In-Depth

How Altaf Hussain maintains his image as MQM's supreme leader

Updated Sep 02, 2016 03:24pm

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Altaf Hussain addresses a crowd at MQM’s first convention at Nishtar Park, Karachi, August 1986 |  Pictoral Biography of Altaf Hussain
Altaf Hussain addresses a crowd at MQM’s first convention at Nishtar Park, Karachi, August 1986 | Pictoral Biography of Altaf Hussain

On the third day of June 2014, everything came to a grinding halt in Karachi just after 1pm.

As news started filtering through the airwaves that Altaf Hussain – the founder and chief of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM)– Karachi’s most powerful political party, had been arrested in London on money laundering charges, everybody wanted to be home before anything untoward happened.

Petrol pumps were cordoned off; markets and offices emptied out; panic spread, and fear and anxiety was writ large on the streets of Karachi. The city – which has a terrible history of violent protests – seemed like a ticking time bomb, which, upon explosion, could destroy everything. Many wondered why an event 4,000 miles away should make the city so nervous.

Part of the answer to this question lies in the fact that MQM has the capacity to shut down the city if and when it wants. The other part points to the reputation that the party, as well as Karachi, has acquired over the decades of reacting violently to anything directly or indirectly linked to the politics of the city.

For rivals and critics of MQM and Hussain, the ability to make Karachi feel jittery over any political development that the party and its Quaid (leader) do not approve of, stands as unambiguous proof that MQM consists of a bunch of goons with their leader as don. However, for sympathisers and die-hard supporters, the party and its leader have been saviours of the mohajirs; they have given mohajirs an identity, and have successfully mobilised the community to stand up against economic injustice and ethnic prejudice. For such followers, Hussain is the leader they are willing to lay down their lives for and MQM is the party they will do anything for — no questions asked.

There are other leaders and parties in Pakistan, which have a similar history of engaging in identity politics and popular mobilisation on issues of social and economic injustice. However, none of them can boast of as sustained and staunch a following as the MQM and Hussain.

The bus accident that killed Bushra Zaidi, a 19-year old Mohajir student, in April 1985 and the consequent Mohajir-Pakhtuns riots in Karachi, led to a large scale weaponisation of MQM.

Even though Hussain has been away from Pakistan since December 1991, hardly any serious contenders to his authority have surfaced in the MQM. More importantly, for sympathisers and supporters, the party’s ideology, or whatever remains of it, has become subservient to the personality of its founding leader.

Also read: Satire — Diary of Altaf Hussain

“Humein manzil nahin rehnuma chahiye,” (We don’t need the destination but the leader) has become the staple slogan for MQM workers and voters. The phrase succinctly captures why, in the presence of Hussain, the party does not need to galvanise its core supporters around the economic, cultural and political issues that were its founding principles.

The rise of the leader and his movement


Mohajirs, mainly Urdu-speaking migrants from India who came to Pakistan after Partition, were subjected to prejudice and discrimination in many spheres of life as early as the late 1950s. From 1958 onwards, they saw their significance and power as a community slipping away rapidly, as Punjabis and Pakhtuns began dominating the military, bureaucracy and even businesses.

Relocation of the federal capital from Karachi to Islamabad, on the confluence of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, further strengthened this feeling of marginalisation among the Mohajirs. These insecurities were further heightened by two major incidents of violence in Karachi, in 1965 and 1972, which pitted first Mohajirs against Pakhtuns and then Sindhis, respectively.

Illustration by Sana Nasir
Illustration by Sana Nasir

The conflict with the Sindhis in particular, summed up by renowned Urdu-language poet Rais Amrohvi in “Urdu ka janaza hai zara dhoom say niklay” (It is the funeral of Urdu, carry it out with fanfare), was seen by Mohajirs as a direct attack on their distinct cultural identity. The rise of Hussain and the movement he founded can be traced back to the early 1970s. As he notes in his autobiography, Safar-e-Zindagi, he experienced prejudice first-hand when he was receiving paramilitary training in the wake of the 1971 war with India. He says the derogatory language that mainly Punjabi trainers used to address Urdu-speaking trainees from Karachi and Hyderabad, left an indelible mark on his impressionable mind.

Later, as a student at the Department of Pharmacy at Karachi University, he heard many similar stories of discrimination against the Mohajir youth and felt the need to create a platform for these students to promote and protect their rights. Along with fellow students such as Azim Ahmed Tariq, Shahid Latif, Ahmed Salim Siddiqui and many others, Hussain laid the foundation of the All Pakistan Muhajir Students Organisation (APMSO) in June 1978.


Interviews with Hussain’s old associates, who have been part of the APMSO since its early days, reveal that APMSO would never have survived its first three years if Hussain had not been single-mindedly focused on keeping the organisation running, in spite of its meagre finances and threats and instances of violence from other, more established, student groups.

While Tariq and Dr Farooq were considered the brains behind the literature, and were tasked with developing the ideology of APMSO, Hussain emerged as the public face and fulcrum of the organisation. This was the beginning of his rise as a symbol of what he calls the Mohajir liberation, which first made a splash through his speech at the Karachi University in 1980, when he demanded that Urdu-speaking Muhajirs be recognised as an ethnic groups living in the country, along with Sindhis, the Baloch, Punjabis and Pakhtuns.

Also read: Waseem Akhtar — The party man

During its early years, MQM got a shot in the arm when stalwarts of Karachi’s Muhajir intelligentsia supported its message, giving it much-needed legitimacy.

Poet Amrohvi explained this in an interview with an Indian magazine, Economic and Political Weekly: “No people in the world feel ashamed of the land of their origin. So why should we? … We opted for Pakistan which promised to have Urdu as its national language, Indo-Islamic culture as its ethos, and Pakistan as its sole nationality… There is nothing wrong in the Pak-Indians’ demand for recognition as the fifth nationality of Pakistan, and having its own homeland.”

It should be noted that Professor Karrar Hussain, perhaps the most well known educationist in Pakistan during the 1960s and 1970s, and famed philanthropist Hakim Muhammad Saeed, were both known MQM sympathizers in the early 1980s.

Mohajir ethnic identity


The demand for Mohajir ethnic identity immediately caught on in Karachi and other urban parts of Sindh, which were dominated by Urdu-speaking migrants. This helped Hussain build his image as the saviour of the Mohajirs.

As Noman Baig writes in his 2008 thesis “From Mohallah to Mainstream”: “Altaf took pains to identify himself with the Mohajir community. According to his speeches, he was the Mohajir community.” Dutch scholar Oskar Verkaaik echos Baig’s point in his seminal book, Migrants and Militants: Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan, where he writes that Hussain “derives his charisma from the fact that he transforms himself into a living symbol of the Mohajir nation.”

MQM supporters express solidarity with their party chief Altaf Hussain during a rally in Karachi during a rally in February 2014 | INP Photo
MQM supporters express solidarity with their party chief Altaf Hussain during a rally in Karachi during a rally in February 2014 | INP Photo

Literature produced for MQM’s internal consumption hammers home the identification of Quaid-e-Tehreek (the leader of the movement) as the movement’s most essential tenet. A pamphlet titled Nazm-o-Zabt Ke Taqazay (rules for organisational discipline), written by Dr Farooq, starts with what senior MQM leader Haider Abbas Rizvi calls “the four pillars of MQM.”

The first and most decisive pillar is “blind faith in the leader.” Without a firm belief on this, the remaining three pillars don’t carry much meaning since indirectly, they also emphasise the need for overcoming one’s ego in order to pursue the collective cause of the organisation.

The entire MQM narrative, indeed, is based on two strongly interlinked strands: a powerful ideological discourse heavily informed by religious symbolism, and spearheaded by the almost mythological figure of Hussain. First and foremost, the word ‘Mohajir’ itself has serious religious connotations, since it was first used for those companions of the Prophet of Islam who had migrated out of Makkah to protect their faith. The leaders and followers of MQM are also called haq parast, or the worshippers of righteousness.

The cardinal sin, however, has always been to question the man on top, the Quaid-e-Tehreek, Altaf Hussain.

The word haq also means ‘rights’, and thereby gives the MQM room to use it, both in religious and political contexts. The party literature distributed during its fikri nashists (or ideological sessions which are addressed by Hussain), and tarbiyati nashists (or training sessions which are addressed by other senior party leaders), also heavily borrow from Islamic history, with particular focus on the incident of Karbala and invoking the spirit of sacrifice for the cause of haq.

Such dexterous use of religious symbolism allowed the party to lure those sections of the Urdu-speaking community who had always supported religious political parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam.

Secondly, Hussain is presented as a larger-than-life personality who also possesses spiritual powers. That explains why, during the late 1980s and 1990s, he was alternately addressed as Quaid-e-Tehreek and pir sahab. As Baig points out, “MQM propaganda featured activists, who claimed to see Altaf’s personification on leaves, and on the floors of mosques.

Altaf encouraged his canonisation and mystification in many ways.” A picture in the corridors of MQM secretariat reinforces this point. It shows an ailing Hussain lying in bed during his hunger strike in 1990, with birds perched on him. Its caption reads: “Pigeons remain perched on Altaf Hussain’s bed and refuse to fly away…”

Anecdotal evidence of selfless devotion to Hussain, in fact, abounds. “My husband was a successful businessman but I told him that I’ll pick bhai [Hussain] and the party over him,” says a woman who has been a party worker for the last 23 years, as she explains the circumstances of her separation from her husband.

“This is the lesson bhai has taught us: to be willing and ready to sacrifice anything and everything for our cause,” she says. (Hussain is big brother to everyone in the party. Even those senior to him in age call him bhai, like they would their elder brothers out of respect for them.)

A senior party leader fondly recalls how Hussain kept calling him from London on his wedding day to ensure everything was alright. “When bhai found out I was not wearing a pyjama with my sherwani on my wedding day, he first admonished me for being so slack, and then, within half an hour, I had a pyjama delivered at my home,” says the leader.

“Which other national leader in this country can take care of an ordinary worker the way bhai does?” he asks.

Many members and supporters of the MQM have similar stories of being “personally touched” by Hussain on important occasions in their lives.

The driving force


Without a strong party machine, efforts at cultivating Hussain’s image as the prime symbol of the Mohajir cause would not have gone very far. Perpetual training, and the enforcement of organisational discipline, have been key elements in MQM’s evolution as a unified political force and the rise of Hussain as its unquestioned leader.

The two things become all the more important, considering Hussain was not present in the country during important milestones in the party’s history. In February 1981, immediately after the APMSO engaged in its first running battle against the Islami Jamiat Talba at the Karachi University, Hussain left for the US.

Also read: The great divide — Politics of the poor has gone out of fashion

Three years later, he again flew to the US in February 1984, a month before the formal launch of MQM, and returned only in October 1985. He was also travelling abroad when MQM was facing a military operation in Karachi in 1992. During his absence, Tariq and Farooq ensured the development of a strong system to impart training to the MQM cadre. “Lessons were hammered into us,” says Haider Abbas Rizvi, an APMSO alumnus.


The bus accident that killed Bushra Zaidi, a 19-year old Mohajir student, in April 1985 and the consequent Mohajir-Pakhtuns riots in Karachi, led to a large scale weaponisation of MQM.

As they retaliated violently against Pakhtuns for the first time in decades, Mohajirs felt they had found a platform in MQM from where they could stand up and be counted. This realisation drew Mohajir youth to the party in droves, for ideological reasons, for seeking social and economic justice, or in many cases, as Verkaaik writes, just for fun.

A young Altaf stands with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari.  Photo courtesy | Pictoral Biography of Altaf Hussain
A young Altaf stands with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari. Photo courtesy | Pictoral Biography of Altaf Hussain

The Dutch scholar argues that “Mohajir nationalism was driven by the ‘street culture’ of youth, who found MQM’s militant tactics and political gatherings enthralling and exciting avenues, through which they could express their ‘masculinity and competitive physicality’, and undermine the state’s authority.”

MQM was also able to align leisure activities, such as “gym culture” and social clubs, along with its political message to attract the youth. “In short, street nationalism mobilised Mohajirin in urban Sindh under the leadership of the MQM,” Verkaaik writes.

With war raging in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, Karachi became the central transit point for foreign weapons being delivered to the Afghan mujahideen. For this rising political party, which had excitable youth in its ranks, the opportunity to weaponise presented itself on a platter.

The party’s exemplary discipline has been reduced to a pale shadow of its past effectiveness.

The MQM was able to flaunt its street strength with help from its recently acquired arms and armaments, and started taking control of the city. Due to the radical views preached by Hussain, deadly skirmishes between MQM and the state apparatus became a regular affair.

This triggered a siege mentality, which took hold of the party. In the words of an MQM leader, the party was “in a constant state of confrontation” with the state at the time. The period between 1986 and 1990 was a key era in the party’s history as well as Hussain’s evolution as Quaid-e-Tehreek.

It was during these four years that the MQM managed to sweep elections for local governments in Karachi and Hyderabad, and win the National and Sindh Assembly seats falling in the two cities with unprecedented margins. Hussain, however, never participated in any of these elections. The strategy worked; as MQM was able to claim it had brought a middle-class revolution; Hussain strengthened his position as the ultimate kingmaker in the organisation.

Altaf Hussain | Dawn archive
Altaf Hussain | Dawn archive

By joining governments in the centre and Sindh in the 1990s and 2000s, MQM was able to get hold of another avenue to exert influence over its cadre, through its ability to provide secure jobs for party members. Such government jobs meant that party members were indebted to Hussain, for providing them with an opportunity for upward social mobility.

Loyalty above all


Hussain and the party think tank relied on four different planks to enforce discipline and inculcate unshakeable loyalty to Quaid-e-Tehreek – ideology, spiritual and emotional connections, personal relationship with party workers, and economic and physical empowerment. And then there was the X factor.

Ask those belonging to the breakaway MQM Haqiqi faction or Jamaat-e-Islami, and you will hear about countless atrocities committed by the party to keep its members under control.

Also read: Sindh Ranger versus the Sindh government

The cardinal sin, however, has always been to question the man on top, the Quaid-e-Tehreek. The unflinching devotion and obedience demanded from followers distils down to this very basic fact: criticising Hussain is akin to committing blasphemy, with the guilty deserving death.

Residents of Karachi are often reminded of this through street graffiti which says, “Jo Quaid ka ghaddar hai woh maut ka haqdaar hai” (He who betrays the leader deserves death). The first time this slogan appeared on the streets of Karachi was in 1990, when a rift began appearing between Hussain and the main musclemen of his organisation, Afaq Ahmed and Aamir Khan, who later founded the Haqiqi faction.

Two examples perfectly illuminate how loyalty to Hussain became the most fundamental tenet for MQM activists.

The former mayor of Karachi, Mustafa Kamal, once shared a very close relationship with the MQM Chief  | Dawn archives
The former mayor of Karachi, Mustafa Kamal, once shared a very close relationship with the MQM Chief | Dawn archives

One of them was MQM’s oath of allegiance; as recorded in Verkaaik’s book it shows the level of commitment demanded from party members. “ … I shall remain loyal to MQM and Altaf Hussain for my whole life … I swear by my mother that if any conspiracy against MQM or Altaf Hussain, or any act harmful to them come into my knowledge, I shall immediately inform Altaf Hussain, even if the conspirator be my brother, sister, mother, father, any relative or friend. I swear that I shall accept Altaf Hussain’s decision as final in any matter. If I disobey any of his decisions, I must be regarded as a traitor…”

The other was a press conference in July 1991 when 33 MQM parliamentarians, including senior leaders such as Dr Sattar and Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, flew to Lahore to express their allegiance to Hussain.

The oath they read out was drastic even by MQM standards, equating betrayal to Hussain with “committing incest”. It read: “[The] minimum punishment for traitors who betrayed Altaf Hussain is death.”

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

When asked about the Lahore oath, a senior MQM leader did not deny its existence. “That press conference was held to expose those who had planned to leave the party,” he says.

MQM leaders, however, deny allegations that the party bumps off those who show dissent or are disloyal to Hussain. “Dr Aamir Liaquat [a televangelist with large following] is no more with the party but he is alive and doing very well for himself. Is he not?” says another MQM leader who has been part of the organisation for nearly two decades.

Without a strong party machine, efforts at cultivating Hussain’s image as the prime symbol of the Mohajir cause would not have gone very far

While the party continues to insist that it never indulges in violence, police records and the party’s opponents tell another tale. When General (retd) Pervez Musharraf promulgated the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) in 2007, MQM was its biggest beneficiary as the ordinance had annulled 3,775 mostly criminal cases against its members.

Top MQM leaders including Hussain, Saleem Shehzad, Dr Sattar, Dr Farooq and Ishratul Ebad were nominated as accused in 68 cases of murders, 30 cases of attempted murders and 10 cases of kidnapping. Hussain alone was accused in 31 cases of murder. Even after the NRO was rescinded, none of these cases were reopened for investigation and prosecution.

Also read: Satire — Diary of Mustafa Kamal

A JI leader argues that MQM does not operate like a political party at all. “A democratic or a political party culture prepares its cadre for a succession of leadership. People can disagree with their leaders without fearing for their life. The MQM does not have a succession plan and it does not like dissent,” he says.

Giving the example of Mustafa Kamal, Karachi’s former mayor, the JI leader says: “The moment Altaf Hussain feared that Mustafa Kamal will surpass him in popularity, he had him sidelined. That is not how political parties work.”

Weakening grip


For 36 years, Hussain has been leading the party with an iron fist. Remarkably, he has not been in Pakistan for 22 of these years. However, times are changing. In the last four years, MQM has come under tremendous pressure from various directions. Local traders and businessmen bristle whenever the party gives call for a strike, Hussain’s health has become a major concern, and the noose of British law enforcement agencies seems to be tightening around the party’s main leadership, on charges as serious as money laundering and murder. And, in the May 2013 elections, the party faced perhaps its strongest electoral challenge in Karachi since 1985.

Rumours have been abounding for some time that there are many warring factions within the MQM, pulling and tearing it apart from inside. The party’s exemplary discipline has been reduced to a pale shadow of its past effectiveness.

Altaf Hussain delivers a speech | Dawn archive
Altaf Hussain delivers a speech | Dawn archive

All this has led Hussain to exert even more direct control over the party machine. In the summer of 2013, his revamping of the entire central leadership of the party was easily the most important measure he has taken in recent years to retain and perpetuate full control over the organisation and its cadres.

He also allegedly held a closed door session at the MQM’s headquarters in Azizabad where he encouraged his supporters to humiliate some of the most well-known public faces of the party.

However, this could well prove illusory. Another electoral challenge in Karachi, the failure to deliver financial goodies to followers, and a criminal case in London leading to Hussain’s imprisonment, are bound to have a negative effect on party discipline in upcoming months and years.

Without a succession plan, MQM may find it very difficult to pass through future hurdles without splitting into multiple factions.


This was originally published in the Herald's July 2014 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a staffer at the Herald