Altaf Hussain-1560510688694
Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata/Gulf News

Altaf Hussain, once the fearsome ‘Don of Karachi’ again made headlines in the main stream media last week after he was arrested by Scotland Yard during a raid at his London residence.

He is the man who used to rule the roost in Karachi, the megapolis of more than 20 million. He controlled Karachi remotely from his London home. With tens of thousands people at his beck and call, he could shut down Karachi with just one phone call while sitting in London in self-exile. The loyalty of his supporters was legendary and they were always ready to die for him. And he used them every now and then to send panic waves up the city’s nerve centres.

Political killings, hate speeches

Accused of ordering political assassinations and running a militant wing responsible for hundreds of killings, Altaf Hussain’s downfall started on August 22, 2016 when he delivered a hate speech and incited people to violate the law of the country. He also used foul language against the army. His speech was followed by a massive violence in Karachi.

The government and the army swung into action; treason cases were filed against him and the UK government was also notified. Television channels which used to telecast his telephonic addresses live were told to stop giving him coverage and his speeches over the phone were banned by the officials. Consequently his close friends started to distance themselves and he was sidelined to an extent.

Yes, fate was finally catching up with the ‘Don of Karachi’ Hussain who founded the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). (Altaf Hussain was released on bail by the London Metropolitan Police on Wednesday)

Initially known as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, Hussain’s party started off in 1984 as a political group with the aim of representing the Urdu-speaking community which had migrated to Pakistan during the partition of India and Pakistan. Mohajir in Urdu means migrant.

Born in Karachi on September 17, 1953, Hussain is a pharmacy graduate from the Karachi University (KU). His political career began during his student years in KU when he and Azeem Ahmad Tariq founded the All-Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO) in 1978.

Ethnic strife and continual bouts of urban conflicts were nearing a climax at the time in Karachi and MQM quickly gained recognition with a good number of Urdu speaking supporters in Karachi and parts of the Sindh province.

Under Hussain’s leadership, MQM swept the 1988 election in Sindh’s urban areas, emerging as the third largest party. It entered into alliance with Benazir Bhutto, who went on to become the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan as the leader of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Ever since it was formed, the MQM had absolute monopoly over Karachi’s politics, its streets and many of its institutions for nearly three decades.

Simply was known as ‘Bhai’, big brother, Altaf Hussain demanded nothing less than unflinching loyalty from his supporters.

He became a ‘Godfather’ figure in Karachi and his party thrived on extortion and illegal taxes from businesses and influential people. MQM distributed part of this wealth to its poor supporters ensuring eternal loyalty.

In the 1990 election, MQM again emerged as the third-largest party forming an alliance and a coalition government with Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N). Hussain’s party boycotted the 1993 National Assembly election but won a considerable number of seats in the Sindh Assembly election, proving MQM to be a powerful political party in Karachi.

Self exile

In 1992, Hussain went on self-exile in London after the government launched a crackdown on criminals in Karachi.

The government’s main target was MQM and consequently Karachi was caught in the middle of a war involving law enforcement agencies and political parties. Hussain’s elder brother Nasir Hussain and his nephew Arif Hussain were killed during this period of violence.

However, even in exile, Hussain maintained an iron grip over his party back home.

In 2009, MQM once again became a part of the ruling alliance with the PPP government led by former President Asif Ali Zardari. Its alliance continued with the PPP-led government in Sindh in 2014.

Ever since his self-imposed exile in England he has never travelled to Karachi for fear of his life but his ominous presence was always felt everywhere in the city. His portraits loom large from bridges and billboards, with his name painted on walls across the city — until the 2016 hate speech.

The MQM supremo had not only raised slogans against Pakistan but also called the country “a cancer for entire world’. Though he later apologised to the then army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, and the Rangers director general for his vitriolic speech, but he could not stage a political come back.

For the last three years, the ‘Don was virtually dead’ as he lost control over the city. His party got divided into various factions. And many of Hussain’s most loyal activists have either abandoned him, been jailed or killed by security forces.

While it was risky just a few years ago to criticise him openly, he has now become a butt of jokes, memes and videos on social media. The era of Hussain is over. In Karachi all his posters and pictures have vanished.