That the arrest in London of MQM Chief Altaf Hussain was succeeded by an attack on Karachi’s airport, though not related, did highlight the kinds of violence that the city suffered from, which make the whole city such a complicated one.

Altaf’s arrest showed that that the MQM is no ordinary political party, but actually an expression of a complex sociological phenomenon. It is not inconceivable for a political party to dominate an area as completely as does the MQM in Karachi and Hyderabad, but for the dominance to be so complete as to allow the party’s leader to stay in the UK for the last 21 years, is unheard of.

That Altaf Hussain has lived in the UK since 1992, yet still controls his party, is not so much a tribute to his powers of fascinating his followers, considerable though they may be, as to the fact that the problems of the Muhajirs remain unsolved. Muhajirs vote for the MQM in droves, not because they share an ideology with its leaders, but because they believe that it will solve their issues. As the MQM has been winning huge majorities in urban Sindh since 1987, with last year’s general election providing yet another example of MQM’s control of Sindh’s urban areas, it clearly represents something. That something may be unpalatable, but exists.

It appears to be the absence of a provincial identity. Muhajirs are Sindhis, having come to the province in and after 1947 but have never taken to the Sindhi language, and are a permanent minority in the province. The MQM has found itself under challenge in recent times, the latest challenger being the PTI, which won a national seat in Karachi after re-polling. The MQM has not opposed the PTI’s demand for electoral reform, but it has long been dogged by rumours of violence. The PTI has not just overthrown the MQM in a Karachi seat, but has also won a Lahore seat from the PML (N). While the PML (N) is a very different party from the MQM, it is also primarily urban. However, it does not have either of the two problems the MQM does, being aligned with, rather than against, the rural population. It is worth noting that the PML (N) is also led by a Muhajir. However, Mian Nawaz Sharif is a Punjabi-speaking Muhajir. While the Punjabi muhajirs were as suddenly and violently expelled from their homes, there was not as huge a difference between them and the people they had to settle amongst. Punjabi-speaking Muhajirs never had the problem of provincial identity that affected the Urdu speaking Muhajirs of Sindh.

Another factor which influenced the Karachi muhajirs was that they had migrated to what was the new country’s capital, but which once again became a provincial capital. Karachi also had an intrinsic link to Mumbai, when it was still Bombay, and until 1937 had been part of the Presidency province with the rest of Sindh. When Karachi reverted to the status of a provincial capital, there was no way of making the new federal capital, Islamabad, a Muhajir city. One factor that had made Karachi a magnet had been its port, as well as having the headquarters of most banks, the country’s largest stock exchange and the site of the country’s largest industrial concentration. This is where the jobs were, and it was worth fighting for. Also, now migrants were coming from the rest of the country, making the city’s ethnic mix volatile. Karachi is also the world’s largest Pakhtun city, more so than Peshawar, Kabul or even Kandahar.

Muhajirs were afflicted with a miasma of violence, and there was an attempt to split the MQM with Amir Khan and Muhammad Afaq forming the Haqiqi Group. This came into existence just before the 1992 operation, and there is a belief that the threat they posed to Altaf’s life made him go abroad, to the UK.

There, he first obtained asylum and then citizenship. He continued to control the MQM. Then came the murder of Dr Imran Farooq, and now the money laundering charges. One of the assumptions has been that Altaf will get a fair trial. MQM supporters strongly rebut this, but the MQM has fallen short of accusing the British government of meddling.

This reflects well on the Raj, which prided itself, especially after the 1857 Mutiny, on delivering justice. The impression also reflects well on the diaspora’s experience of British policing. However, it should not be lost sight of, that even before Partition, the police in India was capable of pursuing reasons of state. The police, both in India and in the home country, was focused on nabbing criminals. Altaf’s arrest and bail exhibit a mixture of British and subcontinental reactions. The assumption of the fairness of the British police has come under the microscope, and is no longer an easy assumption.

It is interesting that the charge is one of money laundering. Money laundering was already criminalized, but it became truly prominent after the UK entered the War on Terror, and the financing of terrorism was criminalized in an effort to squeeze Al-Qaeda in its ability to wage war on the USA. Altaf has taken an anti-Al-Qaeda position, and it would be particularly painful to face the same charges as terrorists. However, as the charge involves a claim of organized crime, the implication is that the MQM, or at least a body within it including Altaf, is a criminal organization, and that would have its own effects on the murder investigation of Imran Farooq, which would not be a political assassination, but a gangland execution.

The effects of terrorism in Karachi were shown starkly by the airport attack. However, it also showed that the MQM does not have a monopoly of violence in the city, as the TTP is the new kid on the block. And it is because of the ethnic changes in the city that the TTP has been able to establish a presence in Karachi.

The MQM should take assurance from the fact that Altaf’s fate does not depend on whether he is guilty or not, but on what the British state wants from him. The UK would also like to maintain its image of fairness, but that could be sacrificed if a certain result is needed from the trial. The MQM should prepare for the eventuality of Altaf being put away for a long time, and the government must also prepare for the fact that the MQM seems to have reserved its efforts for that eventuality. As the Americans would say, “Karachi ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

maniazi@nation.com.pk