How the lack of money is hurting MQM-P and its workers

Published 27 Mar, 2019 10:45pm
Nine Zero, MQM's headquarters in Karachi, was sealed a day after Altaf Hussain's August 2016 speech | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
Nine Zero, MQM's headquarters in Karachi, was sealed a day after Altaf Hussain's August 2016 speech | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Muhammad Shabbir was murdered in Karachi by some unidentified assailants in July 2011. He was 42 years of age at the time. He left behind his 32-year-of ld widow, Rabia, and a 15-year-old son. Both of them were ill-prepared to earn a living on their own. Rabia had no experience of working anywhere except at home and her son was too young to work.

They did not have to worry much though.

Shabbir was associated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party that treated his murder as a political one, carried out by its rivals. Before long, his widow was getting a monthly stipend from the Khidmat-e-Khalq Foundation (KKF), an MQM-affiliated charity operating since 1988. The money helped her run her household and finance her son’s education.

And then towards the end of 2016 the flow of funds stopped. Her son was only a year into his bachelors in electronics. Though she has not taken him out of college, she says, “It has been very hard for us to meet our expenses without KKF’s help”.

Families of 4,500 MQM activists in Karachi – who lost their lives for their party – are similarly struggling. Around 1,800 other households in the city, whose members are in jail for various MQM-related criminal and political cases, are also suffering financially after their KKF stipends have been stopped. Same is the situation in Hyderabad where 3,500 families of murdered and imprisoned MQM workers are finding it hard to get by.

The heirs of murdered or imprisoned activists received anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 rupees each month depending on the size of their households, says Itrat Jahan, former director operations at KKF.

The foundation carried out a lot of other activities as well for the welfare of MQM’s associates. It gave up to 200,000 rupees to its poor activists for the marriage of each of their sisters and daughters and provided free healthcare through a hospital in Karachi, a maternity home in Hyderabad and several clinics in both the cities. It also ran a free ambulance and morgue service.

Shahana Qureshi describes what it means to live without this support system.

Her brother, Tahir Rasool Qureshi, was a neighbourhood-level MQM official. He was arrested in 2015 in two murder cases and has been undergoing trial since then. MQM would bear all his legal expenses besides providing financial support to his family but that is no longer the case. Shahana Qureshi, who works at a private company and lives with her father in Karachi, has to meet all his trial-related expenses now. “Not an easy task,” she says, given that she needs to contribute to her household budget as well.

KKF also used to provide free healthcare to MQM’s imprisoned activists. This, too, has been stopped, leaving ailing prisoners with the option to get treatment either at a jail hospital or from a private facility at their own expense. The first option could be dangerous given the poor healthcare provided by jail hospitals but the second option is often too costly to afford for their already financially distressed families. “My brother suffers from appendicitis and I want to get his treatment done outside the jail but this requires a huge amount of money,” says Shahana Qureshi.

MQM-P supporters throng the Liaquatabad flyover during a protest in Karachi | Shakil Adil, White Star
MQM-P supporters throng the Liaquatabad flyover during a protest in Karachi | Shakil Adil, White Star

Even delivering medicine to her brother within the jail has become a financial hassle for her. The party would take care of this expense earlier but now she has to pay bribes to jail officials, on top of the price of the medicine, twice every week to ensure that he does not run out of supplies.

The KKF has stopped paying for all these facilities due to a restriction by the government on its operations. Since August 2016, when MQM founder Altaf Hussain delivered a speech that incited his followers to violence and was roundly condemned for its anti-Pakistan contents, law enforcement authorities have stopped the foundation from raising funds, collecting donations and disbursing money to its beneficiaries.

Early this year, the Federal Investigation Agency took over the foundation’s 29 Karachi-based properties reported to be worth about 3.5 billion rupees. The action was taken on a 2017 money laundering case registered against Hussain and many other MQM leaders, including a former federal minister and some former parliamentarians. The authorities alleged that a large part of the rent of these properties was illegally sent to Hussain in London. The money siphoned abroad allegedly amounted to as much as five to six billion rupees.

Dr Farooq Sattar, a former mayor of Karachi and many time member of the National Assembly, took over MQM after Hussain’s speech led to a massive law enforcement crackdown against the party’s leaders, activists and supporters. Accompanied by many senior MQM members, he addressed a press conference immediately after the speech and they all dissociated themselves from Hussain. They proclaimed that they, as well as the voters and supporters of the party, did not endorse his anti-Pakistan rants. Soon, they rebranded MQM as MQM-Pakistan – or MQM-P.

It was not easy for the party to step out of the shadows of Hussain whom it always projected as a larger-than-life figure. Many MQM members and associates still swore by him and would not hesitate from doing his bidding no matter how dangerous that bidding could be.

Sattar, by his own claim, handled the transition well. “In one year, I managed to bring 75 per cent of the party back to its feet,” he says.

But, then, MQM-P’s highest decision-making body, the Rabita Committee (Coordination Committee), came unstuck in the wake of the March 2018 Senate election. While two factions, a smaller one headed by Sattar and a larger one led by most other members of the committee, vied for taking over the party’s control, it managed to lose the election very badly. It could have won at least four Senate seats, given its numbers in the electoral college and the provincial assembly of Sindh, but managed to win only one.

Many insiders say the root cause of the split was money — in fact, the lack of it.

MQM thrived because it had an elaborate system of collecting funds mainly from Karachi and Hyderabad. It encouraged, often coerced, people into giving money to it. Shopkeepers, traders, industrialists — everyone was tapped for donations. Hides of hundreds of thousands of animals sacrificed in the two cities every year on Eidul Azha were another source of earnings for the party. Its activists did not balk at using force to beat other charities and political and religious entities in their hide-collection campaigns.

For years, law enforcement agencies looked at these activities suspiciously — a possible source of funding for deadly crime, political violence and gang warfare in Karachi. They finally started to put an end to these in 2015. In many ways, Hussain’s speech was a reaction to the government’s efforts to cut off his – and his party’s – financial supply line.

By the time MQM-P came along, this supply line was all but choked. The new party was not in a position to even run its offices properly.

Old MQM workers say its headquarters, famously known as Nine Zero, alone employed hundreds of its associates for various security-related and administrative duties. Many other young people would get monthly stipends of up to 20,000 rupees as long as they did not have a job. Around 200-300 members of the party would get free lunch at Nine Zero every day. The number of people who got a free dinner there would reach anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 each day.

Since MQM-P did not have access to money the way MQM did, it tried to attract people with deep pockets who could fund such activities. They, in return, were promised that they would be made the party’s electoral candidates.

This is how Kamran Tessori, a rich businessman from Karachi who has been in some other parties in the past, appeared on MQM-P’s candidate list for the 2018 Senate election. His candidature immediately led to a split within the coordination committee.

Karachi Mayor Waseem Akhtar and Senator Nasreen Jalil try to persuade Dr Farooq Sattar to withdraw his decision to quit politics | White Star
Karachi Mayor Waseem Akhtar and Senator Nasreen Jalil try to persuade Dr Farooq Sattar to withdraw his decision to quit politics | White Star

In the words of Syed Aminul Haque, a senior MQM-P leader, “Sattar wanted to oblige his blue-eyed people” by giving them electoral nominations. He also wanted to run the party as a “one-man show”.

Sattar offers a different explanation. “In the middle of 2017, I asked senior members of the coordination committee to share the details of their assets with me. I made it clear to them that, as the head of the party, I would never accept corrupt practices in it,” he says. “That is why some of them turned against me.”

In November the same year, Sattar says, he offered to hand over the party leadership to Amir Khan, who was then working as the senior deputy convener of the coordination committee. “But [other members of the committee] did not agree because they wanted to exploit me till the general election.”

The differences among the party’s top leadership could have an even older origin.

Shahid Pasha, a former deputy convener of the coordination committee who now supports Sattar, says the real source of the problem was the fact that MQM’s voters and supporters had started showing their unhappiness over how the party ran its affairs in the early 2010s. “They did not like the way it sought donations and collected hides of sacrificial animals,” he says.

They were also angry, according to him, because corruption and inefficiency rose astronomically within local government institutions and civic agencies where thousands of MQM members were given jobs and promotions without merit. Between 2008 and 2013, he alleges, the party’s city government allotted large tracts of government lands to its favourites — again to the annoyance of the party’s supporters.

“Saner elements within MQM wanted to address these problems,” says Pasha. He himself spoke to Hussain in 2015, informing him that most of the coordination committee members had developed a vested interest in protecting criminal and illegal activities. “I warned him the party would be wiped out from Karachi if he did not take serious note of this situation,” Pasha adds.

Hussain responded by making him a member of the coordination committee. “When I closely analysed the situation and pointed out many irregularities, numerous members of the committee became my opponents,” Pasha says and alleges that most of them are now among the top leaders of MQM-P.

Whatever the reasons for the split, it resulted in the replacement of Sattar as the convener of the coordination committee by Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui on February 11, 2018. The Election Commission of Pakistan endorsed this change as legal a few months later. Sattar, however, was still the nominee of the party in the July 2018 election for two National Assembly seats in Karachi. He was defeated and ended up losing both seats.

Yet sources within MQM-P say he is more popular than any other member of the coordination committee. “If MQM-P has to become an electoral force in urban Sindh, then Sattar, being the most recognisable face of the party, is best placed to achieve that,” says a party worker without wanting to disclose his identity.

It was perhaps this support from the rank and file that made Sattar resign from the coordination committee on September 13, 2018 and form what he called the Organisation Restoration Committee a month and a half later. The new entity was meant to press the MQM-P leadership to enforce discipline within its ranks and make it the same “ideological and active” force that MQM was back in the 1980s. He also demanded the appointment of a new coordination committee after a party election and sought arrangements for taking care of the families of those who were either in jail or had lost their lives for the party.

The MQM-P leadership in a show of unity | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
The MQM-P leadership in a show of unity | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

The coordination committee responded to his demands by accepting his resignation. It finally expelled him from the party on November 9, 2018.

The twin impact of the lost sources of money and internal disharmony has weakened MQM-P’s organisational structure at the grass-roots level. Its workers and supporters, especially the families of its killed and imprisoned activists, are not associated with it as strongly as they were with MQM. If the party fails to address their problems, says one source within MQM-P, they may again start looking towards Hussain for help.

Aminul Haque agrees. “Extremists will come forward and replace the present leadership of MQM-P if problems pertaining to the livelihood, education and welfare of its associates are not immediately addressed,” he says. To avoid that situation, he adds, his party is negotiating with the government to get permission for collecting donations.

For the time being, the government seems to be unresponsive, even obstructive. Some party activists allege that law enforcement agencies harass anyone who wants to give any money to MQM-P.

“This is unjustified and discriminatory,” protests Itrat Jahan. “If the government has accepted MQM-P as a legal entity then why is it banned from raising funds,” she asks. “Also, if other political parties are not banned from collecting donations, why should MQM-P be subjected to such a ban?”

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.

This article was originally published in the Herald's March 2019 issue under the headline 'Still life'. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.