London: A playground of exiles from Pakistan & India 

Nawaz Sharif’s apartment in London

UK’s capital has become a second home for many Indian and Pakistani politicians as well as businessmen facing criminal charges back home, claiming “persecution” in their respective countries

I might live in a poky little flat, but thanks to its location I am only minutes away from Avenfield House, the swanky property at the heart of Nawaz Sharif’s conviction on corruption charges. It was built after knocking down four luxury apartments and is estimated to be worth at least £7 million. Just looking at it, it’s hard to believe that it could belong to a politician from one of the world’s poorest countries. But, well, it does. And it’s just one of the many properties he or his family own in London (all in pricey locations) whose total worth is believed to be over £30 million. In comparison, his ex-tormentor Pervez Musharraf’s bolt hole in nearby Edgware Road is embarrassingly modest.

Barely a stone’s throw from Sharif’s palatial home-away-from-home is another luxury mansion—a five-story building on Sloane Street. This one belongs to an Indian: Lalit Modi, the former IPL chief and like Sharif, facing corruption charges. One bus ride way—in posh Old Bond Street—is where another Indian fugitive from law Nirav Modi has a property. And, not far from it is Vijay Mallya’s luxury home.

London is full of Indian and Pakistani politicians/ businessmen living in self-exile claiming “persecution” back home. And the circle is rapidly growing with a new addition every few months prompting colourful jokes about “rogue Londonistanis” and their antics. Real estate agents and private builders are having a whale of a time and rolling out the red carpet for their wealthy clients. Some have apparently specially hired Asian staff to cater to them.

Jokes apart, London has long been a favourite destination of Pakistanis fleeing their own country. It has been a mixed bag ranging from genuine political dissidents, liberal intellectuals and progressive writers, poets (Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Zohra Nigah), and film-makers to suspected extremists, deposed dictators and corrupt politicians.

Unfortunately, the trend has now spread to the Indian community making it increasingly polarised along India’s domestic politics. It’s no coincidence that it started with the rise of the Hindu nationalist Right in its current virulent form. Amazing how much India is becoming to look like Pakistan—and how fast!

Benazir Bhutto set up camp here allowing her husband Asif Zardari to launder money stashed in foreign banks. Like Sharif, he built up a vast empire of expensive properties in London and elsewhere in Britain. Musharraf kept a relatively low profile confining his activities mostly to his modest dwellings in London’s “mini-Middle East”, Edgware Road.

There are some permanent Pakistani fixtures such as “Asad Kashmir” activists with a strong political lobby in Westminster, especially among Labour MPs. Then there is the notorious Muttahida Qaumi Movement(MQM), which runs mobsters in Karachi ostensibly on behalf of “mohajirs”. Its leader Altaf Hussain, the self-styled “Lord of Karachi”, allegedly amassed huge wealth back home before escaping to Britain claiming political persecution.

Other prominent Pakistanis living in self-exile include the Cardiff-based Baloch leader Mir Suleman Dawood Jan Ahmedzai. In recent months, he has stepped up his campaign and called for India’s help in bringing “peace, stability and security” to the restive region. Pakistan accuses India of fomenting trouble in Balochistan, and the two countries are embroiled in a row over the fate of Kulbhushan Yadav, a former Indian intelligence agent, being held in Pakistan for allegedly spying in Balochistan.

On the Indian side, the “exiles” phenomenon has been less marked and been confined mostly to a handful of high-profile alleged economic offenders but the “traffic” has just started. So, who knows. Barring M.F. Husain, the only political exiles have been Khalistani militants, who fled India in the 1970s and 1980s. But, given the Pakistan-like climate of intolerance and hate gaining momentum in India, it may not be long before Indian dissidents too are tempted to take the same route as their Pakistani counterparts.

Back to Sharif, there were ugly scenes outside his famous Avenfield apartment with missiles thrown at it in what was suspected to be an attempt to physically harm him. An angry mob attempted to break down the doors to the apartment soon after he was seen entering it. CCTV footage showed protesters trying to force their way in and hurling a shopping cart lying nearby at a party activist who happened to be there. Some protesters, it was stated, carried weapons, including knives. Police had to be called in to restore order. Scotland Yard officers searched cars of protesters to identify men who were caught on camera trying to kick in the door of the apartments.

Sharif’s aides alleged that members of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were behind the incident but it denied any involvement and demanded an investigation.

The mood in his party circles was reported to be tense with his supporters at pains to stress that he never had any intention to flee Pakistan. It was simply a coincidence that the court verdict came while he was in London attending to his ailing wife—lost no time announcing his plans to return. Not so, though, his two sons Hassan and Hussain who were said to have deliberately fled Pakistan and sought refuge in London even as the charges against them were being drawn up last year.

Meanwhile, it might interest those who like a bit of context and history that Pakistan’s domestic politics has always cast a long shadow over the life of Pakistani diaspora —especially the older generation—with mosques and community centres controlled by local factions of the main parties back home. All of them have proxy networks of financiers and political henchmen. It seems as though all Pakistanis here are in selfexile hoping one day to return home.

Unfortunately, the trend has now spread to the Indian community making it increasingly polarised along India’s domestic politics. It’s no coincidence that it started with the rise of the Hindu nationalist Right in its current virulent form. Amazing how much India is becoming to look like Pakistan—and how fast!

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