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Is the worst over for Altaf Hussain?

Updated 13 Jun, 2019 01:17am
MQM supporters express solidarity with their party chief Altaf Hussain during a rally in Karachi, February 2014 | INP Photo
MQM supporters express solidarity with their party chief Altaf Hussain during a rally in Karachi, February 2014 | INP Photo

Altaf Hussain can look forward to 2017 with a smile on his face — in spite of major splits in the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and notwithstanding his ill-judged August 2016 speech. As the long-running police investigations in the United Kingdom into the MQM’s affairs are running out of steam, he will soon be able to proclaim he has been cleared of all wrongdoing.

It all looked so very different 12 months ago. At that point, British authorities were not only investigating the 2010 murder of Altaf Hussain’s once close ally, Imran Farooq, but also probing money laundering and hate speech allegations, both directly linked to Altaf Hussain. Meanwhile in Pakistan, the government was not only enforcing a media blackout of the MQM and Altaf Hussain’s activities, it was also recording the confessions of three men suspected of involvement in Farooq’s murder. The fact that, after many years of mutual misunderstanding over the murder enquiry, Islamabad and London were beginning to cooperate significantly increased the chances that Scotland Yard would make progress in the case.

Having been boxed in by the two government’s investigating authorities, two of the accused – Mohsin Ali Syed and Khalid Shamim – spoke about their role in the murder, from their Pakistani prison cell in January 2016. According to the daily Dawn newspaper, Shamim was reported to have “consented to join the murder plot because he was a diehard MQM activist”. He also claimed to have received the “order to assassinate Dr Farooq” from “senior MQM leader Muhammad Anwar”, who was then known to be close to Altaf Hussain.

Altaf Hussain has long exploited the fact that western governments are attracted to any Pakistani political party or leader that opposes Islamist extremism in the country.

For its part, the MQM stuck to its line that the case had nothing to do with the party. Its leaders in London have always insisted that they want the killers of Farooq brought to justice and that they are cooperating with any investigations into what happened to him. To this day, the MQM’s website carries a British police appeal for information about the murder. The site describes Farooq as a “Martyr of Revolution and Loyalty”.

The money laundering case was always of more direct concern to Altaf Hussain. After all, it was inside his home in north London that Scotland Yard had found not only a receipt for the purchase of weapons – including mortars, grenades and bomb-making equipment – but also 289,785.32 pounds in cash. Even though the MQM always insisted that the cash had been received as donations from Karachi businessmen, and arranged affidavits to back up the claim, the money laundering charges would have inevitably forced Altaf Hussain to defend himself in a court of law. It would have been a serious humiliation for a man who has always prided himself on being above the daily rigmarole of politics, including getting arrested and dragged into courtrooms.

The pressure on Altaf Hussain increased after Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan met the then British home secretary Theresa May in April 2016. After the meeting, Scotland Yard increased the pace of its investigations. Police compiled a list over 70 past and present MQM-related bank accounts in London, with 26 in Altaf Hussain’s name alone. But while it seemed the money laundering case was making progress, the MQM dismissed Scotland Yard’s claims about the bank accounts as “unfounded and baseless”.

Altaf Hussain had another problem to worry about. Back in 2014, Scotland Yard had investigated speeches by him and other MQM leaders (made during the 2013 general election) to establish whether or not they breached British hate speech laws. The enquiry was eventually dropped, in large part on the ground that the MQM’s defence lawyers would have been able to challenge the translation of speeches from Urdu to English.

Photo courtesy White Star
Photo courtesy White Star

To the distress of his colleagues in London, Altaf Hussain seemed to think that the decision gave him free reign to say whatever he wanted. However, when he spoke about the desirability of playing football with policemen’s severed heads in 2015, Scotland Yard felt obliged to once again investigate for hate speech.

While all this was going on in London, the MQM suffered a number of serious setbacks in Pakistan: in March 2015, the Sindh Rangers raided Nine Zero, the party’s headquarters; and in March 2016, its former member and once mayor of Karachi, Mustafa Kamal, formed his own party. Once one of Altaf Hussain’s most trusted associates, Kamal delivered a devastating two-hour long press conference in which he accused Altaf Hussain of drunkenness, taking money from the Indian intelligence agencies and of being an erratic bully, incapable of listening to sane counsel. With the Pakistani state allegedly supporting Kamal’s breakaway party, the prospects of a deep split within the MQM ranks suddenly became real.

As Altaf Hussain was still tied up in legal cases, thousands of miles away in London, it was unclear to which extent would he be able to crush the dissent.

Altaf Hussain has seen some tough times as the MQM leader, particularly during the security operations against his party in the 1990s. But the combination of legal pressure in London, and the political and security problems in Karachi, meant he was at one of his lowest ebbs ever. The man who was once so feared in Karachi – so much so that most people in the city never dared say his name out loud – found himself being openly criticised on television channels. And as if all that was not enough, he then burdened himself with a totally unnecessary, self-inflicted goal.

In an extraordinary speech delivered to his party’s workers observing a hunger strike against the disappearance, detention and extrajudicial killings of their colleagues, friends and relatives, Altaf Hussain denounced Pakistan as a “cancer” in the world. For millions of Pakistanis and especially for those in uniform, it was a totally unacceptable attack on their homeland. In the same speech, he asked his supporters if they would be paying a visit to the headquarters of television stations he considered hostile to him and the MQM. “So you are moving to ARY and Samaa from here ... right?” he said, apparently egging them on.

The money laundering case was always of more direct concern to Altaf Hussain.

Within minutes, he had his answer. Suspected MQM workers attacked an ARY office in Karachi. One person was killed and several others were injured as police clashed with an angry mob, reportedly comprising his supporters.

The patience of the MQM office-bearers, who had become used to mopping up the mess left behind by Altaf Hussain’s oratorical outbursts for years, finally snapped. In what many thought might be a fatal blow, the most prominent of all the MQM leaders in Karachi, Dr Farooq Sattar, announced that he would no longer obey his leader’s instructions. The MQM, Sattar vowed, would operate from Pakistan alone — and Altaf Hussain’s approval was not going to be required for the party decisions. Only weeks later, the party’s legislators in the national and provincial assemblies presented resolutions, denouncing his speech and calling for his trial on treason charges.

This time, the party really was split into two. The few of its leaders who were willing to defend him in public were promptly put behind bars, as they tried to address a press conference.

With the army also denouncing him and arresting his loyalists under all kinds of charges – including that of terrorism and links with Indian intelligence agencies – it seemed that Altaf Hussain’s demise, at last, had become both inevitable and irreversible.

Photo courtesy White Star
Photo courtesy White Star

And yet, as both Donald Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote showed, politics can be highly unpredictable. Last autumn, Altaf Hussain’s fortunes started to change. The first sign that the pressure on him might have lessened came with the failure of the British authorities to lay money laundering charges against him in a court of law. With the case dropped, there was a sense in the MQM ranks that, despite all the evidence Scotland Yard had gathered over many years, the British authorities were willing to resume their backing of Altaf Hussain. The MQM’s own lawyers, after all, had advised their clients that the evidence in the hands of the British state would normally lead to charges; the fact that none were laid convinced senior leaders in the MQM echelons that political considerations had taken over the legal ones.

There is still a possibility that Altaf Hussain will be charged with inciting violence, as a result of his August speech, in the United Kingdom. But with the money laundering charges dropped, few are expecting the British authorities to move against him on charges of a much less serious nature, ones that are difficult to prove due to language barriers, among other things. Pakistani officials confirm this. They say they have been led to believe that nothing will come of the incitement or hate speech investigations.

With his legal position improved, Altaf Hussain has attempted to shore up his political position too. The MQM in London announced the expulsion of Sattar due to “repeated betrayals to the party and the supreme leadership”. He may still enjoy considerable sympathy among MQM office-bearers in Karachi, but it is far less clear how the party’s voters in the city and its neighbourhood activists feel about him.

Throughout all the crises, the one thing the party did not worry about was the solidity of its electoral base. Fearful that other parties will hurt their social, political and economic status in Karachi and Hyderabad, the muhajir (migrant) communities in the two cities have continued to back the MQM. That does not seem to have changed. Which faction will attract their votes will only be known if and when there is an electoral contest in Karachi or Hyderabad.

On previous evidence, muhajirs seem unlikely to veer away from Altaf Hussain. Just before all the factionalism started earlier last year, his party was able to see off a number of challenges in the local government elections (held in 2015), especially those coming from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which had garnered the second-highest number of votes after the MQM in Karachi in the 2013 election.

Altaf Hussain has long exploited the fact that western governments are attracted to any Pakistani political party or leader that opposes Islamist extremism in the country. At a time when western countries are under sustained threat of attack by violent jihadis, the West certainly values allies in countries such as Pakistan, more than ever. Secure in the knowledge that such considerations will play a large part in London’s thinking about him and the MQM for the foreseeable future, Altaf Hussain can reasonably conclude that the worst is over for him.

There is no doubt that the Pakistani establishment will continue with its policy of trying to splinter the MQM into as many factions as possible. But history suggests that – even if some groups remain opposed to Altaf Hussain and even if they use violence to snatch away voters from him – he should be able to impose his will on large parts of the party.

*Mukka Chowk* in Karachi | Faysal Mujeeb, White Star
Mukka Chowk in Karachi | Faysal Mujeeb, White Star

Farzana Shaikh, a political historian at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, agrees that Altaf Hussain has the institutional arrangements in place to ensure that. “It is to Altaf Hussain that party workers must formally pay allegiance. As long as that is the case, the MQM deputies in the national and provincial assemblies will be accountable to local party workers, who retain control over muhajir neighbourhoods through terror,” she says.

The biggest problem Altaf Hussain may face is not the internal party politics of the MQM, but the state of his health, which is frequently reported to be very poor.

As Altaf Hussain looks ahead to 2017, there is little reason to believe he will be overflowing with generosity and kindness — as he sets about the task of isolating his opponents and bolstering his loyalists. Those in the MQM who broke with him during the last six months or so, will be looking at the future with a sense of fear and foreboding.

This article was written as part of the Person of the Year series for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a freelance British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.