Considered to be one of the most desperate slum areas in South Asia, Lyari is also the oldest locality of Pakistan’s sprawling, unpredictable and edgy metropolis, Karachi.
In the last decade or so, Lyari has constantly been appearing in the news whenever Karachi erupts into ethnic or gang-related violence. This is not to suggest that this area was a bastion of peace before the 2000s; but it is true that the political and criminal violence emerging within and from Lyari in the last 10 years has had a bigger impact on Karachi than ever before.
Criminal gangs dealing in drugs, guns, kidnapping and land scams with some of them even enjoying patronage from assorted political outfits and groups are a common sight in the narrow, crooked and overpopulated streets of Lyari.
But all this was not a sudden phenomenon emerging in the last decade or so. Nor is this all what Lyari is about.
Lyari also has a rich political and cultural history; a history that, rather ironically, has to be understood for anyone trying to make head or tails of the constant social and political turmoil and strife this large, awkward locality has been experiencing almost on a daily basis now.
First in line
Lyari is by far the oldest locality of Karachi having begun life centuries ago as a small fishing village.
The locality always had a large Afro-Indian/Pakistani population (Sheedis).
The Sheedis are believed to be the descendants of slaves, sailors, servants and merchants from East Africa who arrived between 1200 and 1900 AD.
In what is today Pakistan, these slaves largely settled along the Markran Coast in Balochistan (they are also called Makranis) and in lower Sindh.
Linguistically, they speak variations of Balochi and Sindhi and (in Karachi) they are also known to have created a distinct dialect of Urdu referred to as ‘Makrani’ in which Urdu words are mixed with Balochi and Sindhi expressions and even popular English terms, manly picked up from British and US films and TV series, are also regularly used, mostly in a tongue-in-cheek way.
Most Sheedis in Karachi were and still are associated with the fishing business (as fishermen, sailors and small boat operators). They also constitute the largest labour force employed at the Karachi port and harbour.
Over the years, especially after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Lyari also began to witness the influx of Pushtuns, Sindhis and Mohajirs (including Memons) and (in the last 30 years), many working-class Afghans, Bengalis and Burmese migrants have also settled here.
The area is a working-class reflection of the stunning ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity that is the hallmark of Karachi’s bulging cosmopolitanism and indigenous secularism.
But Lyari is also the area that hardly benefited from the industrial growth and economic progress that Karachi enjoyed between the 1950s and early 1980s.
In fact by the late 1960s Lyari was well on its way to becoming a modern, urban slum.
The right stuff
But all this did not just produce a locality riddled with only crime, violence and economic desperation. The equation of poverty, overpopulation, diversity, crime, radical politics and the presence of a majority having a proud African lineage also gave birth to a working-class polity, spirituality and aesthetics that have generated a unique cultural scenario.
It is this mix that has correctly painted a perception of Makranis as being open-minded, large-hearted, hard-working people who speak a distinct slang-riddled version of street-Urdu and are passionate about football, boxing and the movies.
Some of the best international level boxers in Pakistan have almost all emerged from Lyari and same is the case with football. It is also perhaps the only area in Pakistan where these two sports actually overshadow cricket!
A majority of Makranis belong to the so-called Sunni ‘Barelvi’ school of faith – an indigenous sub-continental variation of ‘folk Islam’ that emerged in the 18th century as a reaction against the rise of puritanical Islamic movements.
Barelvi Islam is not a concrete doctrine. In essence it is highly decentralised and anti-dogma. It connotes the practice in which sub-continental folk mores are fused with the ritualism of Sufi Islam and the pluralistic and ‘poor-friendly’ culture of devotional music, charity and festivity found around shrines of Sufi saints across Pakistan and India.
Most Makranis of Lyari are the devotees of the legendary 12th century Sufi saint, Pir Mangho, whose shrine in the Mangopir area of Karachi is believed to be one of the oldest in the city.
The shrine also has hot sulphur springs and a large pond where the shrine’s keepers have harvested crocodiles for hundreds of years. Feeding these reptiles is considered to be a celestially ordained and beneficial ritual.
The Makranis come here in their hundreds, especially during the birth celebrations of the saint. Here they re-enact the dancing, musical and devotional rituals of their African ancestors.
Between the late 1970s and 1990s Lyari also produced its own music scene, popularly known as ‘Lyari disco’.
Music has always played a major role in the lives of the people of Lyari, both in the spheres of faith and entertainment – especially music driven by pounding and rhythmic drumbeats.
One of the first areas outside the privileged populace of Karachi to embrace the invasion of classical American and European disco music of the late 1970s was Lyari.
Throughout the 1980s dimly-lit small recording studios sprang up in Lyari where talented young Makrani men and women would record bouncy Balochi tunes that fused basic disco beats with traditional Balochi and African musical dynamics.
First the resultant albums were almost entirely bought and sold in Lyari but a massive ‘Lyari disco’ hit by one Shazia Khushk (a Sindhi) helped the genre to break out and turn Khushk into a national sensation.
The song was ‘Bija Teer Bija’ – recorded (at a Lyari studio) and released in 1988, it was a funky, driven tribute to the charismatic chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Benazir Bhutto.
The song was first used by the PPP during its electoral campaign for the November 1988 general election.People’s power
Recently, Lyari has been treated by the media as an area whose politics is rather complex. This is mainly due to the growing influx of working-class people belonging to various ethnicities settling here. With them have arrived attempts by different political parties close to these ethnicities to carve out a vote bank for themselves in Lyari.
Also related to this is the way street crime, land scams and politics have mixed in Karachi in the last two decades in which street thugs and gangs have been used by political parties to generate funds and garner votes.
The complexities in this respect are further heightened when some gangs and criminals ‘become too big for their boots’ and become an embarrassment for the parties, especially when gang warfare conducted purely on criminal grounds become politicised due to the gangsters’ past or present association with political parties.
In the last few years, Lyari has become a hotbed of this particular phenomenon in Karachi. Otherwise, its politics has remained rather uncomplicated.
Ever since the 1970 general election, Lyari has been an unbending vote bank of the PPP. The party has won every national and provincial election that it has contested from Lyari from 1970 right up till the 2008 election.
The credit for this goes to PPP chairman, Z A. Bhutto and his party’s original socialist manifesto that resonated successfully with the people of Lyari.
The populism and socialist policies of the first PPP government (1972-77) were hugely popular with the voters of Lyari, but the PPP and the Bhuttos became enshrined as perpetual heroes here after Bhutto was toppled by a reactionary military coup orchestrated by General Ziaul Haq and then hanged to death through a sham trial in 1979.
Lyari witnessed a number of violent protests against the Zia regime throughout the 1980s, many of these turned into armed conflicts between the police and youth belonging to the PPP’s student and youth wings.
Lyari also became the breeding ground of radical left-wing politics and activity during the dictatorship. A number of young residents of Lyari were jailed and some were even hanged for their supposed involvement with Murtaza Bhutto’s Al-Zulfikar Organisation (AZO) and other supposedly clandestine ‘communist outfits.’
On her return from exile in 1986, the first large rally that Benazir Bhutto held in Karachi was in Lyari. Her marriage to Asif Ali Zardari also took place in Lyari (1987).
To date, though parties like the MQM, ANP, Sunni Tehreek and some militant Baloch and Sindhi nationalist parties have opened offices here, the PPP support base and vote bank remains steadfast and secure in Lyari.
Attempts have also been made by puritanical Islamic evangelist groups like the Tableeghi Jamat to recruit young poverty-stricken Lyari residents, but the Jamat’s attempts have failed to bag much interest.
Lyari is also known for gang-related violence. Though wild and often deadly, many Lyari gangsters have ultimately been portrayed by most Lyari residents as victims of their circumstances; some have even been casted as Robin Hood like characters in Lyari’s many urban folklores.
The first well known gangster here went by the name of Kala Naag (Black Serpent). He was active in Lyari in the 1960s, peddling hashish and running a network of pickpockets.
Kala Naag who emerged from poverty to become a toughie ‘trained’ two angry young men from the area, Sheru and Dadal. Both men were huge American movie fans, loved to drink whisky, smoked hashish and made a living by selling black tickets outside cinemas.
They began to encroach upon Naag’s business and became rivals. Gang fights between their individual groups became common but in which only fists and knives were used. Then in 1967, Kala Nag was killed while fleeing the cops.
Sheru and Dadal battled it out between themselves until the arrival of Kala Nag’s son, Allah Baksh, also called ‘Kala Nag 2 (sic).’
Till the early 1980s, Lyari gangsters were largely involved in the trafficking of hashish, in bootlegging and street crimes. However, with the arrival of large quantities of sophisticated weapons and heroin, brought into the city by the large number of Afghan refugees pouring into Pakistan at the wake of the so-called anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, changed that.
Changing rules of the game and growing poverty and population in Lyari meant the emergence of deadlier criminals. Kala Nag 2 joined hands with one Iqbal Babu and brushed aside Sheru and Dadal.
Nag 2 and Babu’s new opponent was Haji Lalu. All of them were now arming their gangs with sophisticated weaponry and had begun to peddle heroin as well.
Lyari was distributed between Babu and Lalu, both of whose groups are also said to have had provided safety to anti-Zia radicals on the run from the police.
Lalu’s gang and the gang operated by Babu and Kala Nag 2 were constantly battling in the streets of Lyari. Extortion had become big business. Babu hired Hanif Bajola, a contract killer to kill Lalu. Simultaneously, Lalu was training his friend Dadal’s orphan son to make a hit on Babu.
Meanwhile, Dadal’s teenaged son, Rehman (Rehman Dakait), entered the fry to take revenge for his father’s downfall engineered by Babu and Kala Nag 2.
Lalu’s son, Arshad Pappu also arrived on the scene. Yet another generation of Lyari gangsters was in the making.
Rehman’s anger was used by Lalu against Kala Nag 2 and Babu. Nag was arrested by police (in 1991), whereas Rehman and his men mowed down a large number of Babu’s thugs, including four of Babu’s sons.
In 1996 Babu was arrested and put behind bars. So was Rehman, but in 1997 he managed to break out and escape. He was now at loggerheads with his mentor Lalu who was put behind bars in the early 2000s, leaving his son Arshad Papu to run his gang.
For almost a decade after this, Rehman and Papu’s gangs battled to enforce their authority over Lyari’s deteriorating crime scene. This was also the first time when Rehman and Papu were said to have developed links with the PPP and MQM men in the area.
Rehman engineered the formation of the Peoples Aman Committee, a charity organisation that distributed money and food to the people of Lyari and was also patronised by the PPP. But the committee was also manned by Rehman’s thugs in the extortion and kidnapping business.
In 2009, the PPP, now back in power, felt that Rehman was becoming too big for his boots. It looked the other way when Karachi police shot dead Rehman.
In 2011, when the Committee, now under Uzair Baloch, got embroiled in a deadly tussle with thugs patronised by the MQM, the PPP’s Sindh government banned the committee.
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