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A Chat with Altaf Hussain Abyssyania Lines to Mill Hills

An early recollection as a teenager is of being beaten up by an elder for putting Ms Fatima Jinnah’s election flag atop his house in Abyssynia Lines in the Presidential Elections in 1964, “did he want his father to lose his government job?” Another was the Rs.14,000 his father collected after years of hard work to pay for the ownership of the house in Azizabad now known far and wide as “Nine Zero”. “My father was a Railway Station Master in 1947, a man of some means in those days, he gave that up to migrate to Pakistan, working as a clerk for many years in a distantly located factory”, he says proudly, adding that in many ways his mother did more, not only the back-breaking normal house-keeping chores but also sewing clothes single-mindedly to ensure that the children got education. From such humble non-political roots is today’s Altaf Hussain born, says Altaf Hussain, a political symbol for millions of his ethnic brethren. Loved by many, indeed also despised by many, it is unfair to pass judgment on him without a face-to-face meeting to assess the man and his politics.

Considerably more mellow than he is made out to be, the firebrand and orator in him emerges from time to time whenever a subject and theme he favours or frowns upon surfaces. Gen Babar is one such current favourite object (of hatred), “how can a man without any issue himself, have any feelings about ruthlessly persecuting the children of others? The Mohajir youth are being brutalized, their childhood has been taken away by this self-styled “conqueror” of Karachi”, he asks. Maybe Gen Babar is acting in such fashion, one suggests, as a lightning rod meant to draw the widespread criticism of Ms Benazir after her “cowards and rats” Kasur speech away from her and on himself? This line of reasoning is obviously new to Altaf Hussain, he gives this a little thought before disagreeing since it “tends to exonerate Gen Babar”. He does not condone terrorism, on the contrary he condemns it, “Agencies and hired killers do many of the dirty deeds for which MQM gets the blame”, he protests but questions what is the Mohajir youth supposed to do, uprooted from hearth and home, hungry and hunted, without leadership and out of control? Why cannot he control them through the mesmeric hold he exercises over the broad mass of his constituency? “What is the threshold of pain and endurance they have to bear? Consider their plight and answer me what choices are left to them?” he counter-questions. One concedes it is difficult but that it is the “Karma” of all leaders, to lead their flock through dire straits to the right choices. Silence and then a wry smile!

He is vehement about Gen Asif Nawaz, the late COAS, having a personal grudge against Mohajirs, “he was supposed to go after criminals, why did he target the MQM only? Did not all the other political parties have militants who were taking the law into their own hands? Did he not have the list prepared by his own trusted intelligence agencies about dacoits, kidnappers and those who harboured and protected them?” He asks how can a person who had not fought in either of the two wars (in 1965 or 1971) become COAS? “Are there not others in the Army having war experience who could have been better as COAS? Probably removed through intrigues!” he asks and answers his own question. “Asif Nawaz was anxious to prove he was a warrior by conquering Karachi, very much like Gen Babar!” (He gestures dismissively when told that the Federal Interior Minister happens to be a much decorated soldier). Altaf Hussain denies attacking the whole Army, saying he really means to target a handful, a “feudal clique” within the military hierarchy, “the rest of the Army is poor or middle class like me, why should I be against them? I am only against a few black sheep”, he says vehemently, “because they are enjoying life while the lot of the common soldier is not much different to what it was in 1947. They did the same thing in East Pakistan in 1971, they told the soldiers the Bengalis had become Hindus, today instead of Bengalis they are calling Mohajirs “traitors” and “Indian agents”. Why does not the rest of the Army expose these agents of the feudal class for what they really are?” Altaf Hussain asks.

“Most politicians have been bought, like many journalists have become pens for hire”, he says. Brig Imtiaz, the No. 2 of Maj Gen Hamid Gul, then DG ISI, came to him in 1988 with a bagful of money and asked him to accept it. When Altaf Hussain refused Brig Imtiaz said that it would “complicate” things because almost all the other politicians had taken sizable sums. When Hamid Gul recently visited Altaf Hussain with his 5-point peace formula, the MQM leader reminded him about this episode and asked him to confirm publicly that he had not taken any money from ISI while the others had. He says that the former DG ISI is a living witness to the fact that if he did not take any “incentive” when his movement was turning into a political party that needed money, why should he take money from the Indians, or from others? He says that once anybody takes money from any intelligence agency, he (or she) is hooked for life. “Off the record”, he smilingly requests, rattling off a few names.

About corruption he is most vehement. “The whole concept of corruption has reached new levels under Asif Zardari, the PM’s husband. Unlike others before him, Zardari does not believe in simply accepting money for projects as kickbacks”, Altaf Hussain says, “his modus operandi is to change the rules so that those affected have to pay to bring the rules back to original. How can anyone document anything to provide even a shred of evidence? Has Daewoo paid money for restoration of the original six lanes (of the Motorway), have the sugar manufacturers paid money for lifting the ban on exports, are power projects being allotted fairly or on directions emanating from the PM’s husband, what about the hundreds of appointments being made in financial institutions only with his consent, etc etc? What about Fauzi Kazmi’s famous “Duty Free Shop” and the Lakhani containers caught by Customs that were passed as Defence material? Check Zardari (and his father’s) income and wealth-tax in 1988 and then in 1995”, he asks, “see if he had enough then to afford to have a Chateau in France or properties in UK and elsewhere? The military hierarchy is culpable as it is guilty of standing by and seeing the country looted blind”, he says, “why have upright respectable people like the COAS, Gen Waheed, become silent spectators?”

Altaf Hussain was eloquent about launching a “revolution” against the feudal class that has prospered while the rest of Pakistan has mostly suffered. He was vehement about not accepting the status quo that allows a particular vested interest to rule over the masses alternately while looting the national wealth. He compares the present system to a monarchy where the Armed Forces is drawn mainly from the poor rural but by various “incentives” on a sliding scale basis, as officers go up the ladder of promotion, their loyalty is subtly bought through plots, perks and appointments. Control of the state apparatus, namely the intelligence agencies and the media, gives the rulers enormous leverage to stamp out dissent in any form. “My revolution is not confined to Mohajirs alone, it is a struggle that is being waged on behalf of the poor and middle class all over the land whether they be Punjabis, Pathans, Baloch or Sindhis to change the system”, he says, adding that his desire to convert Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz into Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz had scared the feudal class (who now label him as a separatist), among them even his political allies. “When I gave a speech at Lahore at the Minar-e-Pakistan, the whole crowd rose up to applaud but not many sitting behind me on the leadership dais did so”, he says.

Altaf Hussain is painted by the official media as a “traitor” and “murderer” who has established a network of terror to rule over the Mohajir community which GoP says “secretly hate him”. While certainly there is a grey area with respect to militancy, Altaf Hussain’s “unpopularity” must be a well-guarded secret in Pakistan because those who live in Karachi know at first hand that Mohajirs increasingly see Altaf Hussain as the sole symbol and harbinger of their rights. On the contrary he comes across as genuinely concerned as other leading national figures on the state of nepotism and corruption in Pakistan as well as the other socio-economic ills that troubles the system. He genuinely seemed to feel that his voice was also raised for all those in Pakistan suffering at the hands of the feudal class. He seemed quite surprised and taken aback in dismay when told this was not the common perception and the people up-country blamed him for Karachi’s problems. As for labelling of anyone as “traitor”, that is the favourite pastime of anyone in power in referring to their immediate enemies, the present PM has been this route whenever she is out of power (and even many times when she is in power). Altaf Hussain directly accuses Ms Benazir of selling out to the Indians on Kashmir by providing lists of Sikh militants to Rajiv Gandhi’s government and now shedding crocodile tears for the Kashmiris. Whenever PPP has needed MQM support in the political process at critical times, they haven’t hesitated in becoming the allies of the MQM, the talk about “traitors” and “murderers” notwithstanding, convenience being the mother of necessity. It is difficult to see a self-made man so passionate about changing the system for the whole of the country simultaneously conspire about separatism and secession. In the chat with him (albeit for a few hours) one does not get any such impression but in all fairness this remains another grey area of contention. Obviously Altaf Hussain sees himself as a revolutionary, but he does so within the parameters of Pakistan. He takes great pains and goes to much length to re-assert that he is a Pakistani and will remain a Pakistani. In the present environment where people are leaving Karachi for up-country out of fear, he has to be more emphatic.

While many of us may have reservations on many counts, it is time we view Altaf Hussain for what he is, the undisputed leader of his community. Who else is capable of bringing the militants in from the cold or do we plan to leave them out there in limbo? The broad mass of Mohajirs voted with their feet, blood and years of privation to come to the land of their dreams, they will continue this struggle as long as they are denied social and economic emancipation. There have certainly been many excesses by MQM’s militants that have turned Karachi into a nightmare, but the basic divide occurred when the MQM hierarchy sought to inculcate moderation when they first entered government while the militants wanted quick rewards. Instead of forcing the MQM against a wall we should recognize their potential and give them their due place (and rights) under the Pakistani sun. Altaf Hussain’s dynamism can be harnessed for the good of Pakistan rather than being used against the country. Altaf Hussain may not be a saint but then we must all confess to being sinners in the socio-political sense in depriving the Mohajir community of those freedoms that democracy enjoins. From Abyssynia Lines to Mill Hills (in London) is a long way, the distant leader in self-exile must be encouraged to return to his native land and lead his flock back into the national mainstream. Intrinsically national leaders must have the courage to stand up and be counted in times of crisis, do we also have the courage to stand up and make such compromises as may be necessary for the greater good of this country?

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