The once-charismatic leader who could amass tens of thousands with one phone call has been completely sidelined in the 2018 elections.
UPDATE: *** Altaf Hussain is currently being held by Scotland Yard in the United Kingdom's capital, London, on June 11, 2019 in connection with speeches related to his MQM party.
Saleem Ahmed’s* first taste of politics was bitter, maybe even a bit bloody. He had just come home after spending an evening painting political slogans on the walls in his neighbourhood. It was the winter of 1987, he was a teenager and the political party MQM was winning municipal elections in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.
“My father took off his slipper and went on beating me with it. To this day I haven't been able to shake off that experience. I think that’s how I became an activist — in defiance of my father. He wanted me to have nothing to do with politics.”
MQM drove support from among Urdu-speaking people who had migrated to Pakistan from India at the time of partition in 1947. Many of them had come with little more than the clothes on their backs. A majority settled in Karachi, the capital of southern Sindh province.
Ahmed, like thousands of young men, began supporting the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) after attending rallies where its charismatic leader Altaf Hussain gave fiery speeches.
“Everyone wanted to do something for the party,” says Ahmed who grew up in a complex of crammed apartment buildings known as Saghir Center, an MQM stronghold where graffiti on the community gate announced it was Qila-e-Altaf (Altaf’s Fort).
“Someone from the neighbourhood was going to an MQM gathering, and I just tagged along. That’s how it all started for me.”
MQM has had a near-monopoly over Karachi’s politics, its streets and many of its institutions for three decades.
Hussain has been living in self-imposed exile in England since 1992. He has not travelled to Karachi in all those years. Yet his presence was felt everywhere with his portraits looming from bridges and billboards, and his name painted on walls across the city.
For many, he was simply the Bhai — a big brother — who demanded nothing less than unflinching loyalty.
Even from thousands of kilometres away, he could stir panic whenever he asked his followers to go on violent strike, sending terrified citizens rushing home from offices, factories and markets.
He has been accused of ordering political assassinations and running a militant wing responsible for hundreds of killings — mutilated bodies were often dumped in gunny bags alongside roads whenever rivalry with other groups spiked.
But in recent years he has lost control over the city. His party is divided into various factions. And many of Hussain’s most loyal activists have either abandoned him, been jailed or killed by security forces.
While it was risky just a few years ago to criticise him openly, he has now become the butt of jokes: memes and videos making fun of him regularly do the rounds on social media.
Many doubt MQM will be able to keep its hold over the city’s politics without him calling the shots.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Hussain was a demigod.
“One, two, three … by the time he said three, I swear I have witnessed pin-drop silence in a crowd of tens of thousands,” Ahmed recalls.
Hussain's meteoric rise was rooted in the ethnic strife that has marred the port city - and most of this spilled out onto the streets.
The case of tea drinkers
On the morning of April 15, 1985, a 20-year-old girl, Bushra Zaidi, was run over by a bus in Karachi as she crossed a road near her college.
As word of her death spread, angry protesters took to the streets, rioting and clashing with police and burning cars. By sunset, some neighbourhoods were under curfew.
Residents were frustrated with rash bus drivers, most of whom were Pashtuns who had come to Karachi in search of work from a province in the country’s northwest.
The headstrong Pashtuns dominated the transport business. Competition among bus drivers often led to reckless races to pick up the maximum number of passengers.
That road accident became a rallying cry for MQM, which had emerged as a political party a year earlier.
Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, an academic who has studied ethnic conflict in Karachi, says MQM used cultural differences between Urdu-speakers and other communities to its own advantage.
"They would say, 'look these Pashtun drivers misbehave with us and don't give us respect.’”
Anger among the Urdu speakers or Mohajirs as they are commonly called had simmered for years as a series of controversial measures by successive governments had left them complaining about discrimination.
After Pakistan's independence in 1947, the Urdu speakers had a high representation in government in spite of being far fewer in numbers compared with other indigenous communities.
Mohajirs were urban and educated and they were at the forefront of the independence movement during the British colonial rule of India, says Siddiqi.
The country's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was a Mohajir and some of the biggest industrial groups were owned by the Mohajirs.
That balance began to shift in the 1970s as a new middle class from other communities began to surface, says Siddiqi.
In the early 1970s, bureaucratic reform fixed a quota for government jobs — stipulating how many candidates can come from various cities, towns and rural communities. The aspirants from Karachi saw the move as an attempt at sidelining them.
Around the same time Sindhi was introduced as a second language in schools in Karachi, sparking riots.
But Siddiqi says it would be wrong to assume that these developments were helping create any “nationalistic consciousness” among the Mohajirs.
"MQM just ethnicised the discourse because if you look at the statistics, they tell you that most of their complaints weren’t based on fact.”
The university graduates in Karachi avoided public-sector jobs because the institutions had become politicised, he says. "Private sector offered far better opportunities from the 1990s onwards."
Similarly, other issues such as the dilapidated condition of buses or water scarcity concerned everyone in the city and not just Mohajir-majority areas, says Siddiqi, himself an Urdu speaker.
Yet those stats didn't stop Hussain from attracting huge crowds to MQM rallies. One reason for that was MQM’s organisational structure.
“They were able to mobilise people at the grassroots. They campaigned in neighbourhoods, going from door-to-door to talk to people about their problems. That is MQM’s greatest success,” says Siddiqi.
Born in September 1953, to migrants from India, Altaf Hussain grew up in a three-bedroom house in Azizabad, where neighbours intimately knew each other and people often slept on wicker beds in narrow alleys to beat the heat.
"My most vivid memory of Altaf is when he used to gather kids around the family house and then mimic Maulana Aitsham Ul Haq Thanvi," says one of Hussain's close relatives.
“It was amazing how perfectly he copied the famous cleric.”
In later years, Hussain would often sing songs, make obnoxious expressions and show other antics during his speeches.
“When I recall his childhood, I see him playing a harmonium. He was a fun loving person. If there was a wedding in the neighborhood, he was there with his harmonium.”
In his autobiography, Hussain writes that he was first reminded of his Mohajir origin when he signed up for paramilitary training as a college student.
He was taunted for belonging to a community that drinks a lot of tea against the more healthy yogurt-based drink popular among Punjabis, who dominate the army.
Hussain first showed his acumen as a politician while studying at the University of Karachi, where he had helped formed a student organisation for the Mohajirs despite facing stiff resistance.
Even though the politics based on ethnic differences were nothing new in Pakistan, Hussain’s rhetoric took it to an entirely new level as he pushed his followers to take up arms if they had to. In the 1990s, Karachi saw a bloodbath it wouldn’t recover from for years.
A decade of chaos
Dr Noman Baig is associated with the social sciences department of a private university in Karachi and his earliest memory of MQM is that of his injured grandmother being dragged into the house, blood oozing from her legs.
She was shot during one of the MQM riots in the mid-1980s. “My mother drove her to the hospital, and along the way she had to show protesters her hands covered in my grandmother’s blood, so that they would let them through.”
After MQM’s arrival on the political scene, Karachi saw strikes and clashes between its activists and the police.
The influx of Pashto-speaking refugees from Afghanistan, which Russia had invaded in 1979, added to the anxiety of MQM leaders. They feared that Urdu speakers would face competition for scarce land and jobs as more people settled in the city.
The party’s hysteria reached such a level that one of the points in its charter of demands asked the government issue gun licenses to Urdu speakers.
In 1987, while speaking at a rally in Liaquatabad, the area where Baig’s grandmother was injured, Hussain made perhaps his most infamous statement, “Mohajirs will have no good use for their VCRs, color televisions and other luxuries, because these things cannot defend us. They will have to arrange for their own security.”
Around the same time, MQM began to arm its activists with AK-47s, writes Laurent Gayer in his book “Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City.”
The decade of the 1990s was the most violent in Karachi's history. First came a security crackdown against MQM after it was accused of plotting Karachi’s secession form Pakistan. People were kidnapped, dead bodies with drilled knees and missing nails dumped in garbage heaps; some murdered by police and others by MQM as revenge killings.
Around the same time, a turf war erupted between MQM and a breakaway faction: Mohajirs killed Mohajirs, neighbourhoods were barricaded, and there were curfews.
In 1995, more than 1,700 people were killed in Karachi in drive-by shootings or after they were abducted. In December of that year, MQM militants killed the younger brother of Sindh’s Chief Minister Syed Abdullah Shah. A few days later, police arrested Hussain’s elder brother and his nephew. Their lifeless bodies were found along a road a few days later.
More than 10,000 MQM activists were killed during the crackdowns, which continued intermittently from 1992 to 1999, according to the party.
Despite the stigma of ethnic militancy attached to it from the beginning, MQM was able to bag parliamentary seats during successive elections. It was often the third or fourth largest political group and played a key role in coalition governments in Islamabad.
In poor Urdu-speaking neighbourhoods, where people lacked access to government officers to help them in their everyday struggles such as getting a water connection, MQM activists moved in to fill the gap.
“There is no denying that MQM was involved in social services. That’s why when you talk to someone in those areas now, they express a sense of loss,” says Baig.
The poor public services and lethargic legal system forced people to take their problems to the MQM — ranging from complaints of power breakdown and matters of divorce to dispute among siblings over property — and the party was there to sort it out, says Ali Raza Abidi, a senior MQM leader.
“It also played an important role in bridging the gap between Shia and Sunni communities. Whenever Shias used to take out religious processions, Sunni boys were assigned to give them security,” he tells TRT World.
MQM’s fortunes shifted after it joined the government of retired general Pervez Musharraf, who took over after a coup in 1999.
Over the years, while Hussain continued to live in exile, his party became an important part of the federal administration, with its leaders controlling key ministries such as ports and shipping. It also won Karachi’s local government elections in the mid-2000s.
But MQM’s social service comes with a price, says Ahmed, the former activist. “They wanted control. They sold your little trouble and then cashed the goodwill in some other way. They bought real estate at concessional rates, took bribes and forced their own supporters to pay donations, which never made it to the party.”
MQM had also become notorious for using fear to keep itself relevant. “So many times I witnessed some senior worker going into a neighbourhood and slapping a kid just to show who was the boss.”
That’s also the time MQM activists began encroaching on state and private land such as parks and community halls.
Across the city, MQM was accused of taking over playgrounds, a public sports complex and state property that was sold in the open market. They opened up marriage halls and allowed construction of illegal buildings after taking bribes.
“The notion that they were helping Mohajir youth, that they were helping us find jobs … that was all hogwash,” says Ahmed.
In 2010, Imran Farooq, a close associate of Hussain, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in London near his apartment by two men who later confessed that they worked for MQM.
Farooq was MQM’s senior leader and had been a founding member of MQM along with Hussain. They had been together since their university days, when they formed a study union that morphed into the political party.
His murder investigation, which ran for years, extended from London to Karachi. And Hussain was at its centre most of the time.
Farooq had distanced himself from the MQM before his murder, and many suspected that he was killed because Hussain feared he would emerge as his contender.
“Altaf Hussain started to lose his grip when investigations started and he faced possibility of a legal action,” says Omar Shahid, a senior police officer and author who has written novels inspired by MQM’s politics.
“The implication of the investigation was that Altaf Hussain was no longer untouchable," Sharif says, adding that Hussain feared arrest since "that protection of being able to do anything from far away was taken away. He was under a constant fear that his house and offices could be raided.”
More concerned about his arrest than the organisation in Karachi, Hussain began to lose touch with party activists who were his informants and enforcers on the streets.
The ethnic tit-for-tat killings and turf war for protection money that reignited in 2011 after a lull of few years took its toll on MQM’s vote bank.
“They weren’t able to measure the mood of the people,” says Shahid, whose father, Malik Shahid Hamid, a senior bureaucrat was killed by a dreaded MQM militant, Saulat Mirza in 1997.
The elections in 2013 turned out to be a watershed moment for MQM as it lost tens of thousands of voters in Karachi to former cricket star Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party.
“The ethnic discourse which MQM used had lost its emotive power. People were questioning how can you be repressed when you are part [of] both the provincial and federal governments,” says Dr Farhan Siddiqi.
Although MQM swept the elections in Karachi, the loss of votes came as a shock to many. A few days later, Hussain launched a tirade against his own leadership during a speech, asking activists to beat senior leaders.
As low-ranking workers slapped and pushed senior leaders, some of whom had served as parliamentarians, the entire spectacle was captured by media.
“That’s when some of the leaders, including Mustafa Kamal, decided to abandon Altaf Hussain,” says a senior journalist.
Kamal, who has risen from low-level worker to become a senior leader, is a former mayor of Karachi. He formed his own party in 2016 after distancing himself from Hussain. Many of the former MQM leaders have joined him.
Soon after the elections in 2013, Pakistan’s military, pressured by businessmen and merchants tired of paying ransoms to various political groups, launched a massive crackdown against criminals. MQM says the bulk of the operation was directed towards its activists.
Things came to head in August 2016, when Hussain went on a diatribe against Pakistan, calling it “a cancer for the entire world.”
Since then he has faced a complete media blackout. Within days, his trusted lieutenants abandoned him and formed a new faction of MQM.
Hussain is almost alone now. His posters and pictures have been torn down. His diehard supporters are in jail, and as one put it, “it has become taboo to take his name, you’ll instantly be labeled an anti-Pakistani.”
He has called upon his followers to boycott the elections.
Why it was so easy to completely sideline Hussain without triggering any backlash had to do in part with the economy, says Noman Baig, adding that, “1992 was a different period, 2018 is different. The character of the city has changed a lot. Young people want to go abroad. There’s growth in consumerism, and people generally feel MQM had abandoned its ideology.”
For Ahmed, the former MQM activist, there’s only regret for the day when he decided to join the party against his father’s wishes.
“They used us. We didn’t get anything – no jobs, no security.”
Ahmed is now affiliated with Pak Sar Zameen Party of Mustafa Kamal, the former disgruntled Karachi mayor who was once Altaf Hussain’s blue-eyed boy.
*Name changed upon request.