Sidelined in London, Altaf has come closer to Sindhi separatists
If you mention the date June 19 in inner MQM circles, party loyalists will nod in recognition. This day’s weight in symbolism is matched perhaps only by the historic magnitude of the day Altaf Hussain decided to found the party. It was on a fateful June 19 in 1992 that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government launched an army operation against the MQM in urban parts of Sindh. Thousands of party workers and supporters were either killed or arrested in the operation that continued till 1994 and became one of the most defining moments of its existence. This is why what transpired this year on June 19 raised quite a few eyebrows.
Three days ago, on June 19, someone lobbed a handmade explosive device filled with lethal ball bearings at a Vigo truck, killing two Rangers men and a passer-by in Ghotki.
According to the Sukkur bomb disposal squad that examined the Ghotki crime scene, the device weighed about 250 to 300 grams. On the same day, there were two attacks in Larkana and Karachi as well. These attacks were preceded, on June 10, by two others. This time the Rangers were targeted in Karachi’s Qauidabad and Gulistan-e-Jauhar but luckily no lives were lost.
This meant that so far this month alone, the Rangers were targeted five times in Sindh. The top brass took notice.
Responsibility for the violence was claimed by the generally unheard-of Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army or SRA. On June 19, the outlawed separatist outfit tweeted and informed journalists that it was behind all three incidents. The group said they attacked the Rangers as retaliation to and in acknowledgement of the killing of Niaz Lashari, a member of another outlawed Sindhi nationalist party Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (Arisar group). Lashari’s body was found off Karachi’s Super Highway on June 16. According to his family, he was abducted one and a half years ago.
The Sindhudesh Liberation Army is linked to two separatist outfits known by their short forms, JSQM and JSMM. The SRA is an offshoot of Shafi Burfat’s outlawed JSMM.
Burfat himself has been living in self-exile for many year in Germany. The SRA was formed by a former JSMM leader from Jamshoro called Syed Asghar Shah in 2010. It was banned by the Pakistani government in May 2020.
But what, you may ask, is the connection between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and these separatist Sindhi groups.
The separatist groups have been active for a while, but in a development, investigators added the name of a suspected collaborator: Altaf Hussain’s MQM.
Altaf Hussain is self-exiled in London but his once-powerful MQM ruled Karachi for decades until 2016 when the State reined it in. The party’s reversal of fortune was brought on by a hate speech delivered by Altaf Hussain, which gave the authorities enough ammunition to clamp down on it. Mass abandonment followed amid the rank and file of party leaders who were keen to distance themselves from him.
While sitting in London, away from the spotlight of mainstream politics in Pakistan, Altaf Hussain started calling for the “independence” of Sindh and Balochistan. In a letter addressed to the UN on June 4, Altaf Hussain had asked the Security Council to “use its power according to UN charter” to “end atrocities and illegal occupation of Pakistan in Sindh, Balochistan, Pashtunishta, Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral and PoK”.
In recent months, the MQM founder appeared to come closer to Sindhi nationalist groups. The leader of JSMM, also in self-exile, in Germany, Shafi Burfat, even asked Altaf Hussain to join what they described as their armed struggle against the state of Pakistan. Both groups view China as an “occupying force”.
In recent statements, Altaf Hussain openly criticized China and said it wanted to enslave the people of Sindh. Their focus on China is pegged to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will unroll massive national-level connectivity infrastructure projects in Sindh and Balochistan.
The SRA has a history of attacking Chinese nationals in Sindh, according to a report prepared by the Counter Terrorism Department. In 2016, Chinese engineers working in Karachi and Sukkur were targeted twice and both attacks were claimed by the SRA.
A day after this Friday’s attacks on Rangers, the chief of Counter Terrorism Department in Sindh, Dr Jamil Ahmed, told reporters that a group in London and Baloch separatists were aiding Sindhi separatist groups. This was seconded by another officer. “They are working together,” said a law enforcement official in Karachi, who requested anonymity as investigations were ongoing. “Two men loyal to Altaf Hussain in South Africa are handling their cells in Sindh.”
For its part, the MQM appears to be distancing itself from Sindhi nationalist groups after the attacks. “The MQM is a peace-loving democratic party that is struggling for the rights of Sindh in peaceful and democratic manners,” Qasim Ali Raza, a spokesperson for the party, told SAMAA Digital.
While officials are still investigating the nature of any relationship between Sindh separatist groups and the MQM, the people who had witnessed the rise and fall of the party say the June 19 date of recent attacks on Rangers itself reveals a connection.
Another theory was also doing the rounds. A senior Karachi journalist, who had covered the MQM and other ethnic parties in Sindh, had noted the locations of the attacks: Larkana, Ghotki and Karachi. He mused that if one wanted, one could say there was a symbolic link here too between the MQM and SRA. Larkana and Ghotki are Sindhi-dominated cities, while Karachi’s Liaquatabad, where the third attack took place, has always been a stronghold of Altaf’s loyalists. “You could look at it as their way of showing their alliance,” said the journalist. He did not want to be named because he believes men loyal to Altaf Hussain have become active again in Karachi and could target people for speaking against them.
Investigators are also looking into external factors. A counterterrorism official in Karachi, who also requested anonymity because of ongoing investigations, told SAMAA Digital that they believed that an Indian intelligence agency was supporting Altaf Hussain’s MQM and separatist militants in Sindh.
“The militants crossed into India from Thar border,” the official claimed. The border in Thar Desert connects Sindh to Indian state of Rajasthan.
It is difficult to independently verify his claim and indeed, officials have long accused Indian agencies of aiding anti-Pakistan groups in the country. But it is worth noting that for the first time a former senior leader of the MQM went on the record to say the party had links with Indian officials.
In an interview with Geo News, the former head of MQM’s Coordination Committee claimed that Altaf Hussain’s group had been receiving funds from the Indian government and he was told by the party to coordinate with Indian contacts to receive the funding.
For what it is worth, analysts say that law enforcement agencies have been accusing Altaf Hussain’s MQM and the Indian intelligence agency of working together for the past couple of years but they have never successfully proved this. “The law enforcement agencies have made such claims in the media but now they should also prove it so the law can take its course,” Mazhar Abbas, a Karachi-based analyst, told SAMAA Digital.
He did not, however, rule out the possibility of an alliance between Altaf Hussain’s MQM and the Sindhi groups because they have a history. “There was an alliance between Altaf Hussain’s party and G.M. Syed’s Jeay Sindh in 1986 but it fell apart the very next year,” he said. What they have in common now is that they both occupy the fringes of the law. It is not unheard of for banned groups to form alliances to achieve their goals.
Mazhar Abbas also considered that Altaf Hussain may have gravitated towards separatist groups given how the space for him in Pakistan’s politics has shrunk. “From his recent speeches and statements, it seems that he has clearly gone towards the anti-Pakistan movement,” Abbas added.
JSMM has clearly stated it wants independence from Pakistan and opposes the electoral politics in the country. “The group had claimed also claimed attacks on polling stations in Larkana and Naushehro Feroz,” a law-enforcement official said.
The irony, explained Manzoor Solangi, a Karachi-based analyst, is that JSMM leaders say that they are followers of G.M. Syed, who never advocated violent struggle against the state and believed in non-violent political struggle for people’s rights.