Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Business Recorder Editorial Aug 24, 2016

Altaf Hussain’s political hara-kiri The dizzying events in Karachi on Monday and Tuesday shook the country and left the political actor at the heart of what evolved into a major crisis, the MQM, reeling. First, a recap. MQM had mounted a hunger strike before the Karachi Press Club in protest at the alleged ‘disappearance’ of dozens of its workers at the hands of the security agencies, some of whom, according to the MQM, have been tortured or extra judicially killed. The pressure on the federal government first and foremost as the controller of the Rangers leading the operation in Karachi reached a critical point when the health of some of the hunger strikers, including parliamentarians, deteriorated. Islamabad then dispatched Information Minister Pervez Rashid to Karachi to hold talks with MQM leader Dr Farooq Sattar and his colleagues. At the end of their deliberations on Monday, it appeared as though a breakthrough had been achieved when the minister revealed that he had heard the MQM and conveyed to them the message of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that an MQM delegation should visit Islamabad to see him and that the government would try to redress their grievances. After this announcement, it was stated from the MQM side that the hunger strike had been ended. What followed surprised all and sundry. Altaf Hussain, whose incendiary speeches from London have been banned from being broadcast on the electronic media, spoke to the to-be-dispersed hunger strike camp and delivered a broadside to beat all his previous efforts. Not only did he castigate Pakistan in terms that have been construed as treasonous (a case under Article 6 has reportedly been lodged against him and others), he instigated the hunger strikers to ‘attend’ to the media houses that were refusing to broadcast his speeches. Unfortunately for them, two media houses in particular were located near the Press Club and therefore were on the receiving end of the unwanted attentions of the angry MQM workers, led by women. Not only were the offices and studios of these media outlets trashed and staff attacked, clashes with the small contingent of police on the spot resulted in one death and about a dozen wounded. A police motorcycle was set on fire and many cars and vehicles smashed. Eventually, a heavier contingent of police arrived, along with Rangers, to quell the violence. The incident was condemned from all sides, including the prime minister. COAS General Raheel Sharif instructed the DG Rangers in Karachi to arrest all those involved in raising anti-Pakistan slogans in response to Altaf Hussain’s instigation and perpetrating violence against the media. In the evening. Farooq Sattar and other MQM leaders who arrived to conduct a press conference at the Press Club were arrested and taken away by the Rangers but then later released. MQM workers were arrested all over the city, all the party’s offices, including its headquarters Nine Zero, were sealed and some 13 workers allegedly guilty of the Monday violence were sent on police remand by an anti-terrorism court. The following day, Tuesday, Farooq Sattar held a press conference in which he made the startling announcement that henceforth, decisions of the MQM would be made in Pakistan (i.e. Karachi) and not in London. This effectively meant sidelining the MQM supreme leader Altaf Hussain and his London Committee, although Farooq Sattar and other MQM leaders cautiously tried to ‘balance’ the distancing from the supremo with ritual declarations of Altaf Husain still being the leader of the party. Farooq Sattar also distanced himself and the MQM Pakistan (as it is now being called) from the anti-Pakistan slogans authored by Altaf Hussain as well as violence in any form or for whatever reason. Sattar’s ‘caution’ was visible in his reluctance to answer journalists’ questions at the press conference. Clearly, Farooq Sattar has attempted damage control aimed at preventing the MQM being banned, as is being advocated by many quarters. He may also have had an eye on Karachi’s mayor and deputy mayor elections due today, in which the MQM obviously has a big stake. Sceptics though are wondering out loud whether this ‘distancing’ between Karachi and London is tactical or permanent, voluntary or establishment pressure-driven, and the final imposition of the ‘minus-one’ formula vis-à-vis Altaf Hussain. Of course the answers will only be available over time, and perhaps even over the next few days. Much will depend on Altaf Hussain’s reaction. This is not the first time Altaf Hussain has embarrassed his party on the ground in Pakistan by making outlandish speeches/statements. Each time it has been left to the likes of Farooq Sattar to pull the leader’s chestnuts out of the fire lit by his own hand for the sake of the survival of the party. Farooq Sattar’s attempts to present the MQM as a legitimate, moderate, parliamentary party were constantly undermined by Altaf Hussain’s ravings. Sattar was even ‘punished’ (verbal and physical abuse) in the past for allegedly defying the supremo’s orders or not following them to the letter. Farooq Sattar always attempted to put a brave face on this mistreatment and attempted to soldier on for the sake of the MQM’s survival. This time however, it seems Altaf Hussain has gone too far. Even his most ardent admirers and defenders in the MQM leadership have thrown up their hands if not thrown in the towel on this mission impossible. What follows could decide the fate of the MQM and therefore also of Karachi and the politics of mohajir ethnicity that has been the leit motif of the MQM for the last 32 years. Altaf Hussain may yet survive this crisis, but his penchant for committing political hara-kiri seems to have impelled him in the direction of one speech too far.

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