News Brief

Meet Altaf Hussain, A ‘Muhajir’ Political Leader From Pakistan Who Slammed Owaisi For His Ayodhya Remarks

Altaf Hussain (Source: Twitter)

In August 2016, Pakistan witnessed one of the most serious military crackdowns in its largest city and business capital - Karachi.

Pakistan Rangers, a nominally civilian police force controlled by the army, led the closure of offices, and several party workers were arrested. Several offices were termed as ‘illegal occupations’ and swiftly razed down. Top leaders as well as several women activists were arrested.

All of them belonged to Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) - dominated by Karachi’s Urdu speaking Muhajir population - a party founded by Altaf Hussein in 1984. Hussein had fled to Britain in 1992 after a crackdown against his party.

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Hussein has been in the headline recently for requesting an asylum from Prime Minister Modi, welcoming Ayodhya verdict and criticising Asaduddin Owaisi. He also stated that India had the right to establish a “Hindu Raj” as Pakistan had already been created for Muslims.

The 2016 military crackdown was preceded by Hussein’s speech being broadcast from loudspeakers to a Karachi crowd in which he called Pakistan as a “cancer for the entire world” and the “epicentre of terrorism”.

After his speech, his followers, allegedly incited by Hussein’s criticism of the media, attacked two television stations and their satellite trucks, and opened gunfire. One person was killed in the violence while police vehicles were also torched.

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Who are Muhajirs?

The term Muhajir in Arabic means ‘immigrants’, and is popularly used for those Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated from India to Pakistan after the Partition. Most of these migrants settled in the towns and cities of Sindh, such as Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur and Mirpurkhas.

In Karachi, the capital of Sindh, Mohajirs came to be in majority.

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While hailing from different regions and speaking different languages such as Dakhani, Khariboli, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Mewati, Sadri, Marwari, and Haryanvi, over time, based on their shared experience of immigration and resettlement, Muhajirs evolved into a distinct ethnic grouping.

Mohajirs were also more educated and urbanised than the native population of Sindh, they were also purportedly close to Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan, and grabbed high positions in bureaucracy and economy. This generated certain resentment in the local population against them.

A sense of entitlement over Pakistan prevailed amongst the Urdu-speaking migrants as they argued that it was they who had actually made huge sacrifices to create an independent Muslim nation.

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Despite being in the minority, Mohajirs sided with the orthodox religious parties instead of liberal principles, and supported the "Islamisation” of Pakistan’s polity and society. This was seen as necessary to constructing a homogenous national identity as opposed to ethnic identity - a good thing for Mohajirs who lacked the historical and cultural roots as native Pakistani ethnic groups.

Nonetheless, the domination of Mohajirs in the ruling class declined, and facing the prospects of the rise of a rival ethnic group under Ayub Khan (Pathans) and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Sindhis), Mohajirs revolted. In the latter case, siding with the religious parties.

The nationalisation drive cost the Mohajirs their businesses and educational institutions, while the quota system curbed their pre-eminence in the university education and civil services.

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Sindh saw many a communal riots between Mohajirs and Pakhtuns (for example, after 1965 elections) as well as Mohajirs and Sindhis (for example, language riots of 1972).

Muhajir Quami Movement

It was founded as a student organisation, All Pakistan Muhajir Student Organization (APMSO), in 1978 by Altaf Hussain, and became a full-fledged political party in 1984.

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The party quickly gained power and the party came to control Karachi completely, saying that in Karachi not even a leaf would bristle without ‘’Altaf bhai’s” permission.

Altaf Hussain in 2004 described the goal of his party, “Our immediate political objective is to change the corrupt medieval feudal political system of Pakistan. We are, therefore, the only genuine party of the lower and middle classes, totally devoid of feudal lords and army generals.”

The party wielded significant power in Karachi and eventually became third largest party in Pakistan, playing coalition partners to many. The rise of Muhajirs threatened the political elites, and especially the military influence.

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In 1990, Pakka Qila Operation was carried out by Pakistan Army that resulted in death of 250 besieged innocent men, women and children.

From 1992 to 1994, Pakistan military carried out a bloody crackdown against MQM and thousands MQM workers and supporters were killed or went missing.

Known as Operation Clean-up, the government justified it as an “attempt to end terrorism in Karachi and to seize unauthorised arms”. MQM saw it as an attempt to wipe them out completely and protested. Political violence erupted leading to lawlessness and chaos.

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This is when Altaf Hussein, after being summoned over a murder in 1992, fled to Britain, alleging official conspiracy to kill him. Since then, he is said to be managing the party from the London headquarters. His speeches etc are banned.

Throughout 1993-1994, political violence was reported between MQM, MQM factions, and Sindhi nationalist groups. MQM was accused of summary killings, torture, and other abuses.

After the military coup by General Parvez Musharraf, a Mohajir himself, the party saw some revival. However, it was under pressure soon after the exit of Musharraf.

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Altaf Hussein

Hussein’s parents hailed from Agra in Uttar Pradesh, and moved to Sindh, Pakistan after the Partition. Hussein held a degree in pharma but also performed military service, including in the 1971 Bangladesh war.

According to MQM, when he returned back from Bangladesh and wanted to join the regular Army, Hussein’s application was rejected based on because his parents were 'muhajirs' from India even when Hussain insisted that he was born in Pakistan.

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The student organisation formed by Hussain took up the cause of stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh - mostly Urdu-speaking Muslims of Bihari-origin - who had sided with West Pakistan during the war.

After the war, some were repatriated to Pakistan (majority being in state services) but the remaining became stateless. These “stranded Pakistanis” found themselves unwelcome in both countries. Despite their loyalty, Pakistan was reluctant to repatriate them all, as it was also facing pressures from Afghan refugees at the time.

In 1979, Hussain participated in a demonstration for the safe return of stranded Pakistanis and was awarded nine months’ jail along with five strokes of flogging. Subsequently, he rose quickly as the charismatic leader of the Mohajir community in the background of worsening ethnic tensions.

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The influx of Afghan refugees played a role as availability of illegal narcotic drugs like heroin, and automatic firearms like the AK-47 rifles increased. There were several Pakhtun-Mohajir clashes claiming hundreds of lives.

In 2008, Hussain warned against the Talibanisation of Karachi and stated that a "well planned conspiracy to intensify sectarian violence in the city, was being hatched.

Hussain has also stated that the "advocates of Jihad, a medieval concept to tame the infidel, are wantonly killing followers of the faith as they level places of worship."

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In a 2004 speech at the Hindustan Times Leadership Initiative in New Delhi, Hussain criticised the Pakistan Army’s role and use of religious parties in stifling democracy in Pakistan. He also touched upon the “loot and plunder of the wealth and resources of Sindh and Balochistan” by the Pakistani government.

Hussain also criticised the two-nation theory and said that “the idea of Pakistan was dead at its inception, when the majority of Muslims chose to stay back after partition, a truism reiterated in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971”.

Hussein calls himself the “representative of a persecuted minority” whose family members were arrested, tortured and unlawfully executed by the Pakistani state.

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On Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya

In a speech dated 9 November, Altaf Hussein said, “A Maulvi called Asaduddin Owaisi has said that he doesn’t accept the court ruling. They should go ahead and build the Masjid on the land granted by the Supreme Court.”

Hussein also said that the Indian government had the right to establish a “Hindu Raj”. “As Pakistan has been created on the basis of Islam, you needn’t live in Hindustan. Go and live in Pakistan, Maulana Asaduddin Owaisi,” he added.

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These comments came in the background of his upcoming trial under British anti-terrorism laws, for inciting large-scale violence in Karachi in August 2016, through one of his telephone speeches.

In that speech, Hussain described Pakistan as a “cancer for the entire world”, a “headache for the entire world”. Pakistan, he said, “is the epicentre of terrorism for the entire world. Who says long live Pakistan… it’s down with Pakistan.” Hussein had later apologised for his remarks, blaming his ill-health. However, treason charges were slapped against him and he remains a fugitive.

In the 9 November speech, Hussein requested asylum from Prime Minister Modi and financial help to move the International Court of Justice against the atrocities committed by the Pakistani establishment against his party-members. He said that Pakistan had seized his house and offices leaving him with no resources to fight a case.

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Hussein said that he will fight for the cause of Baloch, Sindhis, Muhajirs and all ethnic minority communities of Pakistan in the International Court of Justice if provided the necessary help.

Since its inception, MQM was accused of being secessionist and conspiring with India to break Karachi away from Pakistan.

The “Indian” ethnicity of MQM members and followers was used to taint them as “traitors”. During the bloody crackdown, some of its leaders had escaped to India and were accused of having been in touch with the Indian intelligence agency.

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In 2015, amidst the Army crackdown, Hussain had requested PM Modi to speak for the cause of Muhajirs.

This year, after abrogation of special status of Kashmir, a US-based group representing expatriate Mohajirs criticised Pakistan’s hypocrisy and poor treatment of its own ethnic minorities.

After his 2016 inciting speech, Hussein’s political fortunes dwindled with several MQM leaders distancing themselves from him. Stories about his poor mental health were making rounds. Reportedly, now his health has further deteriorated and he is desperate to avoid the UK trial.

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