Altaf Hussain and the MQM just cannot catch a break. Hussain's threats to the army have made him a national villain, while the party leaders spend their days defending his slurred speeches. If Britain nails him for money laundering soon, Hussain's political goose will be truly cooked. Owen Bennett-Jones and the BBC furthered Hussain's turncoat credentials on June 24, by squarely accusing his party of being India-sponsored. Of course, India and the MQM have strongly denied this, but no one believes them. For regular Pakistanis, the India-MQM connection makes perfect sense given their recent statements.
Very quietly, a more important question has slipped under the radar of our national conversation. As almost every Pakistani commentator has pointed out, the BBC report reads like a Chinese whisper quickly penned down, and speedily put out for public consumption. It is a maze of vague nouns like "officials" and "leaders," but Bennett-Jones "stands by every word of his story," so confidence is not a problem. However, it does make you wonder why the BBC, a thoroughbred in global journalism, decided to break a poorly sourced story? Bennett-Jones, too, seems to have conjured a third-rate version of himself through the storytelling. This report, for sure, is no Target Britain.
However, what if the MQM was not the real target? While everyone in Pakistan homes in on Altaf Hussain, people forget that India was accused of state-sponsored terrorism. Of course, this sounds nonsensical at first. Why would the public-funded BBC target a country that Prime Minister David Cameron considers "top of the priorities of the UK's foreign policy?" The following two facts somewhat answer this question: In August 1970, India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi banned the BBC for two years for its "biased and derogatory" reporting on India. Later, Peter Bruinvels, a Member of Parliament (MP) during the Thatcher years, regularly ridiculed the BBC as the "Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation."
The BBC has often invoked the ire of British politicians. They have accused it of being a state within a state, with ever shifting loyalties. Over the years, it has been called both a left and right wing mouthpiece, depending on who got rubbed the wrong way. Still, how can the BBC have such an independent agenda? For starters, it is run by a Royal Charter, and not an Act of Parliament. This means the Lordships have more say in the editorial content than public officials. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed to have "fought three elections against the BBC" during her political career.
"[I]ndividuals inside the BBC seem to have equated independence with a lack of accountability."
British politicians have also tried to control the BBC without much luck. As recently as 2005, they pushed for it to be run through the House of Commons. The reason given was "individuals inside the BBC seem to have equated independence with a lack of accountability." The Hutton Inquiry and the BBC's Iraq War coverage had embarrassed Tony Blair's government, so payback was wanted. Even as its management style changed in 2007, there remained many grey areas in the governance.
The BBC's bias against India is well-logged, and regularly railed about in the Indian press. The Hindu newspaper's Premen Addy was an especially fierce critic. He accused the BBC of being Indo-phobic, and focusing on India's poverty more than its socioeconomic achievements. Back in 1970, the BBC was kicked out for its pro-Pakistan reporting of the 1965 war, and "neo-imperialist criticism" through the "Calcutta" documentary. In 2008, India was furious when the BBC referred to the Mumbai attackers as "gunmen," and not terrorists.
India's Daughter, a new BBC documentary, dented the country's pride again in March 2015. Christopher Booker, writing in The Telegraph newspaper, said the documentary tried to "portray India as the rape capital of the world." As feared, there was an image fallout for India when a story about racial profiling in Germany went viral. A female University of Leipzig professor apparently refused an internship to a male Indian student by explaining "we hear a lot about the rape problem in India, which I cannot support."
"Why would the Cameron government charge India, a big market for British goods, with state-sponsored terrorism for Pakistan's sake?"
If local analysts know best, Britain and Pakistan have agreed to crucify Altaf Hussain out of mutual interest. As a token of good faith, the "anti-state" Save The Children NGO, coincidentally British, reopened after being shut down recently. Still, the give and take is confusing. Pakistan gets moral license to clean up Karachi despite the MQM, and a sturdy counter to India's terror accusations at the UN. What does Britain get in return? Access to suspects in a vanilla murder case? More evidence in a middling money laundering case?
By all accounts, Altaf Hussain and the British leaders of the MQM are upstanding citizens, uninvolved in any acts of domestic destruction. Why would the Cameron government charge India, a big market for British goods, with state-sponsored terrorism for Pakistan's sake? This explanation makes no sense. A piece of the puzzle is missing, and it has something to do with the BBC's own agenda.
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