Few individuals have the power to drive a sprawling metropolis of 20 million into a state of chaos, bring commercial activity to a standstill, and cause traffic jams stretching for miles.
Even fewer can create such an impact when they are sitting two continents across in the United Kingdom. However, Altaf Hussain, the leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the most popular political party of Pakistan’s megacity Karachi, is no ordinary man.
The moment news of his detention in London by Scotland Yard over money laundering charges spread across the Pakistani port city, cell phones and office numbers started buzzing, with worried relatives pressing their loved ones to return home before ‘things get really bad’.
There was widespread fear that Altaf Hussain’s millions of followers would react to the news by causing mayhem, and people started rushing home to avoid any untoward situation on the road. Markets were firmly shut, the stock exchange plummeted around 700 points, and the people of Karachi were running from pillar to post to find a way home.
The man that wields the power to bring such a massive city to its knees is adored by millions, but loathed by a similar number of people. Many see him as the orchestrator of the bloodshed that has resulted in the deaths of countless political workers, government officials and policemen, apart from common citizens.
Who Is He?
Hussain’s meteoric rise to power started at a young age when he formed a student organization at the University of Karachi in 1978.
As a result, he became the voice for the Mohajir youth, who were the descendants of people that migrated from India to Pakistan at the time of the subcontinent’s partition. They did not belong to any of the four provinces of the Islamic state and were seen by many of the more influential powers as outsiders.
His movement later turned into a full-fledged political party called the Mohajir Qaumi Movement in 1984 and ultimately the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in 1997.
MQM’s Violent Reputation
Ever since the early 1990s, the party has been accused of using violence in its struggle for power over Karachi, which is the economic and trade hub of Pakistan. Many yielded to the party’s designs; however, it was more out of fear than respect as Hussain’s workers had, by now, gained a fearsome reputation.
Although the party was weakened during a notorious government operation against its workers by the Benazir Bhutto-led Pakistan People’s Party government in 1993-94, it regained a lot of its street clout during the regime of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf.
Altaf Hussain’s men had control over most civic administration in Karachi and the city saw much progress during this time due to the absence of a power struggle.
However, it was during this time of power that the MQM’s reputation for violence reached its peak on May 12, 2007, as many held its workers responsible for the dozens of dead bodies that littered the city streets. With a democratic government replacing Musharraf’s military rule, the power struggle for the economic hub of Pakistan was back on and continues to this day.
Accusations continue to stain the party’s reputation and ever since the 90s, MQM has been accused of corruption, whether in or out of government, extortion from traders across the city, and widespread bloodshed.
Now living in London due to security concerns, Hussain, apart from facing money laundering and hate speech charges, has also been accused of the murder of fellow party member Imran Farooq.
While he may have his droves of followers, there are many who see the MQM chief’s political strategy as the driving force behind the violence in Karachi and would like nothing better than to see him punished for his crimes.