Fighting Benazir by fax from Mill Hill

He's wanted in Pakistan to face more than 100 criminal charges. Jonathan Ford found Altaf Hussain, uncrowned king of Karachi, alive and well and living in quiet north London suburbia

A terrorist and mass-murderer is at large in the north London suburb of Mill Hill, according to Pakistan's Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. She refers to him publicly as a "cowardly rat", and her government has asked Interpol to issue warrants for his arrest and return to Pakistan, where he faces more than 100 criminal charges, ranging from arson to murder and torture.

But Altaf Hussain, the leader of Pakistan's largest ethnic party, the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), is unlikely to be going anywhere in the near future. Since 1992, when he fled Pakistan, he has directed the day- to-day decision-making of his party from London, secure in the knowledge that as there is no extradition treaty between Britain and Pakistan, he is unlikely to be deported to face his critics back home.

Hussain is just one member of London's growing colony of foreign dissidents - but few would disagree that he is perhaps the most formidable exile currently carrying on a campaign against his own government from the capital's suburbs. Most commentators say that the MQM, the party he founded 11 years ago to champion the interests of Pakistan's Mohajirs - Urdu-speaking migrants from India - has brought parts of southern Pakistan close to civil war, threatening the disintegration of the Muslim homeland carved so bloodily out of British India in 1947.

Hussain set up the MQM to protest against the discrimination suffered by the 20 million Mohajirs who represent 50 per cent of the population of the southern province of Sind. The party demanded better housing, more access to education and greater representation in local and federal government. Many MQM activists say it still stands for these things, but what started out as a civil rights campaign has turned into a bloody tribal war between Mohajirs and the largely Sindhi government security forces.

In Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and the main battlefield, more than 1,000 people have died so far this year - more than 400 of them in the past six weeks of intense fighting. The MQM is now talking about a separate province for Karachi, and some say that Hussain favours a separate state for the Mohajirs. Alluding to the traumatic dismemberment of the country in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh from the then East Pakistan, he recently warned Ms Bhutto: "Don't push the Mohajirs to the wall. Or 1971 will be repeated."

This is not an idle threat. For despite years of futile fighting (the violence in Karachi has been going on, sporadically, since 1988) and all the accusations of torture, murder and racketeering levelled against him, Hussain remains fanatically popular among Pakistan's Mohajirs. "His hold over these people is extraordinary," says one journalist. "If he ordered them to jump off a cliff, they would probably do it."

A quiet street of Thirties semi-detached houses seems an unlikely location for the headquarters of a protagonist in this high-stakes poker game, but this is where Hussain lives. Hussain's home is slightly tattier than his neighbours', with peeling window frames and black plastic sheeting over the ground-floor windows. According to one of the volunteers who helps to run the office, this is not a security measure, but has been done to allow the drawing room to be used as a makeshift film studio. "So many people are coming to film Mr Altaf Hussain at the moment," he sighs happily.

Inside the house there is strong evidence of a personality cult. Posters showing Hussain's grinning face abound and party workers talk about him in hushed tones. "To us, Mr Altaf Hussain is like the new Gandhi," whispered one, as I waited for my audience with the leader.

Altaf Hussain is in fact a plump, bespectacled man, neatly dressed in a blue blazer and flannel trousers. When I ask if he models himself on the great independence leader, he laughs: "I don't really have a model of anyone in mind. But I share his belief in non-violence. I think that as we approach the 21st century, it should be possible for people to achieve rights peacefully." He pauses, removes his spectacles, and fixes me with a portentous look: "When my people come to me and say, 'Altaf bhai [brother], shall we take up weapons?' I always say that non-violence is the best weapon."

Hussain was born in Karachi in 1953, the son of an Indian Muslim who had been the station master in Agra under the Raj, and who fled to Pakistan at the time of partition. He grew up in a comfortable middle-class household, something he now downplays, preferring to describe himself as Pakistan's first lower-middle-class politician. It is part of his political appeal that he is not a member of the aristocratic feudal elite that dominates Pakistani politics. "What is this fascist Benazir Bhutto who claims to speak for the Pakistani people?" he asks rhetorically at one point. "She is a feudal landlord who treats the peasants on her family estate like slaves, and yet she claims to be a modern democrat. Only I speak for the downtrodden masses of Pakistan."

According to Hussain, it was in the Seventies that he became aware of the grievances of the Mohajir people, or nation, as he calls them. It was under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's government between 1971 and 1977 that these became open and acrimonious. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government depended on its power base in Sind province, where the native Sindhis had long resented the presence of Mohajirs, who, being well educated and industrious, had come to dominate the economic life of Sind's two main cities, Karachi and Hyderabad. Hussain says Bhutto, a Sindhi himself, blatantly discriminated against Mohajirs. Urdu was banned as an official language and quotas were imposed restricting Mohajirs' access to education and government jobs.

Hussain became a victim of this discrimination when he was denied entry to Karachi University to read pharmacy, despite having the necessary qualifications. "When I found other Mohajirs who had been refused places, I asked them: 'Are you ready to struggle for your rights?'" This led to the creation in 1978 of the All-Pakistan Mohajir Students' Organisation, forerunner of the MQM. By all accounts, the APMSO attracted little support from Mohajir students and was banned in 1981 after violent clashes with other student organisations. Hussain went away to lick his wounds and rebuild his political movement. Out of this emerged the MQM in 1984.

If the APMSO was a failure, the MQM has been, electorally at least, a spectacular success. Ever since it first contested local elections in 1987 on Hussain's 18-point programme to redress Mohajir grievances, it has dominated politics in Hyderabad and Karachi, where Hussain is the acknowledged "uncrowned king".

MQM rule in Karachi has been something of a mixed blessing, however. While it ended some of the more blatant examples of discrimination against Mohajirs, such as the restrictive quotas in education and government employment, one businessman - a Mohajir - says: "The years of MQM rule from 1987-92 did this city no favours. You can't say Karachi was well governed: public services continued to decay. There was a massive increase in violence, with the ruling party [the MQM] engaging in street gun battles with its political opponents."

Since 1992, when the army moved in to quell the street violence, Karachi has been directly ruled from Islamabad. The restoration of locally elected municipal government is one of the party's main demands.

Hussain rolls his eyes when I mention alleged MQM violence and extortion and gives what is obviously a standard rebuttal: "This talk of violence is all government propaganda. I give you my guarantee that no violent act has ever been carried out by MQM people under my orders." As to extortion: "It is not the policy of the MQM."

One of the striking things about Hussain is his intemperate language, which sits ill with his claims to be a moderate political leader. Although he claims to preach restraint, he harps with lurid relish on the atrocities committed against the Mohajirs. But he sees no link between his fiery oratory and the violence. When I ask if he doesn't feel he should tone down his apocalyptic talk given the combustible atmosphere in Karachi, he shrugs: "If there is war, it will be the government's responsibility."

That the government bears some responsibility for the current crisis is not in doubt. Since Benazir Bhutto returned to power in 1993, the historic enmity between the PPP and the Mohajirs has given it a sharper edge, and the security forces have murdered, tortured and intimidated at least as much as their Mohajir opponents. During this period Ms Bhutto has ostentatiously refused to have any contact with the MQM on the grounds that it is a "terrorist party".

Now, in a sudden volte face, the government is offering negotiations, scheduled to take place in the capital, Islamabad. One might expect this to be the occasion for celebration in the MQM camp, but in Mill Hill, Hussain remains as obdurate in his hostility to Ms Bhutto as ever. "We are not going to Islamabad to negotiate," he says. "Only if the government will concede our demands, which are reasonable and within the constitution, is there a way forward."

There has been a long-running debate in Pakistan about whether Altaf Hussain represents the coming of age of truly democratic Pakistani politics, in which the feudal elite has no place, or whether he is a throwback to the old-style unprincipled and demagogic South Asian leader, a sort of Nehru de nos jours. I left Mill Hill inclining towards the latter interpretation, and with the feeling that his self-imposed exile in London has hardened Hussain's naturally authoritarian temperament. He enjoys playing the distant god, issuing instructions by telephone and fax to his acolytes. Given his largely unprintable views about Pakistan's prime minister, he seems likely to remain the uncrowned king of Karachi for some time to come.

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