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Lyari: From party politics to gang warfare

March 27, 2013

Police action in Lyari – photo by White Star

Back in the 2008 elections, Lyari’s politics were entirely different from what they are today.

Although the Karachi neighbourhood with a population of 1.5 million had already earned the notorious title of the ‘Colombia of Karachi’ because of the tightening grip of rival gangs, its political culture was alive and kicking. At that time, the gangs of Lyari needed the support of political parties – but now, on the eve of the May 11 elections, it’s the other way around.

Five years ago, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had the final say in nominating candidates from the neighbourhood, predominantly inhabited by the Baloch and Sindhis – The Kutchhis and Memons who reside in Lyari speak Sindhi dialects. Lyari has been the PPP’s stronghold over nine consecutive elections, a constituency which the party had never lost.

Its role in the pro-democratic movement against Ziaul Haque’s regime in 1983 and 1986 was memorable. Politican workers in the neighbourhood led the movement, while motivating and mobilising the rest of the country to participate.

Ironically, Lyari was considered a safe haven once upon a time. While the rest of the city of Karachi echoed with gunfire, the area’s roadside hotels were filled with chai lovers talking politics as the old songs of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi played in the background.

Lyari the 'drug den'

But then, two decades ago, things changed. Most political workers believe Lyari was punished for its activism by General Zia. "It was in the1980s when Lyari began to be corrupted by the drug menace. Insignificant hooligans turned into drug traffickers and their mushroom growth was phenomenal," said an old guard of a leftist party.

Meanwhile, gangsters continued to capture large parts of Lyari to establish their drug dens. They used their drug money to buy huge weapon consignments. The guns enhanced their power, and allowed them to sieze control at the expense of the state.
It was during this time that Haji Laloo became a household name and certain areas of Lyari came to be regarded as drug dens. Laloo recruited criminals and strengthened his gang. In the meantime, several other gangsters emerged. Laloo’s first conflict over dirty business surfaced with rival gangster Baboo Dakait. With this conflict, guns entered the area. Finally, Baboo was isolated and killed during a shoot-out.

Meanwhile, gangsters continued to capture large parts of Lyari to establish their drug dens. They used their drug money to buy huge weapon consignments. The guns enhanced their power, and allowed them to sieze control at the expense of the state.

Within the gangs, splits created further rival groups. Rehman Baloch, alias Dakait, separated himself from Laloo’s gang over a dispute on ransom money and made his own. He carved out his own area of control and recruited criminals. The result was an all-out bloody gang war. The two dominant groups started killing each other’s members – and by this time, Laloo’s son, Arshad Pappu, had taken over the reins. Pappu was a brutal and trigger-happy crime kingpin, who eliminated his opponents with impunity.

Lyari the 'gangster's playground'

Enter the early 2000s. People fed up of ethnic tensions during the 1990s had migrated to Lyari. Now, the gang warfare triggered a turnaround, forcing peace-seekers to sell their properties at cheaper prices and migrate to ‘safer areas’.

The smaller gangs had joined forces with either of the two dominant gangs – Rehman Dakait’s, and Arshad Pappu’s. Lyari was then divided into two, with each section being a no-go area for members of the rival gang. Soon enough, the groups made inroads into the state’s security infrastructure. First, they bribed the police, and as their power grew enormously, the police eventually opted to stay inside the police stations for their own safety.

Still, despite this power, the gangs had no say in electoral politics till 2002. Until then, PPP workers were still in control as they had been for decades. The party’s mainstay was its brave women, who flocked to polling stations and voted for Nabil Gabol, a nominee picked by Benazir Bhutto. Although the people of Lyari disliked Gabol because he seldom showed up to the neighbourhood, the PPP vote-bank remained intact and they voted for him.

After polling day in 2002, when Gabol was successful elected an MNA and PPP’s Rafique Engineer as an MPA. But those were the last days when the party was completely in command.

Gabol and Rafique did not deliver. They now lived in posh neighbourhoods, and were scarcely seen in Lyari. People also blamed Gabol for taking sides in the gang warfare, a charge he denied completely.

Then, in 2006, the police arrested Laloo and Arshad Pappu, and put them in jail. Pappu’s gang grew weaker, which benefited Rehman who started to extend his control in Lyari. By the end of 2007, when Benazir was returning to Pakistan, Rehman was largely in control of the area.

Lyari's 'connections' with the PPP

In fact, Rehman even had a vital role to play in Benazir’s security apparatus.

Soon after the bombing on her homecoming parade in Karachi, the PPP leader was rescued and shifted to Bilawal House by guards who had been arranged for by Rehman. Many of those guards were among around 200 people who died in the bombing.

Rehman now had a say in the party’s affairs and became a protégé of Zulfiqar Mirza, an old friend of President Asif Ali Zardari who went on to become Sindh’s home minister. He later resigned in protest over a police operation in Lyari, referring to the members of Rehman’s Peoples Amn Committee as “his children”.

After the assassination of Benazir, Zardari once again nominated Gabol and Rafique for Lyari seats, saying he did this in accordance with the lists of PPP candidates finalised by Benazir herself. Many in Lyari, in particular a large number of the party’s disgruntled cadres, opposed the nominations. Some of them filed their own nomination against them in protest.

Gabol read the writing on the wall and joined the MQM, blaming the party for supporting “non-state actors” in his constituency.
But with the death of Benazir, emotions were strong and it only took some light persuasion to force them to withdraw their nomination papers.

Once again, the Engineer-Gabol duo was elected easily in the 2008 polls. But people’s grudge against them continued to grow, as the lawmakers failed to deliver on all that they had promised.

In the meantime, Rehman was killed along with some of his peers in a controversial and suspicious police encounter. This paved the way for Uzair Jan Baloch, who had joined the gang recently, to take over. Baloch joined the gang to avenge the murder of his father Faiz Baloch, a local transporter, allegedly killed by Arshad Pappu.

So by the 2008 elections then, PPP enjoyed authority to pitch its candidates in Lyari for the last time.

Now, the 2013 elections are an entirely different ballgame. Gabol read the writing on the wall and joined the MQM, blaming the party for supporting “non-state actors” in his constituency. Engineer died peacefully as a result of cardiac arrest and Pappu, along with his brother and a confidante, were recently found brutally killed.

Lyari is no longer the stronghold the PPP can boast of. There are reports that the dominant Peoples Amn Committee might agree to revive good terms with the PPP because of clandestine negotiations with party leaders like Abdul Qadir Patel and Zulfiqar Mirza, who still enjoy good reception in the area.

“The PPP will certainly pit its candidates in Lyari, but it will not enjoy full authority in pick and choose. The candidates will certainly need a nod from other dominant actors in Lyari as well,” confessed a party leader.