People & Society

Waseem Akhtar: The party man

Updated 27 Jul, 2016 07:55pm

Subversion is best practised subtly but when it is learnt and perfected in the streets of Karachi, it gets a brazen edge to it. Waseem Akhtar’s brash anti-government move in the 1990s could easily be the reason why, two decades later, Altaf Hussain, the London-based leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), has nominated him as the mayor of Karachi.

Akhtar comes across as stiff and brusque to those who meet him, at first — and even to long-standing political opponents. But as he narrates how, while under house arrest, he exposed the then provincial government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), he becomes quite animated.

Those were troubled times: an army-led, anti-MQM operation was going on in Karachi, as were clashes between the Altaf Hussain-led and Haqiqi factions of the party. The police put Akhtar behind bars on May 4, 1994, but he developed medical problems due to torture in custody and the government changed his imprisonment into house arrest after he underwent back surgery during detention.

At home, Akhtar watched in despair as the Sindh government picked on Feroza Begum, an MQM member of the Sindh Assembly. The police arrested her son, Hafiz Osama Qadri, also a former member of the Sindh Assembly, on August 21, 1996, in what his mother described as “a barbaric way”. Two weeks after his arrest, Qadri was given in the custody of a police officer, Chaudhry Aslam, whom Akhtar calls an “encounter specialist”. When the police did not produce Qadri in a court after the expiry of his remand, his mother feared the worst. Then she herself disappeared, resurfacing at the Governor House two days later to take oath as provincial minister. Qadri was spared, but a once loyal Feroza Begum was seen as having deserted the MQM.

Enter Ardeshir Cowasjee. In his Dawn column on September 20, 1996, he blew the lid off Begum’s oath-taking: “...the government had threatened Feroza Begum that were she not to accept the post of a minister and agree to be sworn in, she would never again see her son alive.”

Having spent time in prison is seen as a mark of struggle and sacrifice within the party.

Akhtar vividly remembers his reaction to the revelation: “Reading Cowasjee’s column left me fuming. If the government attacks the men, fine, we can deal with that. When it attacks a widowed woman, how shameless can it possibly get?” Even in his narration, there is anger. “I scribbled a very angry note on the column, addressing it to the [then] Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah,” says Akhtar. He then smuggled the note out of his house, ensuring that its copies reached “the chief justice, the army chief, the president and the prime minister.”

A few days later, much to the surprise of the police posted outside his house, summons arrived from the Supreme Court. Shah had taken notice of Qadri’s case, nominating Akhtar as the petitioner. The court ordered the police to produce Begum and Qadri so that the veracity of Cowasjee’s claims could be ascertained.

Akhtar, meanwhile, plotted Begum’s escape from the government’s clutches: Whenever she was driven home through Azizabad, she would make her driver stop and then dash towards Nine Zero, the MQM headquarters. And this is exactly what she did. She received a hero’s welcome from the MQM upon her return that brought renewed political conviction among the party ranks. “Altaf Bhai really appreciated what I had done and it meant a lot to me that he did,” Akhtar says.

The appreciation was in line with the MQM culture in which subversive superiority is a mark of status and a measure of character. Akhtar took a decade to earn it.

Soon, the PPP government was toppled and Akhtar was released. The MQM won its usual tally of seats in the election held — and that is when he first spoke to Altaf Hussain. “He called me on a landline and said he had decided that I would be a minister,” Akhtar says. He remembers that the entire conversation happened in English. “I was surprised that he did not speak in Urdu, but I went with it. I later discovered that I was being put through a test: could I speak English? Could I speak it well?” Akhtar says with a smirk.

Akhtar at the time was a young, educated man in awe of his party’s chief. Qadri’s case propelled him into becoming one of Altaf Hussain’s trusted aides.

Waseem Akhtar in his office outside his  home
Waseem Akhtar in his office outside his home

Honesty and principles are recurring themes when Akhtar speaks about his father, Akhtar Mohammad Khan, who retired as a superintendent of the police in 1965.

“When I was in jail, my father never came to visit me. ‘I don’t meet prisoners. I’ll wait for him to be released to meet him,’ is what he would tell my mother,” Akhtar says. And he is not bitter towards his father. “It was a matter of his principles ... he was not my enemy.”

It is just past 11 am on a Saturday morning and the Sindh High Court building is still waking up to a slow working day. Akhtar is sitting in a courtroom on the third floor in a crisp, white shalwar kameez, awaiting hearing on allegations that he has committed multiple acts of treason and terrorism. The complainants – unknown individuals – have also accused him of inciting violence, harming national institutions and national interest in his remarks during television talk shows.

Akhtar is among the first to arrive to the courtroom, even before the court staff. His face does not show if he is tense, but there is a hint of frustration – perhaps over the delay in the proceedings – in his movements. Sitting with his arms folded across his chest, he carefully scans his surroundings and the people in the courtroom.

Reading Cowasjee’s column left me fuming. If the government attacks the men, fine, we can deal with that. When it attacks a widowed woman, how shameless can it possibly get?

He would rather have spent that morning having a walk with his wife, Naila Wajid Khan. A provincial government employee, she worked as Karachi’s executive district officer of revenue when the city administration was headed by Mustafa Kamal.

Akhtar’s main counsel is Khwaja Naveed Ahmed, known as one of the best criminal lawyers in Karachi. The two men go back a long way. When Akhtar was working as adviser on home affairs in the mid-2000s, Naveed was the provincial advocate general. They were both members of a review committee that quashed over 3,500 criminal cases against MQM leaders and activists – including Altaf Hussain, Farooq Sattar and Shoaib Bukhari – as part of General Pervez Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Order (NRO). After the Supreme Court struck down the NRO on December 16, 2009, the judges were told that the record of the quashed cases was “no longer available”. Nobody knows who took it away. Back in the courtroom, I cannot help but wonder if Akhtar Mohammad Khan would have approved of his son’s involvement in countless court cases. Akhtar is unapologetic. “The PPP government registered 64 cases against me. Not a single one stood trial,” he says. “[The government] called station house officers from across the city [to file cases]. But they did it without any coordination or sense. They could not put the time and place of the offences right, which is why none of those cases was proven in courts. So, for example, on the same day and at the same time, Waseem Akhtar would be committing a murder and robbing a bank,” he explains.

Akhtar is even more dismissive of the latest charges against him. “What they are doing this time around is child’s play compared to what they did before,” he says, without elaborating who “they” are. He is among the few MQM leaders who have stuck their neck out during the current law and order operation in Karachi. As the law enforcement agencies started picking up MQM activists – and a court in Lahore put a ban on Altaf Hussain’s media coverage – many leaders of the party became scared and/or silent. He, however, has kept speaking out, sometimes aggressively. “Let’s be honest, it is a terribly torturous time for the MQM,” remarks one senior party leader, “and Akhtar has come out of it as an anchor holding everything firm”.

Also read: The million dollar question—MQM

Akhtar believes that he is leading the subversion again, not as a wily behind-the-scene operator as was the case in 1996, but as a loud voice of opposition, calibrated to boost morale among the party’s cadres and cause maximum outrage among the opponents. He seems to be conveying a straightforward message: the MQM still has the gumption and the street power to take its critics and opponents head on, despite the drubbing it is receiving in the media and at the hands of the security establishment.

Akhtar led the MQM charge in the recently concluded local government election, particularly in Lines Area and Landhi, where the Haqiqi faction has always tried to make inroads. His presence on the street was meant to serve a dual purpose: to reassure the party’s supporters that their leaders had not run away and to convince the fence sitters that the MQM’s demise is being vastly exaggerated. Since the reassurance came from one of Altaf Hussain’s closest associates, it carried weight.

Past noon, a lawyer walks in. He is representing the former federal petroleum minister Dr Asim Hussain in terrorism and corruption cases. Akhtar greets him and asks about a case in which Asim Hussain is accused of providing medical treatment to terrorists sent to him by MQM leaders, including Akhtar himself. The lawyer dismisses the evidence in the case as flawed. The two exchange hopeful nods.

At 1:22 pm, the buzzer rings from the judge’s chamber. After a three-hour-long wait, Akhtar finally appears before the judge and seeks an extension in bail. His request is granted — all in five minutes.

Downstairs, reporters are waiting to know about the proceedings. Ahmed fields most of the questions before Akhtar starts talking about delays in the mayoral election. It is, indeed, the latest addition to the MQM’s narrative of “struggle for survival”: a party that has won a thumping electoral majority is being denied power in the city (by the provincial government of PPP) through the combined impact of a watered-down local government law and delay in balloting for mayor. At the same time, the top MQM leaders, including its mayor-designate, are being harassed (by the rangers and the security establishment) into submission and silence through arrests and court cases. Akhtar is thrust into an unenvied position of both symbolising and leading the political and judicial strands of this narrative. He would have preferred to go home after the court appearance, but the orders from the party high command have arrived for him to join a token hunger strike at the Karachi Press Club, that is being observed to protest against the media ban on Altaf Hussain.

Akhtar chats with his son in their living room
Akhtar chats with his son in their living room

Having spent time in prison is seen as a mark of struggle and sacrifice within the party, a badge of political honour. Prison is also where often the party’s cadres learn about ideology and history. Akhtar shared a prison cell with Farooq Sattar who regularly organised study circles for the MQM prisoners. “I have learnt a lot from Farooq bhai,” says Akhtar.

Sattar, however, is not the first major MQM leader that Akhtar came into contact with. That would be Raza Haroon, a former Sindh minister who is seldom seen on the party platforms these days. Until a couple of years ago, he was known to be among the party’s Young Turks, leading an internal campaign to wean the MQM of its past, tainted by allegations of violence, extortion and target killing.

There, however, is a personal reason why Akhtar became political. In the mid 1970s, he applied for a job at the government-run roti plant near Hasan Square in Karachi. As a qualified engineer, he thought he fulfilled the criteria for the post. Additionally, his father had ensured that he went through the tests and interviews without a hitch. So, Akhtar developed expectations of getting an appointment letter.

The call finally came and he went to the plant, only to be told by an Urdu-speaking officer that the job had already gone to someone with better connections. “He said to me, ‘there is a problem; you speak Urdu’. I did not understand what he was saying. He told me I would not understand, not at the time anyway.” When the understanding finally dawned on him, he found himself working for the MQM.

Also read: Operation overkill: How not to improve law and order in Karachi

Failing to get a government job, Akhtar started exploring other options and landed a job with American telecommunications giant, AT&T, in Saudi Arabia. This was in 1976. He spent the next decade in Saudi Arabia and returned home reluctantly, only to attend to his ageing parents.

After his arrival in Karachi, his father handed him a bulky package as a welcome home gift: All the money he had remitted back home lay in front of him as a stack of saving certificates. His father did not use a penny. The money was enough for young Akhtar to start a business of his own.

He set up a small workshop, assembling radio sets, tape recorders and telephone sets. Many years later, when the MQM came to power, he set up another business: supplying pharmaceutical products to federal government-run hospitals.

Akhtar also began paying close attention to the politics of Karachi soon after his return from Saudi Arabia. He started visiting the local MQM office in PECHS area where he lived at the time with his family. Haroon was the man in charge of that office.

When MQM workers were being mowed down like flies in 1992, Lines Area cadres used to say, ‘Waseem Akhtar is a burger; he will run for safety.’ But I never fled... I have never betrayed the party.

Akhtar does not belong to the same underprivileged and lower-middle classes that most MQM voters, supporters and activists come from. But his failure to get the roti plant job helped him understand the reasons for the disempowerment of Urdu speakers. “My business started suffering because I was spending far too much time on politics,” he says.

He formally joined the MQM in 1987, which then seemed like an unstoppable political force. It had its mayors in both Hyderabad and Karachi, and faced little, if any, political challenges in the two urban centres.

Waseem Akhtar at work
Waseem Akhtar at work

By 1992-1993, the political situation in Karachi had taken many twists and turns, with the PPP and the MQM becoming (briefly) friends from foes, and then becoming arch-enemies again. A military-led security operation also started in the city in those years, mainly aimed at eliminating the urban militancy that the MQM was allegedly leading. Akhtar was at the forefront during those street fighting days, ending up in jail under multiple charges of robbery, targeted shooting and murder.

When the general elections swung by in 1993, the MQM was in the soup. Many of its leaders – including Altaf Hussain – had either gone underground or had left the country; thousands of party activists were in jail and hundreds had died in real and fake encounters with the security agencies. The media was portraying the MQM as a terrorist organisation, bent upon creating a separate state for Urdu speakers (with India’s help) and internal disagreements, even dissensions and desertions, were rife in the party. Either in protest or as a result of some behind-the-scenes manoeuvres, the MQM decided to boycott the election for the National Assembly, but did take part in those for the provincial assembly. There were few in the city, in any case, willing to fight the election from the MQM platform. Akhtar was one of them.

“We went door to door, searching for candidates, but times were such that nobody was prepared to do so,” Akhtar recalls. Dr Imran Farooq – slain on September 2010 in London, in what the British authorities allege was a targeted attack – suggested Akhtar should contest the election himself. “I agreed.” The MQM won the provincial election in Karachi and he became a member of the provincial assembly for the first time.

“[H]e parties hard,” is a common remark made about Akhtar within the MQM. There is more than a hint of envy in it; the indication of a suspicion among the MQM voters that those party leaders who have a privileged background cannot be trusted. How could the son of a police officer, who lives in a bungalow in a posh locality, possibly understand the problems of those who live in single-room lodgings and who struggle to put food on the table? “He is not a people’s man,” admits a senior MQM parliamentarian.

Akhtar takes particular offence at such statements and retorts that the core MQM constituents do not have any problem with him. He says he has already put suspicions about him to rest. “When MQM workers were being mowed down like flies in 1992, Lines Area cadres used to say, ‘Waseem Akhtar is a burger; he will run for safety.’ But I never fled ... I have never betrayed the party,” he says.

He enjoys strong support within the Lines Area. Some have personal reasons for that. “He helped our family stay afloat,” says one woman. Her husband was killed in the 1992 military operation and his son is under trial on terrorism charges. “I do not know if the party sent him with money or if it was his own, but he helped us,” she tells the Herald.

The way his opponents in the area describe him also suggests that he understands the local political dynamics well. “He is an old pro and knows everything,” is the verdict on him among those affiliated with the Haqiqi faction. They also call him the “lord of terrorists and extortionists”.

Critics allege Akhtar made money while working as an adviser on home affairs. The allegation goes that his real estate business flourished, he bought an expensive home in Defence Housing Authority and started driving a BMW car. His gold Rolex watch, too, is seen as evidence of his “corruption”.

His wife is also alleged to have misused her authority by awarding contracts that caused massive losses to the city district government in Karachi. Since Akhtar was running the home department at the time and had the police and other law enforcement agencies working under him, the critics allege, she had no one to fear. Some PPP leaders claim Akhtar released hundreds of target killers affiliated to his party on parole.

The issue of parole releases also came up during multiple hearings conducted by the Supreme Court over law and order in Karachi. The judges expressed their displeasure over them, sometimes dubbing them as a major factor behind violence in the city. The apex court, however, has not held anyone responsible for them — not yet, so far.

Akhtar rejects corruption charges against him as baseless and flaunts his watch as a proof that he was always quite well off. “I purchased this watch in Jeddah. I had it even when I was in jail,” he says. The watch, indeed, has been the subject of much conjecture. He was once summoned to London to explain how he got it. Akhtar proved that he had purchased the watch much before he had joined the party. As proof, he produced photographs taken during his incarceration in Karachi. One photo has a masseur working Akhtar’s head while he smokes away without a shirt on. The watch glitters conspicuously on his wrist.

Waseem Akhtar with his son and pet dog, Snoopy
Waseem Akhtar with his son and pet dog, Snoopy

Within the MQM’s public relations machinery, the buzzword today is a “new appearance”. The question is: why does the party need a new appearance? Is the old one not good enough? Has the old one become problematic?

Part of the answer to these questions can be found in the changed role for Akhtar. Over three decades, he has built the image of a blunt-talking loudmouth, quick to take offence. This is aided and strengthened by his party’s regular requirement to run down its opponents — if not politically, then, at least, verbally. “He does what the party asks him to do and he does it with a lot of enthusiasm,” says Sattar, the most senior MQM leader after Altaf Hussain.

Akhtar’s job until recently, according to Syed Aminul Haque, in charge of the MQM’s public information section, “was to defend the party on the electronic media”. And Akhtar was doing that in the manner of a hardliner: the party and its chief can do nothing wrong, so he must defend them as aggressively as he can.

He is seen shouting and even abusing political opponents on many talk shows. In one of his most fiery television appearances, he walks out of a show when the host gives airtime to a Haqiqi activist. In a presser outside the National Assembly, he shouts: “Women are made to dance in every house in Punjab”. He, however, clarifies that he wanted to say: “Poor women are made to dance in every feudal lord’s house in Punjab”.

Also read: Altaf Hussain: Politics on mute

Akhtar’s assignment has changed now, says Haque, “from defending the party to being the custodian of the city”. He is no more a member of the MQM coordination committee (the party’s highest decision-making body) or as the chief of the party’s central executive council (its highest administrative entity). He has also been relieved of the duty to defend the party in the media.

The party now needs him to hide his abruptness and instead project himself as a benign, soft-spoken father figure, happy to treat the citizens of Karachi as his children. He is often seen trying to smile for cameras, but the effort to keep up appearance is already taking a psychological toll on him. “This is a very difficult task,” he remarks about smiling for the camera. At the token hunger strike, he briefly brings his old aggressive intensity to the proceedings. The first day of the strike did not draw in too many participants and a repeat of that is unacceptable on the second day. He, however, exhibits no signs of his former edginess, not even his trademark hostility towards MQM’s detractors.

When he speaks, he shies away from controversial political issues. His focus remains solely on the local government. Though he talks of the “machinations” to keep the MQM out of power in Karachi, he keeps his remarks vague and does not single out any individual or organisation as being responsible for that.

The MQM kept local government and broader politics similarly apart when Kamal was heading the city government from 2004 till 2009. Behind the scenes, however, the party and the city government were working as one. For instance, the party’s supporters would send their job applications to Nine Zero, but most of the jobs for them would be found in the local government departments. This allowed the party to simultaneously keep its voters happy and its representatives in the city government under control — maintaining the supremacy of the party structure over the government structure. The MQM expects to create a similar arrangement this time around, too, in order to regain the ground it has lost due to the current security operation in Karachi (that started in September 2013) and the concurrent media coverage that portrays the arrest of the party’s workers as successful antiterrorism moves.

But while Kamal was plucked out of obscurity, Akhtar brings with him a lot of political and personal baggage — both real and perceived. Some in the MQM are asking if he will be able to control his famously short fuse and maintain the facade of separation of political and administrative authority as Kamal could. Does he, at the ripe age of 60, have the stamina of a much younger Kamal to run around the city, day in and day out, to supervise development schemes and the provision of civic amenities? Can he inspire a younger set of voters in Karachi to vote for the MQM as Kamal once did?

“The party has kept him buried in bureaucratic work for years,” says a disgruntled MQM activist. “How is he expected to reconnect with voters after he has had no direct link with them for years?”Akhtar, he says, wore a suit and a tie while visiting his old constituency. “Most people will not approach you if you are dressed like that.”

Akhtar will also be heading the city administration at a particularly challenging time for the MQM. When Sattar became Karachi’s mayor in 1987, the party had the exuberance of a teenager and the voters and supporters had limited expectations. Kamal enjoyed a comfortable ride thanks to support from Musharraf. Money was flowing into Karachi both from the federal government and the provincial administration and the MQM had a free reign in the city. Musharraf had instilled what an MQM leader calls “khula khao, nanga nahao” (make money and make merry) culture and the party benefited from it so much that it developed the ambition to expand its exclusively Urdu-speaking base. It opened offices and ran election campaigns in areas as far as Punjab, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir, though with little success.

Today, the MQM finds its wings clipped and its turf under threat. Having seen what Kamal could achieve, the party’s voters and supporters have developed massive expectations from the incoming city government. Akhtar is already wary of those expectations. Even before taking over as mayor, he has started pointing out that he may not perform as well as he is expected to until interference in the city’s administration – both by the provincial government and the security establishment – comes to an end.

His party is also wary of dissensions and desertions. Facing an uncertain future, the MQM is not willing to give the reins of the city in hands it cannot trust, especially after Kamal’s recent allegations that Altaf Hussain and the MQM are working to harm Pakistan with India’s support. In such circumstances, as one party leader puts it, Akhtar is the “need of the hour”.

This was originally published in the Herald's March 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

All photographs are by Mohammad Ali, White Star

The writer is a staff member at Dawn Daily.