Not since Pakistan’s former Interior Minister, late Nasrullah Khan Babar’s, crackdown in mid-1995, has the Mohajir/ Muttahida Quami Movement – Altaf (MQM- A) been subjected to such a relentless siege by the Pakistan Rangers and the Sindh Police in Karachi. On March 11, 90, Azizabad, or `Nine Zero’, the home of Altaf Hussain in Federal B Area, the sanctified MQM headquarters, was raided by Pakistan Rangers. Several MQM-A party workers were arrested, arms and ammunition allegedly stolen from NATO containers seized, and five criminals wanted in the January 2011 murder of journalist Wali Khan Babbar were apprehended. The current operations in Karachi have been ongoing since August 2014.
The effort of the law and order authorities, assisted by the para-military Pakistan Rangers, has been to attempt to cleanse the greater metropolitan area of Karachi from the endemic violence, a peculiar mix of drug mafia-related crimes, extortions, kidnappings, sectarian reprisals and even `gang-warfare’, which has plagued the city for the past two decades, causing a systematic outward flow of business capital and investments from what used to be the economic hub of Pakistan.
This has also gotten entangled with the `war on terror’, as a lot of besieged Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) cadres escaping the army dragnet in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been seeking safe havens in mosques and new Pashtun settlements in Karachi’s outlying suburbs.
Recent exposures about involvements in criminal activities revealed in the confessions of Sualat Mirza who faces death penalty for killing Karachi Electric Supply official, Shahid Hamid in May, 1999, and extortion of the worst kind brought out in the Pakistan Rangers report on the September 2012 Baldia Factory fire, have badly damaged the image of the party.
The MQM-A’s dilemma has been particularly acute, as the ebb in its fortunes coincides embarrassingly with the fall from grace of its leader in exile, `Quaid-e-Qiwan’ Altaf Hussain, in London. Altaf came to the adverse notice of the Metropolitan Police on two accounts: first on suspicion of involvement in the 2010 killing of the MQM-A’s second in command, Imran Farooq, outside his East London home. Altaf’s nephew, Iftikhar was detained by the authorities in June 2013 but was released shortly. Two other suspects, Mohsin Ali Syed and Mohammed Kashif Khan Kamran, fled to Pakistan and are now believed to be in the Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) custody.
The second reason for Altaf Hussain’s predicament was the discovery of large amounts of unaccounted-for cash in his Edgware house in North London,fuelling suspicions of money laundering. Altaf was detained for questioning but has not been arrested so far even as investigations continue.
Although former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s 2009 National Reconciliation Ordinance dropped 72 criminal cases against Altaf Hussain, the Pakistan army is unlikely to have forgotten the June 1991 incident where servig army officer Major Kaleem was tortured to death while in MQM custody. In particular, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, currently Director General, ISI, and erstwhile DG, Pakistan Rangers, Sindh, appears convinced that this is the way to go if Karachi has to rise from its perpetual condition of `ordered disorder’, (phrase used by Laurent Gayer in his 2014 book, 'Karachi').
The current crackdown on MQM's violence-prone cadres was started by current DG, ISI, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, in his previous incarnation, as DG Pakistan Rangers, Sindh. The Pak Rangers, under its new DG, Maj Gen Bilal Akbar and V Corps Commander, Lt Gen Naved Zaman, formerly DDG, Counter Terrorism, ISI, continue to work on the script crafted by Akhtar and endorsed by incumbent Army Chief, Raheel Sharif. This is evident also from the recent gallantry award citation of `Hilal-e-Shujaat’, bestowed on Akhtar, which mentions his role as DG, Pak Rangers, in the recent Karachi operations.
The party’s second-string leadership in Karachi has begun to squirm and squeal. They organised protest demonstrations outside Nine Zero even as the Pak Rangers’s 11 March raid was underway. This forced the Pakistan Rangers to file a case against Altaf Hussain and his party, under the Anti-Terrorism Act, for criminal intimidation.
When Pakistan’s incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Karachi few days later, their request for an audience went unheeded. A delegation led by Farooq Sattar, including Haider Abbas Rizvi, Faisal Sabzwari and Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, was later able to meet him in Islamabad. They complained against the police/Rangers’ high-handedness in repressing their cadres’ legitimate political activities.
Though the party has dominated the Karachi political scene since 1988, in recent months, a perception has grown that the MQM-A is losing ground, even politically. In the May 2013 elections, though it was able to win 17 out of 20 Karachi seats in the National Assembly and 34 of 42 Provincial Assembly seats from Sindh, its vote share declined by 4 % as Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) was able to make a sizable dent.
The PTI has replaced the Awami National Party (ANP) as the bigger party in Pashtun dominated-new settlements in the SITE Industrial area and Sohrab Goth. It has complained, alleging involvement of MQM hit men after its popular politician, Zahra Shahid Hussain, was killed in May 2013. PTI chief Imran Khan harbours a visceral dislike of Altaf Hussain, a sentiment heartily reciprocated by MQM leaders. In fact PTI and MQM-A workers clashed in Karachi as recent as 30 March.
The army-backed crackdown has fuelled speculation about a possible change in MQM-A leadership. Names of Mustafa Kamal, former Nazim, who did a lot to improve the city’s infrastructure but had to go into exile in Dubai after having crossed the leaders, and Dr IshratulIbad, MQM’s durable and longest-serving Sindh Governor (since 2002) have been mentioned. There is even some talk of Musharraf emerging again in a political role to inherit his `natural’ Mohajir mantle, though this may not be quite palatable just yet, either to Sharif or to the army leadership, whose main concern is limited to see that he is absolved from State sedition charges.
At present, it appears that the purpose of the army/ ISI/ Pakistan Rangers operation is not to totally demolish the party but to significantly curb its criminal mafias and de-fang capacity to hold the State and Provincial Administration to ransom, so that Karachi can slowly limp back to a tolerable state of `ordered disorder’ again.