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Lyari: a virtual war zone

April 28, 2012


Policemen presenting Guard of Honour to the coffin of the police inspector who was killed in the Lyari operation, at Garden Headquarters.— ONLINE PHOTO by Sabir Mazhar

KARACHI: For the last several days, the densely populated neighbourhood of Lyari has been resounding with endless volleys of gunfire. At times the sound of gunfire is interrupted by rocket-propelled grenades, forcing most residents to either remain indoors or run for life.

Violence seems to have become a permanent feature of life in one of the oldest and most impoverished neighbourhoods in Karachi. In the latest round of bloodletting, security forces have squared off against gunmen and ‘gangsters’ following the murder of a seasoned Pakistan People’s Party activist on Thursday.

A resident told this writer on Saturday that his locality had been without water and electricity since early Friday morning. Families had run short of food and milk for children along with other essentials since no shop was open.

If anyone dared venture outside, they risked being caught in the crossfire. A station house officer was shot dead in a clash with criminals on Saturday. The manner in which the SHO and his team were trapped and ambushed shows the nature of organised violence in the area.

However, while security forces confronted gunmen armed with grenades and other heavy weapons, many outside of Lyari are unaware of the bloodshed and lawlessness that now appears to rule Karachi’s old city area.

Local PPP leader Malik Mohammad Khan Niazi was killed at Aath Chowk while leading a procession against the conviction of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in the contempt case. Law enforcers have blamed the ‘defunct’ but active People’s Amn Committee -- formerly associated with the PPP — for the killing. If this is assumed to be true, it must be asked why the organisation, considered a criminal outfit by its detractors, turned its guns on the party.

“Maybe because of the feeling of betrayal,” a disgruntled youth said. The ‘committee’, or at least a major faction of it led by Uzair Baloch and Habib Jan Baloch, became the sole target of an earlier operation “at the behest of the largest extortionist group of the city”, he added. Amn Committee sympathisers say another faction of the organisation, led by Baba Ladla, has been spared, while criminals loyal to the rival Arshad Pappu gang are being used by police to identify Amn Committee fighters.

Having failed to enter Lyari through Lea Market in the last round of the so-called operation against extortionists in mid-April, this time the police and other security forces, led by SP ‘Chaudhry’ Aslam Khan, tried to “conquer” — as some locals put it — the area by entering from Cheel Chowk.

Their target was the infamous Kalakot area, but to block its entry and exit points the law enforcers cordoned off neighbouring Nawa Lane and Kumhar Wara. As a result a population of around 100,000 was held hostage. Situations like this have earlier led to massive protests by residents.

Political dimension

The ‘selective’ operation has led to the estrangement of the Amn Committee from the PPP to such an extent that according to reports its leader Uzair Baloch has decided to quit the party and is seriously thinking about joining the Pakistan Muslim League-N.

Residents say the process of alienation is not confined to the Amn Committee alone but has engulfed almost the entire population of Lyari, because of sufferings they have to go through during the operations. Some have also alleged that Chaudhry Aslam has used his ‘private army’ — gunmen not belonging to the police or other law-enforcing agencies — in the operation.

They allege Aslam has a personal vendetta because of insults heaped upon him by the Amn Committee when it was led by the notorious Rehman ‘Dakait’, or Sardar Abdul Rehman as he wished to be known.

PPP stalwarts including Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah and Home Minister Manzoor Wassan have kept insisting that it is a targeted operation against extortionists without discrimination. This has rubbed some in Lyari the wrong way.

“Why only in Lyari? Why isn’t an anti-extortion operation launched in other areas of the city where extortion takes place at a larger scale?” asked Abdul Mutallib Qasarqandi, a political activist and businessman.

“Extortion in Lyari used to be limited to local shopkeepers, traders and transporters. When the extortionists started expanding operations to Kharadar, Jodia Bazaar and Tower, those who had a monopoly over the business started objecting and demanded an operation against Lyari criminals while indulging in the same business in the entire city,” he added.

‘Robin Hood’ phenomenon

When the current PPP-led government assumed power, Rehman Dakait started harbouring aspirations about a future in politics — a wish still nurtured by his successors. Due to the apathy shown to the voters by PPP lawmakers, the Amn Committee started to fill in for the state, re-branding itself as a social/community organisation.

While MNA Nabeel Gabol and MPA Rafique Engineer were seldom seen in their constituency and accused of neglecting Lyari, the Amn Committee worked on its image by getting involved in the area’s uplift.

Some locals are of the opinion that if the PPP continues to take its voters for granted, even Bilawal Bhutto Zardari may find it difficult to win a National Assembly seat from Lyari. However, former People’s Party MPA Nasreen Chandio said that though the allure of the Bhutto family may compel Lyari’s people — diehard supporters of the PPP — to vote for the young Bhutto, the party’s vote bank is bound to shrink in the coming general elections.

Until a few years ago, Lyari was regarded as vanguard of pro-democracy agitation. But residents said utter neglect by its political class allowed the local gangsters to take the centre-stage. Many were involved in running local dens, but soon strengthened their political position by involving themselves in social work. Within no time the situation degenerated into turf war between various warlords like gang leaders, posing themselves as politicians or social activists. And in all this local and central PPP leadership remained silent spectator, complained many former party activists.

Now it appears this is a political war the PPP is set to lose because its leadership makes decisions about Lyari to appease others, and when the situation aggravates, it depends on advice offered by leaders such as Nabeel Gabol and Rafique Engineer, who have become unacceptable as far as the politics of Lyari is concerned.