Altaf Hussain is the founder and chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Previously known as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, Hussain’s party started off as a political group with the aim of representing the Urdu-speaking community which had migrated to Pakistan due to Partition. Hussain currently lives in London where he has been in self-exile for the past 20 years.
Hussain was born on September 17, 1953 in Karachi. His father, Nazir Hussain, had been a station master in the Indian Railways. His parents were from Agra in India and migrated to Pakistan after Partition. Hussain obtained his early education at a public school in Karachi’s Azizabad neighbourhood, a middle-class locality in Karachi where the MQM chief spent his early years and his youth. He later enrolled at the University of Karachi to study Pharmacy and graduated from the program in 1979.
Early political career and the formation of MQM
Hussain’s political career began during his student years in KU when he and Azeem Ahmed Tariq founded the All-Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO).
Formed in 1978, APMSO gained a massive following within a short period of time.
And although it did not perform well in KU’s 1980 student union election, APMSO managed to double the number of its votes with its inclusion in the anti-Zia United Students Movement (USM) during the 1981 union election. During the time, APMSO also faced stiff opposition from Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT), the student wing of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).
In 1984, key APMSO leaders launched the Mohajir Qaumi Movement – a political party that was to serve as student organisation’s senior partner. The party was publicly launched by Hussain in Karachi’s Nishtar Park in 1986. Ethnic strife and continual bouts of urban conflicts were nearing a climax at the time and MQM quickly gained recognition with a good number of supporters in Karachi and parts of lower Sindh.
Under Hussain’s leadership, MQM swept the 1988 election in Sindh’s urban areas, emerging as the third largest party. It entered into a cooperation agreement with Pakistan Peoples Party, enabling it to become part of the government. However, differences developed between the parties and in 1989 the alliance fell apart.
In the 1990 election, MQM again emerged as the third largest party forming an alliance and a coalition government with Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), the leading party at the time. The coalition partners had a falling out in 1992.
Both PPP- and PML-N-led coalition governments tottered on the edge of collapse, after Hussain and his party withdrew from the coalitions.
In 1997, MQM changed its name from Mohajir Qaumi Movement to Muttahida Qaumi Movement in order to develop from a party representing a single community to one that could play a greater role in national politics.
The party also saw the formation of a breakaway faction – MQM - Haqiqi. This particular faction continues to carry the original name of Hussain’s party – Mohajir Qaumi Movement. And although it did not have much of an impact on capturing the original party’s vote bank, the MQM - Haqiqi did feature in the increased levels of unrest in Karachi and the infamous 1992 operation.
In the early 1990s, the MQM chief went into exile as the government at the time conducted an operation in Karachi. The operation, said to be directed against “terrorist” and “criminal” elements in Karachi, resulted in effectively becoming action against MQM and with it, Karachi was caught in the middle of a war involving law enforcement agencies and political parties. Hussain’s elder brother Nasir Hussain and nephew Arif Hussain were also killed during this period of violence.
The MQM has been accused of using violent tactics to attain and retain political power. On the contrary, Hussain has said that the state and other political parties have targeted MQM and its workers ever since its formation.
Viewed as the man who controls Karachi from London, Hussain has pledged that his party, if elected in the coming general election, would give Pakistan a just and equitable system. He has also vowed to improve the lot of the country’s women with a focus on women living in Pakistan’s rural areas.
The MQM chief has also been critical of the previous government’s failure to curb terrorism and adopt effective measures for protecting citizens' lives and properties. Hussain has also been warning that the Taliban are establishing themselves in Karachi in an organised manner.
The MQM chief has also been in the headlines over his remarks relating to calls for the division of Sindh over the government’s failure to administer a local government election over which he faced criticism from certain political quarters.
In December 2012, Hussain was issued a contempt of court notice over his remarks against the judiciary. Following which, the MQM chief tendered an apology to the apex court which was accepted.
— Research and text by Soonha Abro