The Baloch women of Lyari have played, and continue to play, an integral role in the realms of public health infrastructure, political brokerage, entrepreneurship and the maintenance of kinship ties 
| All photos by White Star


"Struggle" is the genre the archive authorises for the Baloch in Pakistan.
Published August 20, 2023

"Struggle” is the genre the archive authorises for the Baloch in Pakistan. In this genre, the Baloch features as a stock character: as a recalcitrant subject of the state, a putative victim of anachronistic and violent modes of social organisation.

Punching discursive holes in this blood-soaked fiction is an important tradition of dissident Baloch historiography, speaking back to statist narratives. The generic figures populating the counter-archive is a valiant hero resisting violent subjection and extraction, the suffering body (-politic) becoming the object on which the fictions that sustain the postcolonial nation-state are carved out as history.

Evidently, insofar as this counter-archive assembles itself in response to statist fictions, it accepts the basic tenets of the terrain over which the contest over the archive is waged. Broadly, in this terrain the subject of Baloch history becomes gendered (male), spatialised (in the hinterlands of agrarian and urban landscapes that constitute the spaces of the nation), and temporalised (the time of the Baloch is the time of insurgency/struggle).


The location from which we populate Baloch lifeworlds in this essay is the historic neighbourhood of Lyari, Karachi. Community elders claim that where now runs the Mauripur highway along the southern edge of Lyari, there once stood a sign that read, “Welcome to Balochistan.” It disappeared sometime in the 1950s. Contemporary Karachi holds the largest urban population of Baloch residents in the world. Indeed, the Baloch of Kechh Makran claim belonging to lands along the isthmus of River Lyari, centuries before the British decided to turn Karachi into a city in the late 19th century.

After 76 years of independence, the history of Pakistan remains centred on the state, its ideology and the Two-Nation Theory. A recently published collection of essays, Towards Peoples’ Histories in Pakistan, attempts to shift this focus towards the people who actually make that history. Eos presents here excerpts from one of the essays, titled ‘Un-archiving Baloch History’, which explores the oft-ignored place that Baloch women occupy in Pakistan’s social and political landscape, using stories from Karachi’s oldest settlement Lyari

Elsewhere, I have chronicled how significant the Baloch working class was to Karachi’s birth as a city. The city has, from inception, functioned as the intellectual and political hub of Baloch nationalism in all its diverse expressions.

Much of this history, and Karachi’s history, as a cosmopolitan Indian Ocean entrepot, was erased in the cataclysmic transformations wrought by Partition in 1947. This essay builds on that work without retreading that ground. Karachi’s Baloch have been subsumed into discourses that continue to describe the city in terms of ethnic strife. Challenging such erasure, Baloch urbanisms have left traces on various parts of the city since its first rudimentary ramparts went up in 1728.

In the biographies of Azra and Babli I recover the trace of the ways in which being in and of the city, both forged and expanded the possibility matrices for being Baloch in the world.

Azra expands it geographically: across deserts and seas to kin in Iran and the Arab Gulf States. Babli expands our conceptions in other ways, insisting on the visibility and agency of Baloch and Afro-Baloch women in processes that sustain and reproduce Karachi.

Her active participation in the electoral and patronage politics, as a single mother, confounds normative accounts of who brokers these operations. Both women find complicated emancipatory horizons in the often-dubious spaces of the market and the kin-group. Aditi Saraf has recently explored how commerce and markets can become sites of solidarity and resistance in the context of Indian-Occupied Kashmir.

Similar dynamics have been explored in other situations in Occupied Palestine. Azra, in the founding of Lyari’s iconic JhatPat Market, and Babli, in forging an entrepreneurial self that aims to lift her whole neighbourhood give us the blueprints for an unarchived history of the Baloch.


The 21st century dawned on the hitherto peaceful, diverse and cosmopolitan old city neighbourhood of Lyari in red hues of blood as putatively murderous gangs fought the “forces of order” as much as they fought each other.

Lyari was, until recently, a bastion of Karachi’s old city charm and bonhomie in a city often rife with violence identified with ethnic and sectarian difference. The so-called gang war launched a thousand probes, including mine, from journalists, scholars, NGOs, the military, the police, politicians, and TV pundits into and on to Lyari, with a clear interest in violent marginality.

Dubbed as an “exceptionally violent” gangland, Lyari was discursively transformed into a place where young Baloch men played out tired fantasies of urban youth living fast and dying young violent deaths, putatively exemplifying the city’s “ordered disorder”.

Fear was deployed in narratives about Lyari to several, often competing ends. It catered to widely differing publics and interests. Each instance indexed a fascination with young Baloch men who wield violence. The fetishisation of Baloch vectors of public violence has become a regular foil for legitimating state violence in Pakistan. The Baloch body becomes a “disorder” that beckons state-ordering mechanisms.

Enabling this highly constructed discursive stability that hinges on the question of violence are not just state security apparatuses, but also “progressive” academics and activists, “local” politicians and community leaders, and crime-beat journalists out for scoop, together conspiring to collocate violence and masculinity under the sign of the Baloch.

Good faith or suspect, all are driven by a motivating drive: we do not know enough and need to learn more about the Baloch-as-object. The object dazzles us. It beckons, as if there, to be studied, identified, differentiated, recorded, and recoded.

The perception that Lyari only has gang warfare to offer is enormously reductive
The perception that Lyari only has gang warfare to offer is enormously reductive

In each instance, the will to knowledge begins in uncertainty and calls for compulsive repetition: probing, penetration, messiness, seeking to be quite indelicately intimate with the suspended subject/object. Some do it with bullets, others with the pen. Some purple blotches on dead Baloch bodies look eerily like so much spilled ink.


The Baloch were not just present at the birth of the city, they were the hands that built it. In the late 19th century, the British colonial government accelerated the development of Karachi into a port city importing as much cheap labour from the hinterlands as could be mustered for the massive public works projects. It is at this time that thousands of ex-slaves flocked into British Karachi from the Omani controlled parts of Makran coast.

While slavery had been abolished in the British Empire at the time, it persisted in Britain’s vassal state of Oman: the uneven legal–political geography ensuring cheap emancipated labour at the frontiers of the empire. In Karachi, though retaining certain distinctive features of language, religion, and culture from East Africa, the Afro-Makrani ex-slaves and their descendants of African origins took on the Baloch identity, and “Baloch” became a common surname among these groups.

A few decades on, in the 1930s, a progressive movement aimed at democratising and modernising the state of Kalat (what is now the Pakistani province of Balochistan) was being led by a vibrant young group of statesmen including Mir Ghaus Baksh Bizenjo and Mir Gul Khan Nasir.

This group of young reformers, poets, socialists, and nationalists were centred in and around Karachi and became the forefathers of the Baloch nationalist movement. By then Karachi was home to presses, schools, publication houses and a hub of Baloch intelligentsia.

As the anthropologist Hafeez Jamali once remarked, supporters of the nationalist movement began shedding clan names for the surname Baloch. Thus, by the 1940s, the Baloch in Karachi converged into a highly inclusivistic kinning and group-formation comprising a wide spectrum of religio-sectarian and ethno-racial difference in favour of large geographical networks of kinship and cooperation. The Afro-Baloch, nevertheless, rarely feature in the archive on Baloch history especially as constitutive subjects within the group.

Dubbed as an “exceptionally violent” gangland, Lyari was discursively transformed into a place where young Baloch men played out tired fantasies of urban youth living fast and dying young violent deaths, putatively exemplifying the city’s “ordered disorder”

Insofar as the geography and temporality of Baloch history has been limited by colonial and statist narratives to “feudal hinterlands”, this highly diverse, cosmopolitan, and urban population is obscured in the contested terrain of the archive, often featuring but as “curiosities” in the margins of “larger” histories. The trivialisation of Afro-Baloch lives belies the role their group continues to play in charting out Baloch futures in the city.

A “trifling” instance of this was the ways in which Babli Baloch, a young, widowed Afro-Baloch woman came to play a key, if silenced, role as a Pakistan Peoples Party community organiser, an activist for public health measures in the community.

The Afro-Baloch of Karachi, in their vast majority, are embedded within Karachi’s old city central township of Lyari. Lyari is one of the most densely populated sectors in the city of Karachi. It is the smallest township out of the 19 that constitute the city, accounting for nearly nine percent of the city’s population.

Nevertheless, in terms of the basic healthcare infrastructure, and especially women’s health and maternity homes, it remains criminally underserved. The dearth of resources allocated to Lyari may partially be attributed to the fact of its cosmopolitan and diverse character, as its multi-ethnic harmony did not render it an easy fit into the “ethno-nationalist” turn in the city’s politics. To date, across main Chakiwara Street, you could pass labourers and shopkeepers speaking Balochi, Sindhi, Gujarati, Bengali, Pashto and Urdu.

With the advent of the brutal Lyari Gang War (2002–16) that resulted from the breakdown of relations between multiple political and economic interests in the Old City area of Karachi, the orphaning of this constituency in the city was exacerbated.

Babli’s generation, coming of age in this milieu, had to make their own breaks amid the intensities of urban violence and elite neglect.


Babli and I smoked cigarettes on a wooden bench that lay in the compound of Lyari Medical Facility (LMF) where she worked. The bench was usually occupied by grizzled men who self-identified as local community elders. They sat under the shade of the giant peepal, reading the lurid rag Jaanbaaz, dribbling red streaks of gutka over the bloody pictures of young Baloch men lost to the Lyari Gang War.

Jaanbaaz was exactly the kind of fetish object players in the contest over the Archive thirst for. At the height of the gang war (2010–14), it became the most widely read publication in the locality. It thrived on publishing gratuitous photographs of the war’s brutalised victims and sketched sensationalised stories of its combatants. The accounts of cold-blooded murder it chronicled were often highly embellished — and sometimes clearly fabricated.

In terms of the basic healthcare infrastructure, and especially women’s health and maternity homes, Lyari remains criminally underserved. The dearth of resources allocated to Lyari may partially be attributed to the fact of its cosmopolitan and diverse character, as its multi-ethnic harmony did not render it an easy fit into the “ethno-nationalist” turn in the city’s politics

Jaanbaaz curated the tableaus of intense violence ostensibly orchestrated by the gangs, for the curious gaze of those for whom Lyari served up the blood toll that allowed the “Baloch gangs” to become archivable in narratives on Karachi. Jaanbaaz commodified fear and insecurity in Lyari for mass consumption. The hunger for death in Baloch Lyari was sublimated in the newspaper archive, indexing the libidinal investments of a diverse ensemble of “professionals” compiling the archive.

Babli too enjoyed what Jaanbaaz and the archivists were selling. In fact, it was precisely this pall of death and foreboding that ensured the absence of the city’s elite from Lyari’s geographical domains and allowed low-level party workers and political brokers, such as her, to play an outsized role in the future of their people. Babli was an ardent party worker for the Pakistan Peoples Party. Her adherence to the memory of the slain Benazir Bhutto was devotional.

During our smoke breaks, Babli would invariably be lured into animated defence of the party to the annoyance of the community leaders who consumed, with ample condescension, the arguments of someone they dismissed as a loud-mouth Afro-Baloch woman.

Never mind that most of the “respectable” community elders each had their own history with the party. Many of them had joined the party during the 1970s, when labour unionists and community leaders in Lyari had held two seconds of sway in Zulfikar Bhutto’s pro-labour populist government. The Baloch of Lyari, insofar as they were also aligned with working-class politics, had long supported the party as well.

Since the 1990s, however, this leadership, having borne a decade of persecution from Gen Ziaul Haq’s violent dictatorship, had seen those early promises devolve into a vastly underdeveloped Baloch Karachi. The emergence of a clientelist politics, where patronage to a select few without effective resource delivery, had transformed a would-be cohort of urbane, educated and politically savvy Baloch leaders into party stooges.

In time, the party had sidelined this older cohort of would-be leftists for young and restless gangsters.

Since the 1970s, the PPP has had an overwhelming presence in Lyari’s Baloch quarters
Since the 1970s, the PPP has had an overwhelming presence in Lyari’s Baloch quarters


Babli was a different kind of broker than the now disgruntled old men had once been. She was savvy to the fact that the livelihood of all who worked at the facility, including the elders, was tied to the party. And unlike them, the party still valued the energy and dedication Babli delivered for them.

Consequently, she was one of the few salaried workers at the facility at a time when the public health employees were largely contract labour with few protections. Most of the facility’s staff had acquired their position through intercession of the gangs or their patrons in the party.

Babli was one of the few who had managed to short-circuit the hierarchies of patronage that went through the gangs or other community leaders. Her appointment was won after years of “youth activism” on the party’s behalf in the Afro-Baloch quarters of central Lyari.

Through the vicissitudes of being an ardent supporter through the 1990s, she had stood loyal and vocal to mobilise voters in the Afro-Baloch communities in Singo Lane, New Kumharwara and Miran Shah.

For this she had been rewarded with salaried employment and secured rare residential quarters attached to the LMF. In her modest home, she had raised two daughters by herself. By 2016, when I began working at the LMF, her daughter had secured admission as a medical student at the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Medical College Lyari, established in 2012 by the PPP government as a part of the Lyari Development Package.

Her steady employment at the LMF enabled her to raise her daughter despite her husband’s early demise. In return, Babli has been a diligent party worker, even during Musharraf ’s decade-long antidemocratic rule, when much of the political party’s local structure was dismantled by the military regime.

Part of her labours also involved leveraging her labour for the patrons in the party to advocate for women in her neighbourhood to get contract labour jobs in provincial government departments. For instance, much of the custodial and nursing staff during my fieldwork at the LMF owed, in some way or another, their jobs to her advocacy. Over many conversations it became apparent that, for Babli, her role at the LMF was not simply one of tactical survival mechanisms emblematic of small-scale brokers.

It was rather important to her that what was apparent as general disinvestment, on the part of the ruling elite in the city in serving the immediate needs of Lyari’s marginalised population, be redressed through her intercession. This was especially true for the neighbourhood’s healthcare infrastructure.

Thus, when during the so-called gang war the facility was left abandoned and rendered defunct by the higher administrators, none of whom was from Lyari, Babli, along with a few young, local, rising community leaders, decided to address the matter.

The party at this time was unable or unwilling to help, even though they occupied the provincial government. The city government, on the other hand, was dominated by the rival Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) who had no interest in their rival’s voting township. In this time, Babli became a leading figure in a small working group of brokers, and community organisers aimed at rehabilitating the facility.

Babli first brought the matter to comrade Habib, who was a fellow Zikri Afro-Baloch community leader in her neighbourhood, and commanded respect as an energetic Afro-Baloch ex-boxer who would later go on to become the deputy commissioner of the South district. In recruiting Habib to the cause, Babli and her group of workers were accessing both the higher echelons of the party as well as the “deniable” but crucial support of the leading gang in the area.

Indeed, local gang underboss Zafar Baloch, a key lieutenant in the Uzair Baloch gang, was soon brought to take a personal interest in the rehabilitation processes. However, rather than simply becoming turf for the Peoples Aman Committee (PAC) gang, Babli and Habib insisted that the facility, and in effect all medical facilities, be declared neutral spaces within the gang war.

When Zafar decided to ignore this plea early on, the group approached another local celebrity: the brother of Rahman ‘Dakait’, the founder and ex-boss of the PAC gang.

What ensued around the problem of rehabilitating the facility was a series of brokerage manoeuvres that saw Rahman’s brother being set up for a political career on the party’s ticket, with votes assured by brokers like Babli and Habib. The cause celebre for launching his political life would be the delivery of the facility as a fully functional maternity home.

Coincidentally, Zafar was killed in a bomb blast, which made the path clearer for the group.


Elsewhere, I have chronicled in detail the intricacies involved in the rehabilitation of the facility to full functionality, which Babli and her friends were able to achieve in 2018. Along the way, what “local” actors such as Babli, a few sweepers, and nurses began became a coalition of actors across different scales of power.

They enveloped and brought into coherence of purpose the southern district bureaucracy, the local police force, the gangs, party representatives from the provincial and national level, state-employed medical doctors and various NGOs.

The facility began functioning again in 2017, inaugurated by a free medical camp, where Babli’s constituency from the neighbourhood, mostly women and children, flocked to the facility in the hundreds to be seen to for a variety of chronic and emergent ailments, by doctors reassigned to the facility as well as young medical residents from the Lyari Medical College, one of whom was proud Babli’s daughter herself.

In the duration, the party has lost nearly all its support in the country, their rival MQM has been dispersed also. The gangs have been dismantled through a bloody military operation, and many of the influential men and community leaders who used to sit and disdainfully read Jaanbaaz have receded into further irrelevance.

In the neighbourhood, Babli continues to be an active organiser, especially among the women in the Afro-Baloch Zikri community. And she continues to serve as the head ayah at the facility, actively watching after her community’s health needs.

Where more visible and putatively consequential actors have left the stage, Babli continues to perform invisible but essential mediations that make life possible in her community.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Franklin and Marshall College.
His research addresses issues in the anthropology of violence, social theory and urban studies.

These slightly modified excerpts from the essay ‘Un-archiving Baloch History’ by Adeem Suhail have been reproduced with permission from Towards Peoples’ Histories in Pakistan: (In)Audible Voices, Forgotten Pasts, edited by Asad Ali and Kamran Asdar Ali, and published by Bloomsbury

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 20th, 2023