“I came to Karachi a month before the deadly earthquake struck our villages and cities. I initially resided in Karachi with a distant relative who helped me in setting up a small Pan Khoka in Liaquatabad,” said Khan.
“One day, a group of thugs came to my shop, demanding money. Unaccustomed to the modus operandi of business in Karachi I was taken aback, the team ‘assured’ me that the money is nothing but rent which I must pay if I wanted to continue with the business,” he added.
According to Khan the ‘business’ continued for a couple of months but had to be shut down as the rent was superseding the revenue and profit generated by his small cabin.
Khan lost half of his family to the massive earthquake of 2005 and lost a major chunk of his savings to a very well-connected network of Bhattakhor (extortion) mafia of Karachi.
Recently, the government and coalition parties have taken notice of the prevalence of the extortion mafia in Karachi, which perhaps has affected and claimed many lives across the city. However, the question is, are the measures and anti-extortion bills sufficient to compensate the likes of Khan who spend a better half of their lives in saving to reap benefits in the latter half of their lives? People who lose their meagre assets to the anarchy of Karachi without being heard? And most importantly people who lose their beloveds in an effort to challenge the status quo of the corrupt system?
It will not be unwise to say that any business establishment, be it a small tea shop or a garment factory, in Karachi are subjected to similar outwresting. However, small businesses have a much bigger price to pay because they practically lose their means of livelihood whilst surrendering to the demands of the Bhatta Mafia.
Business tycoons, who rein local industries, are also blackmailed, however for them the bars are raised further. Perhaps their businesses continue to thrive but the noose of kidnappings for ransom and threatening phone calls tightens every second.
An industrialist who owns a winding factory near the Site in Karachi, on condition of anonymity said, “if someone tells you that we do not pay a penny to bhattakhors then they are being dishonest. No business in Karachi can ‘prosper’ or even operate without paying to the extortionists.”
“Two and a half years ago I received an anonymous call from someone who threatened to kill my nephew if I refused to heed to his demands. What did I do? I paid him and we continue to pay them because there is no law and order in this city and nobody wants to lose their children,” he added.
In the wake of extortions and kidnappings for ransom, many influential people relocated to countries like South Africa and Dubai and very rightly succumbed to the injustices of the demands made by the bhatta mafia. However, the ones that have been left behind continue to face the brunt of the lawlessness that rules the city.
According to sources, bhatta can at times be collected quite amicably and the slightly richer faction of business fraternity considers it a way of maintaining a congenial relationship with the ‘movers and shakers’ of the country.
“Every month we write a check in favour of a specific bhatta mafia and one of our assistants delivers it. It’s very convenient because in return they provide us with ample security so in a way we pay them for their ‘services’,” said a businessman who owns an automobile show room at Khalid Bin Walid Road.
Perhaps the section of the business community which considers extortion money a ‘blessing’ clearly lives in denial or simply refuse to admit that their objection to pay can result in destruction of their stock, property and, many a time, lives.
The question is what exactly are police and other law enforcing agencies doing to protect the victims of extortion? And where do they disappear when ‘the team’ arrives to collect the money?
“The transactions are carried out in the presence of our police and they completely support it. In fact I pay one rupee per day for every square foot of space that I utilise outside the premises of my restaurant to the custodians of law,” said an owner of a restaurant located in Gulshan-e-Iqbal.
His reply made me ask him if he knew that his ‘acts’ fall under the crimes of encroachment?
“I might not know that but the police authorities surely do and if they don’t care why should I bother. I am only concerned with the extra amount of rupees that I have to pay to justify whatever ‘crimes’ I am committing,” he added.
The conclusion that I came to, after undergoing the exercise of looking for volunteers who could help me understand the labyrinth of the bhatta mafia, can be summed up as nothing but bizarre. From people who have lost everything to the bhatta system to those who consider it a refuge from miscreants — every man had new information to divulge and a strange experience to narrate, and all the while I kept thinking about how easy it is to find a reason to justify our wrongs.
Perhaps bhattakhors have a similar explanation to their crimes as that of the restaurateur who believed that encroachment can be legalised if one is able to ‘tip’ the right sources. Unless we change the mindset to rationalise our wrongs by looking for scapegoats and reasons to blame, the order of corruption will continue to dictate our lives.
Perhaps it is only human to err however it is time to rectify the unfortunate mistakes of our past which have marred our spirit and progress as a nation.
*Identity concealed due to security reasons.