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July 12, 2020

Who’s afraid of Uzair Baloch?


July 12, 2020

Though I have fancied myself as a certified chronicler of Karachi, having lived my rather long life in the city and written about it for decades, it now seems that Karachi is slipping out of my comprehension. I am at least not so enthused about its derelictions or its peripheral glories. So how do I explain the meaning or the message of the awe-inspiring Uzair Baloch affair?

Let me first tell you why I am confronted with this question. In my column last week, I had touched upon the politically explosive dispute on the contents of three JIT reports that the Sindh government was set to release on Monday. One of these was, of course, on the activities and exploits of Uzair Baloch, the star of Lyari’s gang wars.

This column, after he read it on the net, prompted Mani Shankar Aiyar, a prominent Indian campaigner for peace in South Asia, to email me this short message: “Interesting but a bit bewildering for a non-Pakistani since our newspapers and news channels report virtually nothing from or on Pakistan. Would be interested in seeing what is the story on Uzair Baloch”.

It is not surprising that Mani Shankar felt intrigued by that fleeting glimpse of an unbelievable character who was operating in a city that Mani Shankar had known well in a different era. He was India’s consul general in Karachi from 1978 to 1982. He has preserved his bond with this city and has remained in touch with his many friends and acquaintances, even after he resigned from foreign service and joined the Congress party and became an elected representative and a minister at the centre. He is respected as an intellectual, determinedly working for reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

I know that he has kept in touch with events in Pakistan, through his visits and virtual contacts with friends. The Karachi that he so fondly remembers was an entirely different place. Yes, the world had noticed the killing fields of Karachi and the terror that was injected by ethnic politics and religious extremism. However, the story of Uzair Baloch, who operated in the arena of Lyari rather more recently, is still unfinished and demands fresh attention.

Incidentally, Karachi has been the location of numerous books of fiction. Omar Shahid Hamid’s crime thrillers portray a more realistic picture of the city than any journalistic reportage. In that sense, the JIT report on Uzair Baloch provides an outline for the screenplay of a blockbuster or the plot for a mystery novel. It is in the fitness of things that some wicked moves will never be explained.

The three JIT reports released this week were not meant to be made public. This was the Sindh government’s decision, pretending that it was a matter of national security. A few things happened, including the intervention of federal minister Ali Haider Zaidi who read some passages in the National Assembly, claiming that they were from the JIT report.

Eventually, we have two JIT reports on Uzair Baloch, the Sindh government and Ali Zaidi both claiming that their version is authentic. The point here is that a report that was compiled three years ago has aggravated the political conflicts of today. At one level, it is Sindh versus the PTI-led government at the centre. One dispute is about who actually was the political patron of Uzair Baloch – the Zardari-led PPP or the then home minister who has since defected to the present coalition?

A measure of how gruesome this story is that according to both versions of the report, Uzair Baloch was involved in the killing of 198 persons. We are told that he has confessed to these killings and other crimes of kidnappings for ransom and extortion. He was arrested in late April, 2016 and is now believed to be in the custody of security agencies. His activities as the chief of, yes, People’s Amn Committee in Lyari had peaked around 2012 to 2015.

For you to may have some idea of what it was like in Lyari, the densely populated old quarters of Karachi, during the gang wars, here is an excerpt from Uzair Baloch’s biography in Wikipedia: “In 2013, Arshad Pappu and his brother Yasir Arafat were eventually kidnapped by Uzair’s gang, tortured and beheaded. Their corpses were paraded before being burnt, and the ashes dumped in a sewer. Uzair Baloch and his associate Baba Ladla reportedly played football with the severed heads”.

One revelation in the JIT report that has somehow been underplayed is that Uzair Baloch had shared sensitive information with the officials of Iranian intelligence. The Iranian embassy in Pakistan has rejected this allegation.

It is instructive that the other two reports have not attracted similar attention, though the one on Baldia factory fire has grave political implications. The JIT report has certified that it was an act of organised terrorism. The factory was set on fire for not paying extortion money of about 250 million rupees by leaders of an ethnic party, the remnants of which are now allies of Imran Khan. Again, a nerve-shattering fact that 259 workers were burnt to death in that fire. And this happened on a fateful day, September 11 – in 2012.

Meanwhile, a political upheaval is building up around the Uzair Baloch JIT report. It is being alleged that leading political parties were in league with him. The tempo is rising and many other skeletons are falling out of the closets. For instance, mention has also been made of the murder of Benazir’s younger brother, Murtaza, in September 1996 when Benazir was prime minister.

It would appear that like in the United States and some other countries, Covid-19 has prompted revelations and intensified social unrest. Many things are happening at the same time, and not only in Karachi. On Thursday, the commission set up to probe the massacre of the schoolchildren of the Army Public School on December 16, 2014, submitted its report to the Supreme Court.

We have to wait to see what it will reveal. Or will the mystery of what had happened further deepen?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]