The rise and fall of a Pakistan political icon

Published: 01st September 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st September 2016 07:23 AM   |  A+A-

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Altaf Hussain was more than an icon to millions of his followers. He was like a messiah to those who hung on to every word spewing out of his voluminous mouth with a religious zeal and frenzy. Like a deity in the occult, his devotees worshipped him despite his being in exile, in plush London, for a quarter century.

As the founding leader of what was initially the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (National Movement of Immigrants from India) but subsequently re-christened as the Mutahhada Qaumi Movement (United National Movement), or as more popularly known by its house-hold acronym, MQM, Altaf commanded a political following not seen since the halcyon days of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Like Zulfi Bhutto, Altaf too quickly honed the skills of a fire-brand orator with enough heft to sway a mesmerised audience.

However, the two couldn’t be more different from each other. Bhutto was a sophisticated, western-educated patrician who was as much at home in urban drawing rooms as among the masses he galvanized with his slogans of socialism. Altaf, in contrast, lacked Bhutto’s charisma and was a piddling home-grown plebeian with hardly any urbane charms or sophistication. But he happened to be the right man to land, at the right time, at the centre of a growing unrest among his Mohajir compatriots, sons and descendants of those who had migrated from their homes and hearths in India at the time of the 1947 Partition.

Ironically, it was Bhutto who unwittingly triggered the Mohajir movement as the backlash to his myopic insistence that the mohajirs learn the Sindhi language because they were living in the province of Sindh. Nonsense, said the mohajirs. They’d migrated to become Pakistanis and not Sindhis. To a rabble-rouser like Altaf that was the catalyst to shape himself as the voice of the dis-enfranchised mohajirs.

But for its real birth as a ‘movement’ MQM still had to wait for Bhutto’s hanging by the military, in 1979. The ruling military junta was squeamish about Bhutto’s legacy of a martyr and wanted an anti-dote to the rising popularity of his daughter, Benazir. They needed a rabble-rouser like Altaf to checkmate Benazir’s charisma. It was the notorious ISI that baptised MQM’s birth as a political force of urban mohajirs to stem the tide of Sindhi nationalism. However, like any other Frankenstein invention, the monster soon became too hot to handle for his inventors and mentors.

Altaf wasn’t the first Pakistani politician to raise cadres of young militants to buttress his movement. But by arming the militant youths he crossed a line drawn by his erstwhile mentors. He fled to the safety of the UK to avoid the reach of  the Pakistani laws; there are still scores of murder cases against him in Pakistani courts. However, there’s, to date, no extradition agreement between the UK and Pakistan for the latter to nab him.

From his sanctuary in London, Altaf still managed to hold Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, in his thrall — thanks to modern technology. His devotees would be glued to his rambling, incoherent and more  – often- than- not theatrical discourses with hushed silence and cheer him on like a matinee idol. Such was his choke-hold over the megapolis that one call from him, from his London hideout, for a lockdown would bring the vibrant industrial hub to a screeching halt. Karachi and its 20 million denizens were as good as hostages to him.

The Pakistani establishment seethed at the ironic grip of the demagogue over his fanatical followers, who were also accused of extortion, land-grabbing and murder. A recent count by some social activists holds Altaf’s storm-troopers and death squads responsible for 22,000 murders in Karachi.

Since last year Altaf had been cut off from his telephonic addresses to his followers under a court order. There couldn’t be a harsher punishment for one addicted to holding his audience captive to his inane public ‘addresses.’ It was in utter frustration, perhaps, that Altaf committed what could only be called political hara-kiri when, on August 22, he called upon his aficionados to punish army, his main nemesis, and the tele-media for blocking him from reaching his audience. The aficionados acted on his call and trashed the studios of a popular television channel.

he riser.jpgBut where Altaf crossed the red line was in denouncing Pakistan as the “epi-centre of terrorism” in the world. He also raised the slogan of Pakistan murdabad (death to Pakistan) and called upon India, Israel and the US to help liberate ‘his people.’ The Pakistanis are up in arms against Altaf’s treason. He’s also being charged for acting as an Indian Trojan horse — a charge routinely slapped on him, stemming from his appeal to India, from the pulpit of an intellectual forum in Delhi, in 2005, to forgive the mohajirs for migrating to Pakistan, and denouncing the Partition as history’s “greatest blunder.” He has also been accused of being on the take from India’s RAW.

Pakistani pundits and media gurus have been quick to connect dots and argue that Altaf’s diatribe against Pakistan followed on the heels of Modi’s Independence Day address, on August 15, from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, in which the Indian leader had denounced Pakistan as a purveyor of terrorism.

Altaf, an icon to his supporters but a brash rabble-rouser and demagogue to his detractors, obviously bit more than he could chew, in this instance. The fallout is devastating for him and his hand-maiden MQM. The party, likened to a mafia, is in total disarray, with dozens of its offices bulldozed, scores of its leaders in the slammer and many more on the run. The episode proves the veracity of an old dictum: those who live by the sword die by the sword. Altaf is its latest horrible example.

Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistan diplomat Email:

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