On a February night scheduled programming on Pakistani news channels was interrupted by some breaking news from London. “Altaf Hussain beygunnah [Altaf Hussain is innocent],” one channel’s ticker announced. “Ba’ani Muttahida par jurm sabit na hosuka [Muttahida’s founder could not be found guilty],” another read.
Altaf Hussain had been acquitted in a trial on two counts of encouraging terrorism in Karachi from London. A sense of jubilation prevailed among those associated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). And, despite an unannounced state ban, Hussain’s supporters took to the streets in Karachi and other cities and towns to celebrate the verdict.
As the trial came to an end, images of the MQM supremo, emotionally hugging his lawyer outside the Kingston-upon-Thames crown court, went viral on social media. Most news channels, however, stuck to showing exterior shots of the Crown Court as the reporters read out details of the ruling.
Ironically, during the speeches that resulted in the court case, Hussain had allegedly asked his followers to storm the studios of some of these channels. He had expressed displeasure at the channels for not broadcasting his pictures, videos and statements.
There was a time, not too long ago, when images of the MQM leader would be plastered across Karachi, inspiring fear, admiration and derision. Those images continue to live in most Karachiites’ minds. They are also frequently shared online, often going viral as memes.
What these images represent may have changed, but they remain relevant nonetheless. As does Hussain and his party, that is going through an evolution of its own.
“[Hussain’s] return [in the political scene] is just a matter of time,” says a senior politician, who was once a part of the unified MQM. He claims that the establishment never ended “backchannel indirect contacts with him.” He adds that, sooner or later, “they will open the door to his return, as all other groups lack public support.”
He says a marked difference in Hussain’s stance was witnessed during the trial, as he not only publicly expressed remorse over raising anti-state slogans in his August 22, 2016 speech, but also chose to not repeat his views regarding a ‘Sindhudesh’ and Sindhi nationalist groups.
But while predictions of Hussain directly returning to the political scene may seem less likely, his party and different MQM factions seem to be building momentum to varying degrees. Attempts of reconciliation (that have thus far remained unsuccessful) between different factions have also continued to make headlines.
The MQM is clearly no longer the omnipotent force it once was in Karachi, and there is little denying that the party is down. But is it out? Or can the different factions come together and shake things up once again?
Today, the MQM appears more divided than ever before. There are groups such as MQM-Pakistan, PSP, MQM-Haqiqi, MQM-Farooq Sattar, the US-based Voice of Karachi (VOK) and the Naujawanan-i-Karachi. Certain individuals, including former Sindh governor Dr Ishratul Ebad and ex-ministers Raza Haroon and Dr Sagheer Ahmed, are also active in the field.
A FRAGMENTED HOUSE
The once unstoppable MQM has become a fragmented house in the past few years.
First, in March 2016, former Karachi mayor Syed Mustafa Kamal challenged the dominance of Altaf Hussain by forming his own Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP). And then, on August 22, 2016, the state imposed an undeclared ban on Hussain, following his diatribe against the country and its security establishment.
The split resulted in the division of the Mohajir vote bank in the 2018 general election, which helped Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) replace the MQM as Karachi’s dominant electoral force. The PTI won 14 of Karachi’s 21 National Assembly seats.
Today, the MQM appears more divided than ever before. There are groups such as MQM-Pakistan, PSP, MQM-Haqiqi, MQM-Farooq Sattar, the US-based Voice of Karachi (VOK) and the Naujawanan-i-Karachi. Certain individuals, including former Sindh governor Dr Ishratul Ebad and ex-ministers Raza Haroon and Dr Sagheer Ahmed, are also active in the field. They are trying to fill the vacuum created after the ban on Hussain, who is leading his own faction from the UK, known here as MQM-London.
While the PSP and Afaq Ahmed’s MQM — better known as the MQM-Haqiqi, the first breakaway faction that was formed over 30 years ago — do not wish to be identified as MQM offshoots, there’s no denying that their leadership was once part of the MQM and they quit over tactical differences.
Among the groups, only MQM-Pakistan currently has a presence in both houses of parliament and the Sindh Assembly. The PSP and MQM-H had contested the 2018 general election but lost. The VOK, which is led by former MQM convener Nadeem Nusrat from Washington DC, is not a registered political party in Pakistan.
Excluding MQM-London, which has been facing the wrath of powers that be for the past many years, all other groups and factions take a cue from the powerful establishment that has been controlling the city’s politics with an iron grip after Hussain’s forced ouster from domestic politics.
The VOK was the first faction that had, in 2020, stressed the need for unity among all groups, factions and parties working for the rights of the people of urban Sindh. The group also presented a mechanism to bring all on one platform. But, over the years, coming together has proven to be a hard sell.
PROSPECTS OF A MERGER
In November 2017, the military establishment tried to facilitate the merger of MQM-P and the PSP, but the attempt failed badly. The two parties traded allegations against each other and then accused the establishment of forcing them to come to the table for talks.
Similarly, after the 2018 general election, a very important member of MQM-P approached Kamal, asking him whether he was willing to discuss the possibility of reviving meaningful talks for a merger. Kamal replied in the affirmative and the two sides met and discussed various options in hours-long sessions. But this too failed to translate into action.
During the same period, Nusrat of the VOK floated the idea that all the Mohajir groups, while retaining their separate identities, should come on one platform and agree to work on a minimum common agenda, specifically for the people of the urban parts of Sindh. He spoke directly and indirectly to the leaders of all the groups, who agreed on the need for a united front against the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government in Sindh.
But one day, Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui of the MQM-P publicly rejected the idea and told all other groups that, if they wanted unity, they would have to return to the MQM-P fold.
Things have continued to almost happen. There’s a group of former PSP leaders, including former information technology minister Raza Haroon and health minister Dr Sagheer Ahmed, who were willing to return to MQM-P after the 2018 general election. Both sides held behind-the-scenes hours-long deliberations on multiple occasions but, four years later, their return has still not materialised.
Background conversations with many leaders suggest that there are two schools of thought within MQM-P, as well as other factions who are against any kind of unity or merger.
One group in MQM-P considers all those who left the party before August 22, 2016 ‘traitors’. This group has opposed the return of disgruntled PSP leaders into the party, and especially takes issue with them coming back as members of the raabta (coordination) committee, the party’s supreme decision-making body. This group has communicated to the PSP leaders that the door was open for them, but only if they agree to return as party workers. They may be offered positions later.
“Some people in the coordination committee of MQM-P are still loyal to Altaf Hussain, to the extent that they cannot tolerate any person who openly stood against him before August 22, 2016,” says a former coordination committee member of the once-unified MQM, on the condition of anonymity. He says these people are not openly talking in favour of Hussain only because of fear of the establishment.
The other school of thought, which exists in every faction, comprises those who fear that any attempt to unite different factions, even on a minimum common agenda, may ultimately compromise the position they hold in their respective organisations.
“Not everyone is willing to give up the position of convener or deputy convener or chairman/vice chairman for the sake of unity,” says the former coordination committee member.
A LOSING STREAK
In the second half of 2021, MQM-P lost the cantonment board elections in Karachi to the PPP, the PTI and even the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). The PSP also lost badly, failing to win even a single seat.
The situation encouraged those who had been watching from the sidelines to make another attempt to unite all the factions on a single platform. This time, the effort was spearheaded by Dubai-based Dr Ishratul Ebad, the former governor of Sindh.
Dr Ebad met Dr Farooq Sattar, the disgruntled MQM-P leader who runs his own Organisation Restoration Committee after he was thrown out of the party in 2018, and Amir Khan separately in Dubai.
Though his efforts haven’t yielded any positive results, he has apparently succeeded in bridging the widening gulf between Dr Sattar and other MQM-P leaders.
But bringing everyone together is a tall order.
On January 26, protesters from MQM-P were tear-gassed and baton-charged outside the Chief Minister House in Karachi. The treatment of the protesters, including women, by the police caught the attention of many, including Dr Sattar.
At a recent press conference, Dr Sattar said that he went to MQM-P’s Bahadurabad office that day on the insistence of the Naujawanan-i-Karachi. But he apparently found himself on the receiving end of a cold shoulder. “He should not have allowed me to leave [from the Bahadurabad office] that day,” Dr Sattar said to reporters, referring to MQM-P convener Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui.
Dr Ebad tells this reporter that the prospects of a merger to make a united platform were next to impossible under present circumstances. “What is possible for all of them is to sit on a table and start a dialogue, while keeping their parties intact,” he says. “Once talks begin, it may lead to a positive outcome, as I have no doubt regarding the sincerity of leadership of each faction.”
THE UNIFYING VOICE
Nadeem Nusrat, one of the biggest proponents of different factions and groups coming together, is leading the Voice of Karachi (VOK) from the US ever since he parted ways with Hussain. While VOK workers and supporters also reside in Pakistan, it is not a registered political party in the country and so far has no intentions of taking part in the electoral process.
VOK has tried its best to unite all Mohajir/urban Sindh factions, Nusrat tells Eos. “Unfortunately, there are so-called leaders in every group who have actively thwarted those attempts,” he adds.
Among the existing leadership of different factions, Nusrat is the only leader who was appointed by Hussain as the convener of the MQM.His thoughts about the MQM he once led as the convener are also very clear.
“The pre-August 2016 MQM had a huge problem: despite receiving an unprecedented political mandate from Karachi and other urban areas, it never presented a well-defined vision for these areas’ long-standing political and civic issues,” he says, adding that that remains the case with every other faction operating now.
Nusrat is not the only former MQM member reflecting on the ways the party could have done better. Mustafa Kamal, while not against the idea of bringing all Mohajir groups on one platform, remains one of the biggest detractors of his former party and leader.
THE PSP’S CONUNDRUM
On March 3 this year, the PSP celebrated its anniversary. Six years ago, Mustafa Kamal and Anis Kaimkhani returned to Karachi from Dubai and challenged the writ of their once revered leader Altaf Hussain. But six years and two elections later, the PSP still appears to be at an infancy stage.
While more than 80 percent of the PSP’s leadership and cadre was once associated with the MQM, Kamal misses no opportunity to decry the party. He often points out how little the party did for the Urdu-speaking community during its 35-year-long reign. He maintains that whatever good he did for Karachi as city mayor, between 2005-2010, was his own decision and had nothing to do with Hussain and the MQM.
He, like many others, also blames the MQM for all the bloodshed in Karachi over the years. And he ignores the fact that his number 2, Anis Kaimkhani, was Hussain’s number 1 man in Pakistan from 2008 to May 2013.
Kamal also insists that his party should not be seen as an MQM offshoot.
On multiple occasions, he has maintained that he believes that both MQM-P and the PPP have exploited ethnic hatred in Sindh just for their petty gains.His party is not interested in this kind of politics, he says.
Kamal’s focus is on strengthening his party in Karachi and Hyderabad. And, at present, the organisational structure of the PSP is said to be stronger and bigger than that of MQM-P.
The PSP saw no electoral success in the 2018 general election and last year’s cantonment board elections. But Kamal contested a by-election on a National Assembly seat (NA-249), left vacant by PTI’s Faisal Vawda in April 2021, and got more votes than the MQM-P and PTI candidates.
This writer sent questions to the PSP to get the party’s official version, but no response was received despite multiple reminders.
GOING FOR THE WIN
With the chances of the different factions coming together anytime soon being slim, MQM-P convener Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui is currently focusing his energies on the upcoming local government elections. He believes that the elections will have a “different dynamic” this year than the previous one.
“With remote chances of alignment between the MQM and its so-called factions, it won’t make any considerable impact on the existing vote bank of the party,” he says.
Against the backdrop of an agreement that the PPP had signed with the JI and Mustafa Kamal’s PSP, Dr Siddiqui says there is a strong rumour about an electoral alliance between the PPP, the JI and the PSP for the upcoming elections.
“It will be interesting to see the JI’s new electoral strategy this time, as they had an alliance with the PTI in the last LG elections,” he says, referring to the 2015 local government elections which were contested by the PTI and the JI jointly on one election symbol.
“Although the MQM is in courts with a number of cases pertaining to the new LG law, [regarding] delimitation and carving out new districts in Karachi with negative intentions, we still believe the MQM will emerge as the single largest political party in the urban areas of Sindh including Karachi, Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas,” says the current MQM-P chief.
He is, however, worried about the fact that his party is an ally of the ruling PTI at the centre.
“After being a victim of gerrymandering in the 2018 general elections, MQM decided to become an ally of the PTI in the new political arrangement at the federal level,” he recalls. “The alliance between the two political parties came into being after signing an agreement in public.” The agreement, he adds, was all about public demands.
He says that now the MQM, as a representative of the poor and the lower and middle classes of Pakistan, is “quite concerned” about the governance at both federal and provincial levels.
“The situation is getting worse for the masses in terms of the economy and inflation with every passing day,” he says. “The hike in the prices of everyday items such as groceries and fuel has made a huge dent on the common Pakistani. Being a partner and ally of the federal government, the MQM feels itself being burdened with the policies adopted by the PTI government.”
These day-to-day concerns aside, the fragmented MQM and its factions are unlikely to garner the same kind of support they once enjoyed if the in-fighting continues.
VOK’s Nusrat says that, “barring a miracle”, he does not see MQM-P repeating the electoral success that “once was the hallmark of pre-August 2016 MQM.” “The same,” he adds, “can be predicted about all other factions claiming to represent Karachi.”
Many in the various MQMs recognise that coming together may be the only answer for the party. But this remains a distant reality according to some, and an outright fantasy according to others.
The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @azfar_ashfaque
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 13th, 2022
THE POLITICS OF A NEW PROVINCE
The demand for a separate province for the people of the urban parts of Sindh is aimed at getting administrative and financial authority, which is currently being exercised by those elected from the province’s rural areas.
MQM-H Chief Afaq Ahmed was the first Mohajir politician who called for the creation of a South Sindh province. Then, over a decade ago, MQM founder Altaf Hussain had presented the idea of two administrative units — Sindh-1 and Sindh-2 — to preserve the identity of Sindh. However, during his time, the MQM never presented a new province as an official demand by the party.
After parting ways with Hussain, MQM-P realised that the survival of its politics lay in vociferously raising the demand of a new province to be carved out of Sindh. This, they seem to believe, would attract Mohajir voters — particularly from Karachi — towards them.
When Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui replaced Dr Farooq Sattar as MQM-P convener in 2018, the party also officially raised its voice for a separate province, but not on ethnic lines, rather on an administrative basis.
While creating a new province without having two-thirds majority in the assembly of that particular province is next to impossible, MQM-P tabled a bill in the National Assembly to amend the constitutional provision in this regard. The bill is still with the standing committee concerned for deliberations.
At a background briefing to a select group of journalists, a top-ranking MQM-P leader was asked why they were talking about the division of Sindh when they did not have the numbers required for such legislation. He replied that it was more important to raise voice for a new province as there was a consensus among certain quarters that Pakistan could not function with the existing four big provinces.
He said, sooner or later, the country would get more federating units such as South Punjab, and the Hazara and Bahawalpur provinces. “We have to show them there is a popular demand for a new province in Sindh,” he added.
All other groups have also favoured the demand of a separate province for the people of urban areas. But the PSP, the second largest among the Mohajir groups, doesn’t agree with the demand. Its chief Mustafa Kamal has, time and again, expressed the fear that the demand for division of Sindh might result in persecution of the Urdu-speaking community living peacefully in rural parts of Sindh.
“The MQM cannot get separated even by a street in Liaquatabad in the name of Mohajir politics, but they are demanding a separate province just to fool the people,” Kamal said at a recent press conference.
The role of the establishment in the affairs of all Mohajir groups is an open secret. While Altaf Hussain was also known for taking ‘advice’ from the powers that be, the current leadership of different factions seems to take this to new heights. The establishment has made inroads in all MQM groups, whether they are in the country or outside, and are reportedly told to get prior permission in the name of consultation for their every move.
There’s a simple reason behind this. Almost every leader, regardless of their current affiliation, is booked in sedition/terrorism cases, which were registered against them because of listening to Hussain’s speeches in which he criticised the security establishment over the phone from his London abode. They fear that their fate would be sealed the moment they try to go against the powers that be.
“Pehlay bhi sector walon ka dar tha aur ab bhi sector walon ka hi dar hai [We feared the sector in charges earlier, and now also we fear those in charge of sectors,” comments one party worker, making a thinly veiled comparison between the MQM’s sector in charges during Altaf Hussain’s time and the sector of an intelligence agency.
Those in MQM-P, who still have a soft corner for Hussain, apparently fear openly expressing their views. “Getting arrested and facing prison and courts is a risk anyone is willing to take. But what we don’t want is to see ourselves included in the list of missing persons,” says one Altaf Hussain loyalist, who has quit politics instead of being associated with any of the groups.
Since 2016, many people have been taken into custody over mere suspicion of being in touch with the London-based leadership or raising their voice in favour of Hussain on social media. Many of them were released after weeks of detention without ever being formally arrested. They were released only after they or their families gave undertakings that they, or their loved ones, would never again engage in such activities.
However, another open secret is that many low- to mid-level cadre in the MQM-P and PSP tacitly work with the security establishment. These individuals apparently inform the security establishment not only of every move their respective parties are going to make, but also about those considered to be sympathetic to Hussain or even slightly critical of the establishment. And, at the senior level, it is very common to complain against each other just to remain in the good books of certain quarters.