Did You Know
Did You Know
Its office is situated next to a chicken grill cafe, a nail bar and a boarded up mock-Tudor pub. But it is from these humble surroundings in London’s Edgware that the fate of Pakistan’s biggest and most febrile city is remotely decided.
The office is home to the international secretariat of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Karachi’s pre-eminent political party that Pakistani authorities accused on Tuesday of staging a bloody mass riot.
Its leader is Altaf Hussain, who for the past 24 years has lived in exile in London. Supporters say that he is the undisputed leader of Karachi’s Muhajir community, comprising Urdu speakers who migrated from India to Pakistan during independence in 1947. Critics accuse Hussain of being a terrorist and fanatic. He has used his base in the UK to dial up and dial down street violence depending on political necessity, they allege.
According to MQM, Pakistan’s establishment has hounded the party for years, with the level of persecution rising since 2013. It says more than 1,500 party workers have been jailed, 66 have been killed extrajudicially and 125 have disappeared. Pakistan’s media, meanwhile, have censored coverage, with Hussain’s face banned from screens since last year.
Speaking from the first-floor London office, Wasay Jalil, a member of MQM’s coordination committee, denied the party was involved in extremism. “We’ve never used British soil for terrorism,” he said. “We always act within peaceful political structures.” UK authorities were aware of Hussain, a longtime British citizen, he said.
Jalil claimed the party began its latest peaceful struggle 10 days ago, when several members went on hunger strike. On Tuesday supporters gathered outside Karachi’s press club to protest against “media bias”. Hussain picked up the phone at his home in London and addressed the crowd, his words broadcast through loudspeakers.
What happened next is contested. Pakistani officials say Hussain effectively declared war on the state, describing the country as “a cancer” and “the epicentre of terrorism”. Jalil conceded that MQM workers broke into chants of “down with Pakistan” – out of frustration, he said, at the brutal tactics employed by local paramilitary forces.
Pakistan’s government says MQM supporters then attacked two of the city’s TV stations. Jalil claimed the crowd came under fire from police, with one activist shot dead and two others injured. Back in London, Hussain later apologised for his remarks and said he was suffering from “mental stress”.
“Definitely he had enormous pressure on his mind. He was crying on the telephone. He was in deep pain and agony,” Jalil said. He dismissed talks of a post-riot split between the London and Karachi branches of the MQM or the possibility that Hussain might now be removed. “He’s the undisputed leader of the Muhajir nation,” Jalil said.
True or not, the latest conflagration in Karachi poses a problem for the British prime minister, Theresa May. In 2014, Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, accused the MQM of being behind the murder of one of his party workers. The MQM denies any involvement.
Khan claims that Hussain has abused Britain’s liberal traditions, alleging Downing Street has ignored MQM’s record of torture, murder and intimidation.
On Tuesday Sayeeda Warsi, the former Conservative party chair, tweeted to say British citizens must not be allowed to use the country as a base for political violence against allies.
Outside Downing Street on Tuesday, 100 British Pakistanis turned up to protest against Hussain. They chanted: “Long live Pakistan” and “Long live General Raheel [Sharif]” – the head of Pakistan’s army. Several contrasted the UK government’s alleged inaction over Hussain with its decision to prosecute the hate preacher Anjem Choudary for inciting terrorism.
The Labour peer Nasir Ahmed said: “It’s appalling that this incitement of violence and terrorism [is occurring] when we are locking up Anjem Choudary and telling everyone we will not allow London to be used as a base for terrorism. People are saying Britain has double standards.”
Nisar Malik, a Labour councillor in Hounslow, said: “Theresa May has a chance to prove to the Pakistani community that she is against terrorism in a real sense.”
The Foreign Office said it deplored the attack on Karachi’s media. “UK laws on incitement of hatred and violence are clear and the police are responsible for the investigation of any allegation of criminal acts,” it said.
In the meantime, the fortunes of Karachi – a port and mega-city of 16 million people – will continue to be shaped from a small office 4,000 miles away in north-west London. Hussain rarely visits the international secretariat, where the TVs are permanently tuned to Pakistani satellite news channels. His photo adorns framed portraits and 2016 wall calendars.
Hussain’s unwillingness to appear in public is understandable, according to Jalil. The Taliban has made several threats to kill him, including recently, which is why he prefers addressing his base remotely by telephone.
“He’s been in London for 24 years. He’s made thousands of speeches this way. Probably more than any other world leader,” said Jalil.