Ghostly and Ghastly: MQM, Karachi and the Legacy of Imran Farooq

Imran Farooq, second-in-command of Pakistan’s MQM, was stabbed and beaten to death on a London street in 2010. Following the detention of a new suspect, Laurent Gayer investigates Farooq’s mysterious story, from Karachi to London.

Downtown Karachi
Saddar, the buoyant and decrepit colonial centre of Karachi. As in most Mohajir-dominated localities of downtown Karachi, the figure of Altaf Hussain, the MQM’s leader, is ubiquitous.

On 27 August, the Metropolitan Police briefly detained a new suspect in their investigation of the murder of Imran Farooq, the second-in-command of Pakistan’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (United National Movement – MQM), who was stabbed and beaten to death while walking home in northwest London in November 2010. Although the suspect’s identity is yet to be revealed, he is reportedly a British citizen of Pakistani origin, and an MQM UK party worker. This is the second arrest to date in this high-profile case: in June 2013, a nephew of MQM chief Altaf Hussain was briefly detained, before being released on bail. The suspects’ profiles will provide grist for the mill for those who contend that Farooq’s murder was an inside job. At this stage of the investigation, any definitive conclusion is premature. While the two men arrested so far remain under investigation, their release on bail suggests that Scotland Yard is still far from cracking the case.

Imran Farooq’s Murder and Pakistani Occult Cosmologies of State Power

Following the arrest and prompt release of the suspect, the rumour mill turned once again. Allegations of political pressure being exerted on the Met resurfaced – a persistent claim that attributes the achingly slow pace of the murder investigation to the protection of MQM’s leadership by senior elements in the British security apparatus, who are keen to preserve their intelligence-gathering capacities and networks of influence in Pakistan via MQM. Far from quashing these persistent rumours, the brief detention in June 2014 of the party’s senior figure on suspicion of money-laundering only reinvigorated them. According to the conspiracy theorists, his neck was saved by the same mysterious patrons, a far-fetched but gripping assumption that Britain’s ‘deep state’ can hold its own against its more illustrious Pakistani competitor. (N.B. Such occult cosmologies of state power and their circulation from Pakistan to its diaspora would make for a fascinating research project.) The MQM itself is no stranger to such conspiratorial representations of politics, with their assumption that there is always more to power than meets the eye. Indeed, one of the sources of Altaf Hussain’s charismatic authority within the MQM lies in his alleged ability to anticipate the dirty tricks of Pakistan’s ‘agencies’ – prescience that his devotees refer to as ‘ilm-e-ghaib‘, the ‘knowledge of the unseen’ commonly associated with prophetic figures in some Isla-mic traditions.

While providing scholars of Pakistan with a fascinating entry point into its political culture, such rumours, allegations and extrapolations only serve to maintain a veil of secrecy around Farooq himself – a man about whom very little is known beyond the MQM but whose ghost will haunt the party for years to come.

Imran Farooq the Organiser

Known within the MQM as chhota bhai (little brother, a reference to Altaf Hussain’s colloquial designation as Altaf bhai by his supporters), Imran Farooq was born in Karachi in 1960 into a family of Urdu-speaking Mohajirs (migrants) from India. In 1979, while studying at Sindh Medical College, he joined the All Pakistan Mohajir Students’ Organisation (APMSO), a party of disgruntled Urdu-speaking youths which was founded in 1978 by Altaf Hussain and his cohorts. Farooq was also a founding member of the MQM, which was launched in 1984 as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (National Mohajir Movement). In 1988 and 1990 he was elected to the National Assembly from a Karachi constituency (NA – 246) which to this day remains a stronghold of the MQM. Indeed, it is in this power-base—which consists of Urdu-speaking middle-class and lower-middle-class colonies—that the party’s headquarters have been located since the 1980s. This is true of the former residence of Altaf Hussain, known as ’90’—or nine zero, from the last two digits of Hussain’s phone number—which currently houses the MQM’s central offices (markaz) in Pakistan, while its main command and control centre, known as ‘the International Secretariat’, has been based in London since 1993, following Hussain’s self-imposed exile in the previous year. It is also in NA – 246 that the former headquarters of the party, known as ’89’, were located, until ‘Operation Clean-up’ led to its dismantling in the early 1990s. ’89’ was based in an apartment block in Al-Karam Square, on the outskirts of the lower-middle-class locality of Liaquatabad. Both neighbourhoods became bywords for Mohajir militancy in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and while the MQM’s offices in Al-Karam Square housed its Secretariat and Media Communication Office, the building was also rumoured to contain torture cells run by notorious militants such as Fahim ‘Kan Kata’ (or one-eared Fahim – possibly a reference to pehelwans, traditional wrestlers, who have been a major inspiration for Pakistan’s gangsters and who often damage their ears while practising their sport).

Imran Farooq, who headed the MQM’s media cell at ’89’ and lived in neighbouring Gharibabad, obviously crossed the path of these dreaded but also—at least in some Mohajir circles—mythical figures. So much so that when the army launched a crackdown against the MQM, both its Al-Karam Square offices and Farooq were among its prime targets. By then, the latter was even suspected to be the point man for MQM’s alleged ‘militant wing’, sometimes referred by the local media as the ‘Black Tigers’. These allegations were never substantiated, but the tag remained nonetheless. So did Al-Karam Square’s infamous reputation – today, local residents dare not venture beyond the circular railway tracks in the vicinity, which are rumoured to be haunted by the ghosts of those murdered by the security forces and their rivals during ‘Operation Clean-up’ (which lasted till 1994).

Farooq remained underground in Pakistan well after this military operation was over and he only reappeared in London in 1999, in mysterious circumstances (no one knows how he escaped from Pakistan, let alone obtained a British visa). He remained a key player in the MQM’s International Secretariat, where he remained in close contact with the party’s most radical elements, including those who openly advocated for Karachi to secede from Pakistan – Farooq once told me, during an interview in London, that Mohajirs should at least contemplate the possibility of turning Karachi into a ‘new Hong Kong’. In later years Farooq was sidelined from the top decision-making levels in the party, for reasons that are yet to be fully elucidated. In the last months of his life, he was rumoured to have contemplated joining Pervez Musharraf’s party, a move that was akin to a betrayal in the deeply authoritarian context of the MQM.

Ironically, it is Farooq himself who was the main theoretician of the party’s authoritarian political culture. His major contribution in this regard was an essay first published in Urdu in 1986 and later republished in the late 1990s, entitled ‘Nazm-o-Zabt ke Taqaze’ (The Requirements of Discipline), which to this day remains the most elaborate formulation of the MQM’s grammar of authority. This text, inscribed in the heart of every party worker, assesses social movements across time and space and concludes that highly-centralised organisations fare far better in the face of adversity (what Farooq refers to as the ‘state of war’). He thus advocates a centralised decision-making process, embodied in a ‘consensual leader’ demanding ‘blind faith’ from his followers. This plea is made at the expense of collective institutions, that is, the party’s apparatus in the case of the MQM. While Altaf Hussain never features in the text, these pages have provided the ideological underpinning of his charismatic authority. All too often associated with an irrational ‘personality cult’ outside the MQM, this personalisation of authority reveals an anti-institutional path towards institutionalisation, through which this mainstream party—which has governed Pakistan’s largest metropolis since the late 1980s—strove to keep alive the ideals and anti-conformist leanings of the oppositional student movement from which it emerged. While the ghosts of Al-Karam Square might tell a different story, it is primarily as an organiser and ideologue of this political journey that Farooq will be remembered within the MQM.

Gayer - KarachiLaurent Gayer is a Research Fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and author of Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City.



Inspection Copy Request
Review Copy Request
Join our mailing list

Subscribers receive exclusive discounts and early access to new books from Hurst.