Price of ambition in Karachi

Updated 14 Jul 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

I HAVE watched The Godfather trilogy only once. And despite being able to appreciate the fine performances of actors such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the prequel, the unending popularity of the films has always been hard to understand. But popular they are. Nearly 50 years later, few would not recognise a reference to the ‘horse in the bed’ scene or catch on to the ‘sleep with the fishes’ dialogue. The list can go on.

Also read: Lords of misrule

Technical expertise aside, what makes the films so great? (Bollywood has made umpteen remakes over the decades — unfortunately — and from Feroze Khan to Aamir to Abhishek Bachchan, all have taken the risk of playing the Pacino role.)

Is it just direction or the iconic scenes or the legendary performances that make the film great? Or is it the story of a young man being forced into a life he had chosen to stay away from? How an educated young man who does not want to join the family’s underworld business is compelled to step in, one decision at a time, till he smoothly transforms into a ‘monster’ who kills without remorse?

This story is perhaps as compelling as that of revenge or redemption or the victory of the underdog.

What possessed a young man who once contested a local election in Lyari to become a gangster?

However, The Godfather is at some levels a glamorous version of this age-old story. The grittier versions are not so compelling, perhaps, but are more common than we ever realise. In bits and pieces, the story of all the young men whose crimes are being bandied about as we shout, scream and exchange allegations over the Karachi JITs are not very different from the young Michael Corleone of The Godfather.

As is our wont, our political debates focus on the obvious — who was responsible for the violence (as if it is not already known) — but little attention is paid to the young men turned monsters. How did Uzair Jan become Sardar Uzair Baloch? What possessed a young man who once contested and lost a local election against a PPP candidate in Lyari to become a gangster who played football with the head of an adversary?

Like Michael Corleone, Uzair Jan joined gang warfare after his father was tortured and killed by gangsters in Lyari. His father was punished for refusing to pay extortion money for the security of his transport trucks. And he got lucky later as the ‘death’ of Rehman Dakait catapulted him to a central position in Lyari.

The information available publicly about Uzair, Rehman Dakait, Arshad Pappu makes it seem as if the young, ambitious men of Lyari had few choices apart from a life of crime. News reports say Rehman Dakait dropped out of school in class six and a few years later he was selling drugs. Drugs led him to murder, and it wasn’t long before he was said to have even killed his own mother, suspecting her of informing on him.

But despite his bestial side, he was also known as the Robin Hood of Lyari who built schools and libraries in the area. In addition to a better neighbourhood, he is also said to have wanted a better, more respectable future for himself, but an ambition which looked beyond Lyari cost him his life. He was killed by the police in an encounter and replaced by Uzair. That is when Uzair Jan became Sardar Uzair Baloch.

Such stories are not just found in Lyari but also the rest of Karachi. The MQM’s rise to power has also led to many such transformations.

Saulat Mirza, at one time, was no less well known than Uzair Baloch. He too was another of Karachi’s ambitious young men. As the MQM’s killing machine, his mysterious interviews from the death cell created as much noise as the JIT is today — but the beans he spilled were taken to no ‘mantaqi anjam’ (logical conclusion), which is probably what will happen to the JIT report also.

Mirza’s name was also a byword for violence but, unlike the Lyari gang war, the stories of how the ‘monsters’ within the MQM were created were rarely covered. The fear of the party kept one from digging deep (Lyari was not such a no-go area). As a result, little is known about how Saulat Mirza, a boy from Nazimabad, became a ‘symbol of terror’, as he was called in a news story. Apparently because he was arrested and tortured by the police in the early 1990s, said the story.

Or what prompted Hammad Siddiqi to become a man who could cold-bloodedly order a factory to be burnt down?

There is little detail to be found about either of them, but a story in Laurent Gayer’s book on Karachi throws some light on how their stories may have progressed. Gayer tells of a young man named Iqbal — the author doesn’t use his real name — who was not even Urdu-speaking though he had grown up in Karachi. A college dropout, he was picked up by the police after a demonstration. In jail, inmates from the MQM protected him and later in 2001 he joined the party when his father encouraged him to contest the local government elections as a career opportunity. From there, it was but a short time before he became involved in the party’s militant activities.

Perhaps the others too have similar stories, which led them down this path of violence. But each story is linked to Karachi in some way or the other, a city which offers violence as the quickest — and for some the only — route to a better life. (Karachi is not alone in this; any urban metropolis will have similar stories). Till the cities offer better opportunities to young men, political parties and militant groups will always find cannon fodder for their nefarious ends — and the Supreme Court judgments on Karachi write that all the parties were involved in it. Young men will be used and then dumped and replaced. And while parties can and will be blamed for an Uzair or a Saulat Mirza, who do we blame for the larger failure?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2020