On Tuesday morning, Adnan Irfan, a hand-embroidery worker in one of Karachi’s many sweatshops, received a message on his cellphone that sent him into a state of panic. It read: “Bhai has been arrested in London, please come home.” That one-line led a frantic Irfan to abandon his work immediately and rush home, for fear of violence on the streets.
"Bhai" or brother in Urdu — spoken by a majority of people in Pakistan’s biggest city — is a term of endearment and reverence. But in this metropolis of 21 million residents, Bhai also invokes fear.
The word is associated with members of armed groups led by a man called Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and Karachi’s largest political party. Hussain has gained notoriety as Karachi’s biggest brother, and was the Bhai mentioned in Irfan’s message.
Just hours before Irfan abandoned work on June 3, 4,000 miles from the congested streets of Karachi at least 40 British police officers raided Hussain’s north London home and arrested the 60-year-old on suspicion of money laundering.
The arrest came after a three-year inquest in to the murder of Imran Farooq, a leading member of the ethnic Mohajir nationalist movement that Hussain founded in 1978. Farooq was murdered outside his London home in September 2010 by two men identified as Pakistani exchange students by the British police.
These enquiries led to Hussain and his UK party HQ, where police investigated him for laundering at least $670,000 of cash, leading to his arrest on Tuesday.
Frustrated activists could also get out of control without Hussain’s strong hand to anchor them.
Farooq Sattar, a senior MQM leader, told workers in Karachi: “We are confident that we have not violated any law. Altaf Hussain has also said that he is innocent, and God willing, we will be acquitted on all charges.”
Shops were closed and cars were burned across Karachi once news of Hussain’s arrest spread. Millions of people like Irfan, desperate to get home safely before the violence spread, were stranded in traffic jams on the city’s streets.
Protests continued in Karachi on June 4 after Altaf Hussain, the leader of the MQM, was taken into custody the previous day in London. Video via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Hussain, a British citizen since 2002, commands undisputed loyalty among millions of his Urdu-speaking followers. One phone call from Hussain in London has the power to shut down one of the world’s largest cities in a matter of minutes.
Now Karachi is in a state of heightened suspense. Ayesha Siddiqa, a well-known political commentator, told VICE News that if Hussain gets convicted the MQM “will fail to create a new and equally powerful leadership.” Frustrated activists could also get out of control without Hussain’s strong hand to anchor them, she added. “It means the MQM will also get divided into pockets controlled or influenced by different leaders and interests."
Hussain’s Mohajir nationalist movement started on the campus of Karachi University in the summer of 1978, a year after the army coup that deposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as prime minister. While the university was already a hub of political activity, the military takeover unleashed a wave of activism. Hussain’s All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APMSO) aimed to give the Urdu-speaking community a voice. The Mohajir people migrated to Pakistan from India after partition in 1947. The APMSO soon challenged religious student groups on campus and caught the imagination of immigrant Mohajir youth. The MQM then emerged from the APMSO in 1984.
'Dozens of policemen were slaughtered by MQM/APMSO militants, but hundreds of MQM/APMSO activists were also put to death in the most brutal manner.'
Laurent Gayer, author of Guns, Slums & Yellow Devils, said the MQM under Hussain contributed significantly to the “institutionalization” of violence for the control of turf and economic rents in Karachi. “Since the mid-1980s, Karachi’s politics is complex due to electoral contests which coexist with a more occult and more violent realm of politics,” wrote Gayer in the preview to his book.
The MQM’s power lies in its ability to provide protection and a 2010 research study identified the party as one of many in Karachi with armed, organized cadres who are trained in the use of lethal weapons. Thousands of MQM supporters and activists have been killed in turf wars with other political groups, but also in conflict with law enforcement officers. The party said 15,000 of its activists have been killed in Karachi in political violence over the past few decades.
Law enforcement numbers in Karachi have receded significantly over this time. There are now a mere 18,000 law enforcement personnel in this huge city — 65 percent of whom live in shanty towns and slums.
Nadeem F Paracha, a journalist for Pakistan’s largest English daily Dawn, wrote that in its quest for turf, the MQM went after security officials, but also lost many of its activists in the process. “Dozens of policemen were slaughtered by MQM/APMSO militants, but hundreds of MQM/APMSO activists were also put to death in the most brutal manner,” Paracha said.
Hussain was forced to flee Karachi after his brother and nephew were killed in a targeted operation in the early 1990s. He set up base in London from where he has controlled Karachi’s fate and its politics by remote control.
Gayer wrote that despite the violence, MQM’s presence also had a positive impact on Karachi. “The political and military predominance of the MQM introduced an element of stability and predictability in a political configuration otherwise characterized by chronic uncertainty and informality.”
In this quest to provide stability, Hussain emerged as a cult-like figure. He is often referred to as the “father of the nation” by his followers, who consider him to be the “true manifestation of the Mohajir sentiment.”
Apart from the inquest into Farooq’s murder and the money-laundering investigation, British authorities are also looking into allegations of incitement to violence during Hussain’s speeches from London.
An April report by Amnesty International accused supporters of the MQM of “harassing or killing journalists it considers critical.” An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan convicted six alleged members of the MQM for the killing of journalist Wali Khan Babar in January 2011, the first time convictions were handed down for the murder of a journalist in Pakistan.
‘No journalist wants a byline on a report critical of the MQM or of Altaf Hussain,” Kamran Rehmat, a senior journalist based in Qatar, told VICE News. Rehmat said journalists are afraid because the MQM has proven to be a very effective organization when it comes to avenging perceived criticisms.
Ali Chishti, an author who has studied the MQM and its leadership, told VICE News that the movement’s fate is inextricably tied to Hussain. The MQM could face external threats from other political forces, such as Khan’s organization and the Pakistan People’s Party if Hussain is sent to prison, Chishti said. "The future remains uncertain" he added.
Irfan reached home five hours after rushing out of his workshop. His wife, who sent the text message, spent those 300 anxious minutes praying for his well being and safety. At home, Irfan said: 'Life and death is in God's hands.' After a brief pause, he added: 'But Altaf Bhai also has a say in Karachi.'
Follow Ali Mustafa on Twitter: @Ali_Mustafa