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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!

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