MQM Rabita Committee Convener Dr Farooq Sattar seems to be doing something that MQM supremo Altaf Hussain is no longer doing: acknowledging that the MQM is outgunned, that it cannot afford to take on the Rangers. That might explain why his reaction to the speech by Altaf in which he raised the ‘Pakistan Murdabad’ slogan was first to dissociate himself from the speech, and then from the maker of the remarks.

That he chose to phrase it as a rejection of dictation from London is itself significant, for it acknowledges one of the problems of the MQM. Ever since Altaf’s disappearance into self-imposed exile in 1992, the party has had to accept leadership from long-distance, from a leader who tried to exercise day-to-day control through telephone; not just his addresses to gatherings of party workers, but conversations with unit and sector in-charges. The local leaders also resented the behind-the-scenes influence of the men manning the London Secretariat, many of whom were economic migrants. Those in Karachi had owed their rise to the MQM; those in London to their own abilities. It is not for nothing that Farooq Sattar turned against Altaf, because he had long provided the MQM an alternative, being the person who fulfilled the roles Altaf did not take. When the MQM emerged, in the 1987 local body polls, as the dominant force in Karachi and Hyderabad, it was Farooq Sattar, then merely 28, who became Mayor of Karachi, not Altaf. When the MQM candidates, running as independents but with the same symbol, won, it was Farooq Sattar who became their parliamentary leader, a job he is still doing, nearly three decades on. He is also one of the original All-Pakistan Muhajir Students Organisation (APMSO) men, who began a journey with Altaf when it was founded in 1978 that led to the foundation of the MQM itself in 1984. The MQM thus had a dual origin, in Karachi’s student politics of the 1970s and 1980s, and the aspirations of the Muhajirs of Sindh.

The Muhajirs have had the problem of having no province of their own since 1973. Under the One-Unit experience, everyone was a minority in the province of West Pakistan, but when the four provinces abolished in 1954 were revived in 1969, Muhajirs found they were a majority in the capital of the province where they were in a minority. Muhajirs tried following the religious parties, which were then led by Muhajirs, and which stood against the PPP, led by a Sindhi. However, the Muhajirs then quickly transitioned to an exclusively Muhajir organisation, the MQM. Perhaps because its leaders were both younger and poorer than those of other parties, it also became a strongarm organisation, playing the role of the underworld in Bombay, which had been a sort of founding city before Partition, and to which Karachi looked for a lot of its culture. The symbols of all of this lie in the titles by which Altaf is known:’Bhai’, the title given to Muslim gangsters in Bombay (now Mumbai), and ‘Pir Sahib’, which is how a lot of Sindhi Syeds are addressed. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Pirs of Hala and the Pirs Pagaro, are among the most prominent politicians of interior Sindh, which the present Chief Minister, is also a Pir, from Dadu, just as his predecessor was, from Khairpur.

Altaf is said to have told newly-elected Hyderabad Municipal Corporation councilors that Muhajirs’ problems would only be solved when a Muhajir was Prime Minister of Pakistan. However, the MQM could not make that happen, not even when it became a national party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. The MQM only represented Muhajirs, so while it won its strongholds with monotonous regularity, it could not break out, and found itself trapped in a permanent minority in the only provincial assembly it was in. It was taken into the national coalition by the PPP to provide it the majority it needed to govern, and thus thrust itself into the provincial government. With the PML-N, the situation was reversed. Alongside PML-N MPAs, and even PPP floorcrossers, the MQM provided the numbers needed for a Sindh government, and thus it forced itself on the national government.

However, when Gen Pervez Musharraf was President and Shaukat Aziz Prime Minister, the MQM had a dream team in office, both being Muhajirs. But the former’s constituency was not Muhajir, it seems to have been of no avail, except perhaps to other Muhajirs who had climbed initial rungs on their own. One result seems to have been that the District Nazim of Karachi of that era, Mustafa Kamal, ultimately broke off to form his own party. The first MQM mayor, Farooq Sattar, has now broken off, but a third head of Karachi from the MQM, Waseem Akhtar, has been elected, and though for him it is still early days, not to mention that he is in jail, he would bear watching by Altaf.

One reaction, which seemed to perpetuate the view that the MQM was in the Indian camp, was that Altaf’s speech had drawn away attention, both at home and abroad, from the ongoing tragedy in Kashmir. At the same time, attention was also drawn away from the Quetta blast as well as the Panama Leaks protests by the Tehrik Insaf and the Pakistan Awami Tehrik. That view might be natural, but it would belittle not just the MQM, but all Muhajirs. It should not be forgotten that Muhajirs need certificates of patriotism from no one. Altaf’s tirade was probably too much, and led to the local MQM distancing itself from him. One effect of that distancing would be the cutting off of the flow of funds to him. That money will have to be replaced by another source which has already been taped, that of the Muahjir diaspora. One problem is that such funds will have to be voluntary. Any attempt at strong-arm tactics will be met by the local law-enforcement agencies forcefully. Politically, it will be impossible to get control, while even influence will not be much, or easy.

The way that Dr Farooq Sattar went about the separation did not so much indicate his personal reverence of Altaf, but the status accorded him by the Muhajir people, which has spent the last three decades regarding him as their savior. It is in fact because of this that formulae will not work, and the desire of the establishment to get rid of Altaf, even if fulfilled, will not fulfill the demands of the Muhajir people, which might not be possible under the current constitutional arrangement. The MQM without Altaf is not a realistic aspiration. This may well be the tragedy of the Muhajir people, but it is a reality. Altaf represents something visceral, and thus cannot be replaced. Just as the rise of the MQM was the result of soul-searching among the Muhajirs, so the replacement of Altaf will not be because of some establishment figure’s wishes, but another debate, further soul-searching, predicated on the Muhajirs’ reluctance to go down the path taken in Altaf’s infamous speech.