Altaf Hussein, 51, is loud and energetic, yet invisible. The supreme leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement, the third largest political party in Pakistan, Hussein lives in London and is a British national.
He has been in exile in the UK for nearly 13 years but continues to rule the hearts of Mohajirs of the Sindh district of Pakistan. The volatile metropolitan city of Karachi is his stronghold.
In Pakistan, migrants from India are called Mohajirs. They nurse a feeling of being culturally, politically and economically discriminated against when compared to the native Sindhis and Punjabis.
Hussein was a student leader in Karachi when he entered politics. A pharmacist by education, his career received a boost when he was backed by General Zia-ul Haq, who used him to divide the polity of Sindh. Subsequently, the Mohajir Quami Movement had a major confrontation with the Pakistan army, when Hussein's supporters killed a senior army officer. Eventually, the unbearable political pressure and attempts on his life forced him to flee the country.
By articulating the woes of Mohajirs, Hussein has built up a formidable front that which is sharing federal power and in Sindh. Lately, he changed his party's name to the Muttahida Quami Movement to enlarge its vote bank. His equation with the army has also changed after he opted to side with General Pervez Musharraf.
On his recent maiden trip to India, he refused to criticise General Musharraf and advised India to trust him.
The Indian tour, his first outside the UK in 12 years, attracted attention when he addressed Indian Muslims and advised them to be loyal to India. His father, Nazir Hussain, was an officer with Indian Railways in Agra before migrating to Pakistan after Partition in 1947.
Though on a private visit to India, he was given VVIP status, provided security cover and a lavish stay. Before his arrival dozens of his assistants came to New Delhi from Karachi and London to publicise his visit. Posters of him were pasted all over South Delhi.
In an exclusive interview with Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt, he told the story of his successful political movement that is remote controlled from London and the difficult choices he made along the way to survive in Pakistani politics.
How do you manage to run a dynamic political party while living outside your country?
The secret of my leadership is truthful instincts. I want to establish a true democratic institution in Pakistan. I run my party with the help of the telephone. I give lectures to study circles, district members, political lectures and contact millions of people through the telephone.
My party has an organisational structure divided into centre, sectors, zones and units. I talk to them collectively. At all times I remain in contact with my central committee. Now some Sindhis, Baluchis, Pashtuns and even Hindus have joined the MQM. At last, my message is going across other communities as well.
How is life in exile?
I miss my people. When I address them from London, I get totally engrossed. I feel as if I am standing in front of them and addressing them. I get completely lost. Once my speech is over, I regret I am not with my people. I wish I could speak to them as before. But no struggle is easy. It always asks for sacrifice.
I am fighting against the ongoing medieval feudal system of Pakistan. I want to establish the rule of the middle and poor classes who are suffering everyday and are burdened with hundreds of problems. Ours is the only party that has emerged from the grass-root level.
Why did you leave your country? Was it under pressure from the Pakistan army?
No, no. Before 1992, several attempts were made to eliminate me. A hand grenade was thrown at me. After that my central committee members requested me to go abroad and guide them from outside. After I left, in June 1992, the army started an operation in Sindh, including in Karachi, to finish the MQM leadership. More than 15,000 leaders, workers, office bearers and relatives of MQM members were extra-judicially executed.
Nasir Hussein, my 66 year old elder brother who was a retired civil servant and my nephew who was an engineer and just 28 years old, were arrested by the paramilitary rangers and police. They were tortured for three days. On December 9, 1995, they were assassinated. They were neither members of any political group nor part of MQM.
Because I was in London they wanted to break my resolve. In collaboration with the army, Benazir Bhutto who was then prime minister was executing my workers extra-judicially. It was the thinking of Bhutto and the army that if they kill my relatives I'll ask for mercy. I didn't. I didn't.
Isn't it true that you were quite close to General Zia who helped you in your early career?
Zia was so close to me that in 1997, during his martial law regime he arrested me and put me behind bars. His summary military court sentenced me to nine months of rigorous imprisonment and five lashes a day! You can judge how much we loved each other!
How and why did you pick up the cause of Mohajirs?
First, I formed a student body and then converted it into a political party. I had observed the discrimination that Muslims who had migrated from India faced in Pakistan. I came across many stories of victimisation. When my own friends suffered I felt this is too much. Nobody was raising a voice. I had to accept the challenge to raise my voice for the rights of Mohajirs. We are also citizens of Pakistan. We want equal treatment and a life of dignity. We had a confrontation with an organisation called the Sons of Islam. It was a religious body. They kicked us out of the education institution at gunpoint.
Like you, Benazir Bhutto is also in exile. Do you meet her? Have you overcome your differences?
Please don't compare me to her. She is a feudal lady. Her politics is to gain power, power, power. She raised the Taleban. And lives only for power.
How is your equation with the UK and the United States?
Neither do they support me, nor do they go against me. I appreciate that the British government has provided me a place to live.
Why have you become a British citizen?
Five years ago I applied for the renewal of my passport to the Pakistani high commissioner in the UK. Till today I am waiting [for it]. If they renew my passport and consider me a patriotic Pakistani, I'll certainly consider going back to Pakistan.
The Pakistan Army which persecuted you so much is now supported by you. Isn't it a political shortcut?
We haven't deviated from our demand for democracy in Pakistan. But one has to see the circumstances and situations and then decide. When General Musharraf took over power after removing Nawaz Sharif, we didn't support Musharraf. We have hardly any options now. After 9/11 the political scenario of the world has changed completely. In Pakistan there are forces represented by religious fanatics and suicidal jihadis, on the other hand there is General Pervez Musharraf!
We had only two choices -- either to choose the mullahs or Musharraf. We chose, not happily, you might say (pauses)... a lesser evil. At that time we saw that Musharraf is a liberal person. He is taking action against the religious fanaticism of Al Qaeda. We would not like to go with anyone in vardi (uniform) but we had no choice. We chose the liberal General instead of the religious fanatics.
Why don't you go back to Pakistan?
My party is against religious fanaticism. We are liberals and democratic. On one hand, we have against us feudalists who are against democracy in Pakistan and on the other hand religious fanatics and mullahs have issued fatwas against me and my party. They have alleged that my party is the party of infidels and kafirs. They alleged that we are the agents of India and America and we are agents of non-Muslims.
But why don't you fight head-on with your opponents?
My life is threatened by feudals who are in collaboration with army generals on one side and on the other side by religious people, jihadis, Taleban and Al Qaeda who are well equipped with lethal weapons and explosives.
The army, feudals and mullahs are a troika in Pakistan who have all the power. The troika is against me. You know well that two serious attempts were made to assassinate General Musharraf. Another attempt was made with the help of a suicide bomber to assassinate Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. Also, the corps commander of the Pakistan army deputed in Karachi was targeted. The life of the chief of army staff and president, prime minister and corp commander is not safe over there.
I have no army to fight back. The MQM is a democratic party, we don't believe in violence. We believe in gaining power through the electoral process. We have been gaining seats since the elections of 1988.
Part II: 'India should trust Musharraf'