The political party that dominates Pakistan’s largest city is facing one of the most serious crackdowns in its history after an intervention by its exiled leader in London led to a night of violence followed by the detention of senior party members and shutdown of its headquarters.
On Tuesday, officials closed the “Nine Zero” offices of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in Karachi after supporters of the party – a highly disciplined movement of Karachi’s Urdu-speaking Muhajir population – ransacked two television stations in a rampage that left one person dead and eight injured.
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The violence came after MQM’s leader in exile, Altaf Hussain, lambasted Pakistan as a “cancer for the entire world” and the “epicentre of terrorism” in a speech broadcast over loudspeakers to a crowd in the city from his base in north London, where he has run the party since the early 1990s.
By appearing to incite his followers to attack the media for not covering his speeches, Hussain triggered an unprecedented challenge to his control over a party that has dominated the politics and commerce of Pakistan’s business capital for decades.
He urged his supporters to “move” on ARY and Samaa, two private television news stations, to “get justice”.
Pakistani paramilitary rangers cordon off a street leading to headquarters of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
Immediately afterwards, two television stations and their satellite trucks were attacked, including with gunfire. One person was killed in the violence while police vehicles were also torched.
The rangers, a nominally civilian police force controlled by the army, acted swiftly, rounding up senior MQM leaders, including the party’s top parliamentarian, Farooq Sattar.
The MQM is based in London on the first floor of an office building in Edgware.
Also held was Aamir Liaquat, a popular light-entertainment television personality who is involved in the party.
The police responded to Hussain’s speech by lodging a treason case against him.
The commander of the rangers, Maj Gen Bilal Akbar, vowed to take action and promised to detain anyone who had listened to Hussain’s speech and who could be identified by security camera footage.
Zahid Husain, a leading commentator, said the incident was a “defining moment for the party” that it might not survive.
“I have never heard anyone speaking like that, inciting violence and raising slogans against Pakistan,” he said. “The party was already under huge pressure and this has completely discredited it. The leaders in Pakistan cannot defend it.”
On Tuesday, Hussain apologised for his remarks, claiming he had been under severe mental stress.
The apology was not enough to assuage party leaders in Karachi who have been repeatedly embarrassed by Hussain’s outbursts.
In a highly unusual public rebuke of Hussain, Sattar told a press conference after his release on Tuesday afternoon that the MQM “won’t allow this to happen in future”.
“Whatever the reason given for yesterday’s tragedy – mental stress, health or anything else – it is not tolerable and it is not justified,” he said. “We disassociate ourselves with yesterday’s slogans and we recognise Pakistan constitution and laws.”
Although Sattar did not announce a complete break with Hussain, as some analysts had speculated, he said decisions would now be “taken in Pakistan by local leaders”.
“Decisions will be taken by MQM Pakistan until Altaf Hussain’s health issues are resolved,” he said.
Speaking at the MQM’s headquarters in London, Wasay Jalil – a member of the coordination committee – denied the party was involved in extremism and blamed the rangers for triggering Monday’s violence.
Jalil dismissed talk of a split between the London and Karachi branches of the MQM and said there was no prospect that the MQM’s London-based founder Altaf Hussain might resign or be toppled.
“Mr Hussain is not a party worker. He’s the ideologue of the MQM. We make decisions in Pakistan. He ratifies the decisions.”
He added: “He’s the undisputed leader of the Muhajir nation. He has charisma, he’s self-made and that’s why the Pakistani establishment hates him.”
The MQM has come into ever greater conflict with the rangers in the last two years as both the central government in Islamabad and the powerful army have sought to impose order on the unruly port city of 20 million people.
The party, which was established by Hussain in 1984, has long dominated the city through the loyal support of Karachi’s Muhajir community – relatively well-off Urdu speakers who migrated from India after independence in 1947, and their descendants.
While the party promotes a secular politics that staunchly opposes Islamist militancy, it also runs a violent enforcement wing that dominates the city’s criminal economy.
From an unassuming office in Edgware, the Pakistani metropolis is ruled by a party Imran Khan accuses of murdering his Movement for Justice colleague Zhara Shahid Hussain
In March 2015, assault rifles were found during a raid on MQM’s offices. The last year has seen a ban on media coverage of speeches by Hussain.
Senior leaders have also been arrested, including Waseem Akhtar, who was set to be elected as Karachi’s new mayor.
Akhtar was arrested in July and is accused of multiple crimes, including instigating riots that shook the city in 2007.
The former MP has been held for more than a month at Karachi’s central prison and is unlikely to be released any time soon, meaning he could run the city from behind bars.
The party has also bitterly complained about what it claims are illegal attacks against its party workers by the rangers. It says 130 of its activists have been illegally detained and 62 killed.