More than meets the eye

July 19, 2020

Unravelling the enigma of Lyari’s interwoven criminality and politics

Lyari and Uzair Baloch are once again the talk of the town after the Sindh government published the findings of a joint investigation (JIT) report.

The claims made in the report about the Lyari gang war have triggered a war of words between the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Federal Minister Ali Zaidi has accused the PPP leadership of tampering with the JIT report to conceal its ties with the gangster. PPP’s Murtaza Wahab and Saeed Ghani insist that the minister is trying to implicate their party for the sake of political point-scoring. The blame-game even reached the National Assembly on July 14.

Despite his incarceration since December 2014, Uzair Baloch’s claims continue to stir up controversy. As Baloch’s ‘confessions’ come to light, it is already very hard to imagine the change between then and now. Who could have imagined in 2013 that within seven years every political party in Karachi would be at pains to distance itself from him?

When I first visited Lyari in the summer of 2012, Uzair Baloch, popularly known as Sardar Uzair Jan, was the undisputed leader of the community. I found it fascinating then that a person with no official authority — through election or formal appointment — could be accepted as a leader by a significant part of the population in an area that has had such a rich political history.

It was during this first visit that I was pulled aside by an articulate, bright young woman, Saniya Naz (the following year she would be elected an MPA) and asked whether I would like to meet ‘bhai’. Before this, I had heard of only one other bhai in Karachi. A few days later, I found myself seated in a plush drawing room with Uzair Baloch, the leader of the officially banned People’s Aman Committee (PAC). I was accompanied by fellow researcher Laurent Gayer, a journalist friend and Saniya Naz.

Uzair openly discussed the raging conflict with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). He said he and the PAC were helping bring about more ‘accountability’. Like his predecessor, Rehman Dakait, Uzair liked to present himself as a kind of Robin Hood figure, taking from the corrupt political elite and giving to the people of Lyari.

Lyari has been host to a variety of criminal groups who became increasingly powerful as a result of the massive inflow of arms and drugs due to the Afghan war in the 1980s. However, it was not until the appearance of Rehman Dakait on the scene in the late ’90s that criminal groups started expanding and becoming organised into ‘gangs’. This is also when criminality and politics became explicitly intertwined in the area in particular and in the city in general.

Rehman, who began his career as a common criminal, gradually grew closer to the PPP, which has historically viewed Lyari as its power-base in Karachi. He and his men were central to the security apparatus of several party leaders. They were also instrumental in the party’s 2008 election campaign in Karachi. The PPP won the election. Rehman’s group was also involved in a gang war that raged in the area from 2004 to 2008. This conflict, which many believe was a proxy turf war between the MQM and the PPP, ravaged Lyari, creating widespread insecurity amongst its residents and hampering social and political activities.

The gang war ended in 2008 with the creation of the People’s Aman Committee with Rehman at the helm. The PAC would unofficially rule most of Lyari until the launch of the 2013 Karachi Operation. During these years, the PAC acted as a kind of state within a state, mimicking the MQM in setting up offices in each locality in order to deal with civic complaints of residents and resolving conflicts. While the PAC was never officially handed a mandate to govern Lyari, it was common knowledge that its members received support from at least some branches of the state.

Rehman built his reputation as Lyari’s Robin Hood, engaging in large-scale charitable works, distributing rations among the needy, setting up medical clinics and supporting schools and sports in Lyari, particularly in the area around his own residence. He elicited a combination of respect and fear that so often characterises violent authority figures. He was alleged to have killed many people including his mother. After his death in 2009 in a police encounter, many speculated that it was his political ambition that led to his demise.

Uzair, whose father was killed in the gang war, was chosen to replace Rehman. He continued along the same lines, even more explicitly framing himself as the leader of Lyari and similarly engaging in charity within the area but also being more obedient than Rehman, at least in the beginning.

While the PAC had been established during Rehman’s lifetime, its structure expanded and became more elaborate after Uzair took over. Its offices were set up throughout most of Lyari and in some other areas of the city having significant Baloch populations. Some of the ‘offices’ were reported to have attached torture cells.

Young men were hired to man pickets set up particular areas, keep a watch on visitors and prevent outsiders from entering PAC-controlled localities. There were stories at the time of boys being lured into the PAC with the offer of a 125cc motorbike, a gun, a mobile phone, and a Rs 500-1,000 daily wage. A long-time social worker from the area said, “They saw a future for themselves. If you had no other option, you might say ‘I may as well join. At least I can fill my stomach’.’’

The story of Uzair Baloch says a great deal about the nature of the state itself, which not only tolerates but actively patronises organisations like PAC. It may appear that state and non-state actors are engaged in a struggle for control in ‘no-go’ areas.

The PAC used various strategies to visually mark the areas under their control. Much of Lyari was marked by posters and billboards featuring images of Uzair Baloch, Rehman Dakait and other fallen members of the PAC. Many of these posters included images of PPP leaders, particularly Zulfiqar Mirza. Some also had images of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari and the then army chief. The PAC also used Baloch identity and culture as a means of rallying support by calling its leaders ‘sardars’, and by celebrating a Baloch Culture Day. It would hold regular protest demonstrations and rallies to mobilise support, pressure the government and assert its place as a powerful political player in the city.

That the PAC enjoyed support of various state actors was obvious. The then chief minister, Qaim Ali Shah, would regularly visit Uzair Baloch. Zulfiqar Mirza, who was home minister at the time, famously bragged in September 2011 about handing out 300,000 weapons licences “to enable people to protect themselves against the MQM”.

However, the PAC’s relationship with the formal mechanisms of the state was murky. When I spoke to Uzair Baloch in February 2013, he said he and his men would call up government officers and ask why particular roads had not been fixed or why schools had not been repaired. He claimed that government officers had previously been told by corrupt elected people not to complete development works. He never explained why the government officer would feel accountable to the PAC and not the elected representatives of the people.

In March 20111, the provincial government officially banned the PAC. Uzair Baloch then announced that all offices would be shut down. However, the organisation continued to operate, although less openly. In September 2013, a rift occurred between two of its factions, one led by Uzair Baloch and the other Baba Ladla. This led to a bloody conflict between the two groups causing hundreds of deaths in the area from bomb blasts and gun violence. After the 2013 elections, the state launched a major security operation in Karachi. It was led by the Rangers and targeted various violent groups in the city including the Lyari gangs.

Most of the major gang commanders fled or were killed either in inter-group fighting or in ‘encounters’ with the law enforcement agencies. Uzair Baloch was arrested in Dubai by Interpol in December 2014. Two years later, he was again arrested by the Rangers in an operation on the outskirts of Karachi.

The story of Uzair Baloch says a great deal about the nature of the state itself. It not only tolerates but actively patronises organisations like the PAC and individuals like Uzair Baloch. The ambiguous nature of this relationship is probably deliberate.

While it may appear that state and non-state actors are engaged in a struggle for the control of ‘no-go’ areas such as Lyari, the monopoly of violence remains firmly in the hands of the state.

It seems that the apparent lack of state control is a ruse to legitimise state’s use of excessive force.

It is the residents of areas like Lyari where formal and informal power is blurred who suffer the most. They must learn to navigate the ambiguous relationship between state and non-state actors in their everyday lives.

Their awareness that state power undergirds the authority of non-state actors means that any open challenge to the authority of non-state actors seems futile. Condemned to perpetual insecurity, the residents have learned to tactically manage their affairs by negotiating with state as well as non-state actors depending on shifting circumstances.

For residents of Lyari the latest episode of the Uzair Baloch saga has been just that — a drama being orchestrated in the interests of the political elite who could care less about the consequences of their actions for the people directly affected by those.

The author is an associate professor of sociology at LUMS and faculty director of the Saida   Waheed Gender Initiative

More than meets the eye: Unravelling the enigma of Lyari’s interwoven criminality and politics