KARACHI: The growing presence of People’s Aman Committee leader Uzair Baloch in Lyari has made most political activists disappointed with the Pakistan People’s Party.
What started off as a committee to initiate peace between warring factions in Lyari has almost taken over the local politics in the area, forcing many old activists to stay in the background.
If wall chalking and graffiti in the neighborhood is anything to go by, with huge posters in every nook and cranny, Uzair Baloch seems to be the face of Lyari. While elected leaders such as Nabeel Gabol and Rafiq Engineer are not allowed to enter the area, those who actively canvassed for the party in the past think the days of political activism are over in the area. And for good.
The old cadre of the PPP’s working class are either no more, or bedridden, or surrounded by personal tragedies to continue with the activism which was synonymous with the party.
An old PPP activist and writer, Ramzan Baloch, points out that Lyari hosted many party meetings when the PPP was founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1967. The slogan ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ attracted the working class to the party. “That was a golden period for political activism,” says Ramzan. “It was okay to disagree with someone, as there was no threat to one’s life.”
The PPP emerged at a time when the National Awami Party already had a stronghold in Lyari. Founded by Abdul Wali Khan, NAP was a mix of progressive and leftist groups, followed mostly by students and nationalists. However, 10 years after NAP’s formation, the party split into two factions as differences grew between party president Maulana Bhashani and Wali Khan. Two groups then emerged, a pro-China Bhashani faction and a pro-Soviet Wali Khan faction, providing ample opportunity for the PPP to establish itself.
In subsequent months after the PPP’s foray into Lyari, a number of heavyweight political activists, including Yusuf Naskandi, Laal Bukhsh Rind, Akbar Barakzai, Raheem Baloch, Shamshad Baloch and Qadir Mutahir, came to the fore. Ramzan adds that these people were not only political activists, but also served as mentors for hundreds of students who used to visit Lyari from far and wide just to hear them talk.
Among the activists, Barakzai is the only one alive and eking out a living abroad.
Those who are still in Lyari and were brave enough to speak up in the past are either too scared to talk now, or are completely disillusioned with the political landscape in the locality.
Ramzan says the fear is justified. “Who would speak up when we know the party publicly backed such elements in the past? It makes a political worker’s standing quite an awkward one.”What brought the PAC to the limelight was the public backing by former Sindh home minister Zulfiqar Ali Mirza at a press conference in March 2011. Though the group was eventually banned, it is still very much active, not only in Lyari, but other Baloch-dominated areas also.
Another old time activist, Aziz Baloch, thinks the operation in Lyari in May last year and the PAC’s open resistance to it increased its credibility in the public eye, who thought that they had someone to rely on.
“Keeping in mind the vacuum left by the PPP cadre, locally, it is no surprise that the PAC has come to represent the Lyariites. If given a chance, the people will blindly elect Uzair Baloch if he chooses to get into politics,” he explains.
That is one of the reasons, he points out, that “two months before elections, the area is adorned with posters of the PAC leader rather than that of the PPP leaders.”
Speaking about the recent tit-for-tat killings witnessed in Kharadar, Aziz says the present circumstances should not come as a surprise. He adds that he does not condone the ‘gun-culture’ but says it gradually infiltrated the area and cannot be looked at in isolation.
“The gun culture increased almost at the same time job opportunities started decreasing for youngsters. Guns were used before as well, but not to change opinions. Similarly, it affected the political ideology of the PPP, replacing it with violence. Which, in turn, is a result of sycophants surrounding leaders rather than outspoken activists,” he argues.
After being disbanded, at least in theory, the activists believe that the PAC is at present covertly being used as a tool by the party against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which is looking for a back door to get into the PPP’s vote bank.
But in spite of the acceptance that they are no longer valued, some PPP jiyalas appear to have not lost their loyalty.
One of the activists who took the mantle of introducing the party in the neighbourhood, a former president of the Pakistan International Airlines football league and PPP loyalist, Abbas Baloch, 70, and his wife Zakiya Abbas, 60, say they will vote for anyone from the party.
Sitting on a bed, in his Saifi Lane home in Baghdadi, Abbas cannot speak properly now. Due to a paralytic attack in 2006, he is confined to his home, being looked after by his youngest son, Usman Abbas.
With the death of two of their sons within a year, his wife Zakiya, a strongly built woman in her youth, looks frail and anxious. Before talking to this reporter, she was busy with the funeral of her nephew, whose body was found stuffed in a gunny bag in a ditch in Mauripur.
Showing pictures of the time she was the PPP secretary of district south in 1974, Zakiya says back then a PPP worker was worth something.
“Nobody cares about us now,” she says, referring to the party’s top cadre. “If they did, Lyari would have been completely different, politically at least.”
Going through the pictures, Zakiya reminisces about a party meeting in Lyari with Benazir Bhutto in 1988. Zakiya was trying to ask something but was interrupted by others in the group. “BB saw that and asked me to speak up. At present, we are shouting for attention –– but nobody is willing to listen.”
However, in a slurred speech, Abbas agrees that political activism “is not easy in today’s Lyari”. He adds: “But that is true of any other area in Karachi. I’m the product of the party. And I will support them no matter what.”
Other old die-hard loyalists, meanwhile, are not willing to provide this blind support.
Ramzan Baloch says there is nothing political about activism in Lyari any longer. “It is more violent, as people just don’t have a say anymore. And that’s because our votes are not based on manifestos, but rather on personalities.”
Agreeing Ramzan, Aziz says that if manifestos were a priority, the PPP would not have been elected so many times from Lyari.
The PPP general secretary in Sindh, Taj Haider, denies the party having any link with the PAC and says mistakes were made in the past. “Among those mistakes, the operation in Lyari was the final one causing a lot of damage. But the PPP’s vote bank remains intact.”
Speaking about the PAC, he says that in the past, too, the party faced a similar problem when criminal elements, supposed to be on the sidelines, tried to get into the mainstream politics.
”They were not tackled properly and that’s why most old stalwarts remain disappointed. But the fact is militancy and politics cannot go together,” he adds. A similar situation is returning, Mr Haider says, adding: “This group was patronised by a former minister. If they (PAC) claim to be social workers, they should stick to it. You don’t enter an assembly holding a gun.”
About the anger and disappointment of party activists, Mr Haider says: “There is an ideological divide in Sindh at the moment, which is also influencing Lyari.”
Political situation cannot be the same as in the 1970s, says Mr Haider, adding: “But we are identifying our mistakes. Because the sooner you do, the better off you are.”
In the midst of the disillusionment, however, a tiny seed of hope remains – Ramzan says the future is not dark, it is just cloudy: “There may be a light at the end of the tunnel, which we don’t see yet.”