Pakistan’s most vibrant, vivacious and popular 24-hour news channel, Geo TV, generally has little difficulty recruiting staff. Its headquarters are in Karachi, Pakistan’s so called “city of dreams” – a massive, sprawling conurbation with 20 million residents seeking a better life. And yet there was one vacancy recently that Geo TV could not fill. The channel wanted a lookalike for its popular satirical show, in which actors play the parts of the country’s leading politicians. It was a job offering instant stardom and good money. And not a single person in Karachi was willing to do it.
The man Geo TV sought to satirise was Altaf Hussain, the leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). And the reason no one applied was the fear that if Altaf Hussain were unamused by the performance, the actor playing him would be murdered.
Anxiety about the MQM is not restricted to Pakistan. One member of the British House of Lords who has been openly critical of the MQM recently said: “If I went to Karachi now I would be killed.” Another peer has similar worries: “This is one issue I don’t ask questions on. I have my child to worry about.”
The man who has everyone looking over his or her shoulder does not even live in Karachi. For more than 20 years, Altaf Hussain has operated from the north London suburb of Edgware, beyond the reach of Pakistani prosecutors. He is almost completely unknown in the UK: his four-million-plus devoted supporters live thousands of miles away.
It’s difficult to know how many murder cases have been registered against Altaf Hussain, but perhaps the most authoritative number was released in 2009 when the then Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf implemented his National Reconciliation Order, granting most of the country’s senior politicians an amnesty. One of the biggest beneficiaries was Hussain, against 72 cases were dropped, including 31 allegations of murder. The MQM rejects all the murder charges lodged against Hussain.
When Pakistan was created in 1947 it had a population of 70 million. As well as the Bengalis in East Pakistan (who split away to form Bangladesh in 1971) there were four main indigenous groups: the Sindhis, the Baloch, the Pashtuns and the Punjabis. Partition brought a new element: Muslims who had fled Hindu-majority India. They were called the Mohajirs and most settled in Karachi, which was then the capital of Pakistan. This is the group represented by the Mohajir Qaumi Movement or, as it’s now named, the Muttahida (United) Qaumi Movement or MQM.
At first the Mohajirs fared well. As many had spearheaded the campaign to create the country, they slipped naturally into leadership positions. But their disproportionate influence could never last. By the 70s a political backlash, especially from Punjabis and Sindhis, was in full swing and many Mohajirs found themselves unable to secure jobs or even places in schools and universities. For a group that thought it had the right to govern, it came as a heavy blow. And the first man to exploit the Mohajirs’ sense of grievance was Hussain.
In 1988 MQM candidates broke through, and suddenly the party was the third largest in the National Assembly and has dominated Karachi politics ever since. Hussain has periodically flirted with demands for some kind of territorial settlement: “When everyone else had a province,” he said in March 1984, “we said the Mohajirs should have one too.” But for the most part he has accepted that such a demand is plainly unacceptable to the rest of Pakistan and has restricted himself to demands for greater Mohajir rights within the existing national framework.