the voter is the same: the MQM is at a crossroads once again and this time it is a battle of principles.

Equally, the struggle for constitutional supremacy in the MQM presents both groups in a favourable light. If the argument that Karachi has always voted anti-establishment is given credence, then the fiasco presents an opportunity for both groups to claim that they are more anti-establishment than the other.

In the case of Sattar’s group, for example, they will argue that they have dissociated from the establishment’s handpicked representative in Aamir Khan. Similarly, the Rabita Committee will argue that they have gotten rid of an establishment import in Kamran Tessori. Neither of these positions capture the everyday reality of the party but are suitable for consumption purposes in the media.

But as squabbling turns into splits, there are other interests in the city waiting to prey on whatever is left from the internal MQM crisis.

For example, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has been extending invitations to younger leaders of the MQM-P to join their party. The PPP, for its next election campaign, is planning on utilising MQM-P leaders to penetrate into the Urdu-speaking vote bank in Karachi and Hyderabad. The same is the case with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. Towards that end, a split in the MQM-P stands to benefit the PPP more than any MQM faction or even the Pak Sarzameen Party.

That members of the united MQM have risen from their slumber to become active is reflective of how destructive the ordinary MQM worker perceives this situation to be. That many Altaf loyalists are congregating around Farooq Sattar is indicative of how a message is being sent to London about the new turn in Karachi politics and the new realities on the ground.

But will the MQM International Secretariat in London accept this posturing?

The official position adopted by Altaf’s MQM since August 22 is for no loyalist to become part of the MQM-P. In multiple speeches broadcast on YouTube, Altaf repeatedly urged his followers not to get pulled in by the MQM-P and instead to either join another party, part with politics proper, or to leave the country altogether.

The new realities, however, are seeing the same people complicit in “the minus-Altaf formula” emerge with anti-establishment credentials.

The London party is aware of these changing dynamics. And since the MQM is described by its leaders as a “workers’ party,” there is the belief in tehreeki circles that pressure from below will see London changing its tune too.

But there are still many stumbling blocks towards that end.

For starters, there is the question of Article 6 (charges of treason) being imposed on Altaf Hussain and how to counter that. To recap, following Altaf’s incendiary speech outside the Karachi Press Club on August 22, 2016, most political parties were demanding a trial of the MQM supremo and his supporters for treason. In fact, it was the MQM-P who were presenting resolutions in the assemblies against Altaf, much to the chagrin of the ideological MQM cadre.

Then there is the question of whether Sattar, or even Siddiqui and Aamir Khan, are actually “anti-establishment.” One line of argument in London is that the ongoing crisis has been manufactured in Pakistan to expose the faces who are still Altaf loyalists but are presenting themselves as something else.

The extension of this argument is that, instead of Sattar or the others, Altaf loyalists need to strengthen the hands of the other mainstream “anti-establishment” force, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). MQM-Altaf and the PML-N have already worked successfully once, in a local government poll in Hyderabad, where the candidate campaigned as an independent with Altaf’s backing but joined the Nawaz League right after getting elected.

As the MQM-P’s petition for who is its legitimate leader plays out in the ECP, and perhaps the courts next, it is clear that the MQM-P of today is not the same behemoth that the united MQM was. But far from the ideas of tat’heer and taqseem, there is a purge happening in the MQM-P — one side removing Altaf loyalists and the other getting rid of the anti-Altaf element.

There is also talk of a new faction emerging which will trace its lineage from Dr Imran Farooq, the ideologue who was murdered in London back in 2010. Some MQM-P leaders claim that Farooq had decided to part ways with Altaf and create a party that was against violence and against conflict. This line will be upheld as the direction of the new faction.

Where the party heads from here might not depend on happenings inside Pakistan. But what has become clear is that August 22, 2016, was not the watershed moment of Mohajir politics that it was built up to be. Ideological realignments and shifting of allegiances has gone in full swing after this infighting. And while leaders claim that the party is still united, the watershed moment of Mohajir politics is only arriving now.

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

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 4th, 2018



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