By Najam Sethi
03 Oct 2014
The MQM is in the throes of insecurity, confusion and division. Nowhere is this more evident than in the behaviour and utterances of its leader-in-exile, Altaf “Bhai” Hussain.
The unprecedented fear and insecurity in the rank and file of the MQM is driven by one singular fact revolving around the murder of Dr Imran Farooq in London a couple of years ago, following investigations by the British authorities to investigate Altaf Bhai’s political connections and links with his activist-supporters in Karachi, South Africa and elsewhere. These murder-related investigations have then branched off into detailed inquiries about the source and extent of Altaf Bhai’s incomes and properties in the UK and are focused on matters related to money laundering. Apart from Altaf Bhai, several senior MQM leaders in London have been investigated, detained and enlarged on bail. Altaf Bhai himself has had to cool his heels in the clink for a day pending bail in a money laundering case.
But it is the murder case that hangs like the sword of Damocles over Altaf Bhai’s head. It is known that the British police are very keen to lay their hands on two MQM activists who disappeared into the bowels of the ISI two years ago after they fled from London to Karachi via Sri Lanka following the murder of Dr Farooq. If they were to be deported to the UK and confessed to their crime and links with Altaf Bhai, it is feared it might be curtains for the MQM leader. That is why Altaf Bhai is acutely sensitive to what the Pakistani military establishment thinks about him and the MQM. That is why he is constantly blowing hot and cold against the military, now supporting democracy and parliament and then calling for martial law to “save the country”, now welcoming the appointment of Gen Rizwan Akhtar as the new DGISI and then asking why Gen Akhtar was fixated on “targeting the MQM” when he was DG Sindh Rangers tasked to clean up Karachi.
In an extraordinary move, Altaf Bhai has now publicly addressed 14 critical questions to the military establishment that show that he is deeply worried and upset about the aims and objectives of the Rangers-led Operation Clean-up in Karachi that is seemingly concentrated on hard-core MQM activists more than on any other party’s supporters. It has also thrown the MQM rank and file in Karachi into disarray and precipitated much internal squabbling and some significant desertions.
The MQM’s relationship with the military establishment has had many ups and downs since its formation in 1984 at the behest of General Zia ul Haq in order to combat PPP-Sindhi nationalism following the MRD movement. It conspired with the military establishment led by General Aslam Beg and General Hameed Gul to oust the government of Benazir Bhutto in 1990. But when it tried to flex its muscle during the government of Nawaz Sharif after the exit of both Generals Gul and Beg, it was ruthlessly put down by the then Karachi corps commander, Gen Asif Nawaz Janjua, and Altaf Bhai fled to self-imposed exile in London. After Bhutto returned to power in 1993, she sent the Rangers under Gen Naseerullah Babar into Karachi to “sort out” the MQM. But the MQM returned to power with the advent of General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 because he was in desperate need of political allies after scuttling both Bhutto and Sharif in 2008-13. Subsequently, the MQM was in and out of government, constantly holding Karachi to hostage and exacting a terrible price for its displeasure at the Zardari regime for not showering it with ministries and funds.
The arrival of Nawaz Sharif has, however, unleashed a new anti-MQM dialectic not dissimilar to the one in 1990: the Sharif government doesn’t need to pander to the MQM because it doesn’t need its electoral support to govern in Islamabad or Lahore while the stability and security of Karachi is critical to Sharif’s economic development agenda — hence the use of the Rangers to “clean-up” Karachi all over again. Matters have worsened for the MQM with the new challenge from Imran Khan for the heart and minds of Karachi’s youth bulge as evidenced by the huge turnout in his latest Jalsa.
This is therefore a moment of acute crisis for the MQM. It is hunted in London and Karachi alike. It administrative fate is in the hands of the Sharif government and the military establishment, which is why it is in turn both pro-military and anti-Sharif and vice versa, depending on the situation at hand, because there is no guarantee that it can save itself either under a pure military regime which might be pro-Imran Khan rather than pro-MQM or under the Sharif government which is more sympathetic to the PPP in Sindh rather than the MQM because of Zardari’s unstinting support in parliament for the PMLN government.
Under the circumstances, Altaf Bhai’s unpredictable outbursts are full of sound and fury signifying an unprecedented existential crisis.