Inside Pakistan’s most dangerous neighborhood.
It was a public execution unprecedented in its brutality even by Karachi’s own gruesome standards. The criminal who had been lording over Lyari, the city’s most dangerous neighborhood, had gone missing days earlier. Now, mosque loudspeakers were calling residents to witness and, according to some accounts, take part in his punishment.
Arshad Pappu was tortured and beaten, tied to a car and dragged naked through Lyari’s streets. He was beheaded. Rival gang members—Baba Ladla and Uzair Jan Baloch—played football with his dismembered head. Pappu’s corpse and that of his brother were paraded on a donkey cart before being hacked and burnt. Finally, their ashes were dumped in a sewer. This was in March 2013. Pappu was the archrival of the Peoples Aman Committee, a gang once linked up with the Pakistan Peoples Party, which runs Sindh province. His killing changed the map of Karachi’s violence through a new balance of criminal power.
But now the saga of Lyari’s politically connected dacoits may be coming to an end. In December, the United Arab Emirates arrested Baloch, scion of a family originally hailing from Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. Wanted in Pakistan for at least 16 murders, including Pappu’s, Baloch was found traveling on a fake Iranian passport. He represents both the lawlessness of Lyari that has crippled Karachi and the classic Sindhi feudal interface with Balochistan, Pakistan’s and Iran’s, as most of Sindh’s wadero aristocracy traces its ancestry to Baloch warriors.
The anything-goes neighborhood of Lyari reacted to news of Baloch’s arrest by shutting down, as if in anticipation of another bout of inter-gang shootouts to vent the rage of his hierarchy of killers. Karachi has been allowed to descend into the Hades of lawlessness because the two parties that rule it—the PPP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement—have sought street power, the former through the likes of Baloch and the latter through people like Pappu, at the cost of the writ of the state. The third contender for control of the city, the Awami National Party, also stands accused of using gang proxies to carve up turf for itself.
The relationship between Baloch’s gang and the PPP is complicated. When PPP leader Benazir Bhutto ended her self-exile and returned to Karachi on Oct. 17, 2007, Abdul Rehman alias Rehman Dacoit, Baloch’s first cousin, was part of her private-security detail. After her homecoming procession was bombed, he personally aided her to safety. “In a picture published by The Telegraph the following day, Rehman can be seen holding Benazir’s arm helping in her transfer,” writes Laurent Gayer in Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City. “It is therefore in the company and under the protection of Karachi’s most wanted criminal that Benazir dealt with this life-threatening crisis, and that she reached the Bhutto residence.”
Rehman Dacoit had gotten rich off Lyari’s 33 dens of drug-peddling and gambling, local beer traffic, and other illegal activities. He used his wealth to win over Lyari (he funded scholarships for Lyari students to attend the Lahore University of Management Science, organized soccer matches, etc.) and tighten his grip on the neighborhood. Bhutto was assassinated by the Taliban on Dec. 27, 2007. And Rehman Dacoit was killed by Karachi police in August 2009. (Chaudhry Aslam, the officer who led the raid on him, was killed by the Taliban in a suicide-bombing in January 2014.) But what caused the rift between Rehman Dacoit and the ruling party? How did he fall from grace after getting the upper hand in his infighting with Pappu and gang? Did he die in a police encounter because he had gotten too big for his boots?
The late Fauzia Wahab, spokesperson for the PPP at the time, said Rehman Dacoit “was flying high to become a self-proclaimed leader of the area. His ambitions were threatening everyone and he spoiled institutions, culture, peace and everything in the area.”
Baloch took the reins after his cousin’s killing. He was protected by the ruling party until his refusal to support PPP candidate Owais “Tappi” Muzaffar in the elections. But the PPP, whose ability to run Karachi has been impaired by the Lyari gang wars and the Taliban, may finally be cleaning up its act rather than allegedly exacting revenge on erstwhile proxies and abiding enemies. It was the PPP’s Sindh government that finally pressed for Baloch’s arrest through Interpol. And last October, Karachi police killed two of Pappu’s brothers, both involved in kidnappings-for-ransom, in a siege at Model Colony.
A Den of Many Dons
In 2013, shaken by the details of the Pappu killing, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered an inquiry into the fresh outbreak of Lyari’s gang wars. Insensitive to the refinements of law, the gang war quickly entered into its next phase: Baba Ladla, a strongman within the Rehman Dacoit gang broke with the new don, Baloch, in April and declared his own satrapy in the city—causing the latest rift in the Lyari gangland to perpetuate a criminal war in which many innocent citizens get killed routinely while corrupt police officials make money blinking at mayhem. (Ladla was killed almost a year later, on May 13, 2014, by Iranian border guards near Chabahar.)
This year, the latest reconfiguration of violence has caused the Kutchis, the community once supported by Pappu, to flee to areas outside Karachi to avoid being slaughtered. These Gujarati Memons, represented in Lyari by the highly respected Memon family of Sir Abdullah Haroon, worked at the Karachi port as dock labor before being targeted “because [they resisted] extortion by the Lyari gangs with political patronage.” The Baloch community complains that the Kutchis support the MQM in its efforts of a takeover, meaning a restart of the Pappu era.
Lyari was declared one of the 18 towns of Karachi in 2001. A municipal administration has since been set up for its population of 607,922, divided into nine union councils. But who owns Lyari? The Kutchis and the Baloch lay claim to it, but, riding atop an increasingly corrupt administration, the dacoits have de facto ownership. The Kutchis had done well. Sir Abdullah went from hawking newspapers to becoming the sugar king of Pakistan; one of his sons would become chief minister of Sindh, and another the mayor of Karachi. Most of the Kutchis came to Karachi during the development of Karachi port, between 1901 and 1905.
The Baloch were equally early in their arrival in Lyari. Today, the Sindhi elite itself traces its origin in the warlike tribes of Balochistan. In the first half of the 20th century, Lyari attracted India’s mainland politicians. Muhammad Ali Jauhar addressed crowds here promoting his Khilafat Movement against the British Raj; and from the Gujarati-Ismaili community arose Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, who was enthusiastically supported by the Haroons of Lyari.
Lyari also gave rise to Baloch sub-nationalism predating similar movements in other parts of the country. It was here that one of the first Baloch nationalist organizations, the Baloch League, was founded in the 1920s by leaders including Allah Baksh Gabol. Organizations such as the Baloch Students Organization were also founded in Lyari, focusing more on education and political awareness than on agitation. It was after the alienation of the dominant Baloch dacoits from Gabol’s grandson Nabil after his election to the 2002 National Assembly that Lyari tilted into its latest crisis. Gabol’s alleged backing of the MQM-aligned Pappu gang began a new phase of Lyari politics away from the PPP. (Gabol defected from the PPP and joined the MQM the same month that Pappu was killed.)
Gayer writes: “Lyari’s first residents were Sindhi fishermen and Baloch nomads from Makran, Lasbela and Kalat districts, fleeing drought and tribal feuds. A first influx occurred around 1725, a few years before Sindhi banyas (the Hindu trading class) settled in Karachi and committed to expand it. A second wave of Baloch settlers arrived around 1770, when Karachi came under the control of the Khan of Kalat, following an accord between the Khan and the Kalhoro rulers of Sindh. A third wave of Baloch migration took place after 1795, following the annexation of the city by the Talpur rulers of Sindh, which attracted Baloch tribesmen from interior Sindh and the Seraiki belt. Finally, in the second half of the 19th century, the British occupation of Sindh and the modernization of Karachi’s port, as well as the construction of railway connections between Sindh and the Punjab, brought to Karachi a number of Baloch settlers from the Iranian part of Balochistan, most of whom settled on the banks of the Lyari River … Today, these Baloch of Iranian descent would constitute the largest share of Lyari’s Baloch population.”
Mushrooming of Meanness
The mushroom growth of Karachi after the 1947 transfer of populations between India and Pakistan disturbed the ethnic balance and catapulted some parts of the city into violence, followed by crime. From this disturbed soil grew the poisoned tree of Rehman Dacoit.
Over the years, a special relationship developed between the PPP and Lyari as the residual stronghold of the Sindhi party in a city gradually falling to the MQM. In 1987, the wedding reception of Bhutto and Zardari took place here. The following year, Bhutto was elected to the National Assembly with a big Lyari vote. Two years later, her husband followed suit from a Lyari seat.
Relations between Rehman Dacoit and Haji Lalu, to whom he was also related by marriage, had started cooling in the late 1990s after Rehman’s men kidnapped a Memon of Kharadar and Lalu asked Rehman to release him. They, in fact, split over ransom that the hostage would bring; Rehman thought Lalu would take money from the Kutchis for the release. It got so bad that Rehman split from the gang, which hurt Lalu’s position as the top dog of the area.
The war started when Arshad Pappu, Lalu’s son, kidnapped and killed a transporter named Faiz Muhammad, Uzair Jan Baloch’s father. Pappu also desecrated the grave of Rehman’s father, Dadal, with bulldozers. At this point the mixing of politics with crime came out in the open. Pappu represented the MQM and Rehman became proxy for the PPP. The war had taken 500 lives by 2008; the general death toll of the luckless city rose to 10 daily. Crime became politicized, and politics became criminalized.
In 2011, the resignation of Sindh home minister Zulfiqar Mirza made public the extent to which the PPP-MQM rivalry was feeding into the gang war of Lyari. Given to bluster—which his party boss Zardari found distasteful—Mirza even confessed that he had provided scores of gun licenses to Rehman Dacoit’s Peoples Peace Committee, which was often seen in Karachi as the killing arm of the PPP against the MQM. But Mirza waved away his own confession about the licenses by declaring that the PPP government in Sindh had actually got rid of Rehman.
The gangland of Lyari was nothing if not deeply internecine. Rehman himself was the acolyte of the big-time narcotics don, Haji Lalu, who was an understudy of Rehman’s father, the first Lyari super-don, Dadal. Rehman alienated Lalu as he grew in stature and was finally to deal with Arshad Pappu, the toughest of Lalu’s many sons. Rehman was succeeded as head of the Baloch gang by Uzair Jan Baloch, who ultimately trapped Pappu and killed him with great brutality. Some observers suspect that intra-gangland wars are encouraged by the administration to break the stranglehold of the dons over Lyari, where police raids fail with dull regularity because of noncooperation from its mistrustful inhabitants.
In 2008, Lalu, the top don who sired the crime microcosm of Lyari, was in prison with his three sons while his fourth son, Arshad, was out free. Then two out of them were killed after they kidnapped some people for ransom and were discovered by the Karachi police. It is Karachi’s routine that dangerous criminals are allowed to walk by courts because of lack of eyewitnesses. One can almost be certain that Lalu’s other sons had been let off, after which they immediately took to their earlier practices.
Graveyard of Governance
If the death toll in Karachi to crime of all variety, including religious, is 10-a-day, the daily take of robbed money is over $100 million. This maintains criminal gangs in power and finances Al Qaeda’s regional and global adventures. The big kidnappings end in the tribal areas while smalltime grabs are managed by dumping the victims in stolen cars that keep going around on Karachi’s roads until the affected families cough up the money.
On the 10th of Muharram, their community’s day of ritual mourning, the Shia of Karachi are routinely decimated in their processions. Sunni madrassahs pay the price for these massacres when “unknown” killers revenge themselves on their leaders. Insincere expressions of mystified grief cover up for the fact that most Shia-killing jihadist warriors are openly trained in these madrassahs with funds coming from the Middle East. This mayhem is compounded by the three warring political parties—the PPP, MQM and ANP—whose agreed mantra is not to name one another while allowing the police only to pronounce the killers they nab as “belonging to a political party.”
For the other deaths the city offers as burnt offerings to terrorist organizations—named after at least half a dozen dead or alive Pakhtun strongmen in the tribal areas—the police chiefs routinely blame “foreign conspiracy,” easily interpreted by the nation as America’s evil design on Pakistan. This stratagem has been invented as a cover for the incapacity of the police to enter Karachi’s almost two dozen “no-go” areas where normal governance died long ago.
The 25 key Al Qaeda- and Taliban-linked militant groups with strong signs of nexus with the Lyari gangland have Karachi by the throat. They are led by factions of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al Alami, the Qari Zafar group, the Qari Shakeel group, the Akram Lahori group and Farooq Bangali group. Then there are three factions of the Pakistani Taliban: the Commander Wali-ur-Rehman group (from South Waziristan), the Badr Mansoor group (from North Waziristan), and the Mullah Fazlullah group (from Swat). The remaining jihadist-sectarian groups in Karachi include Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan, Sunni Tehreek, Dawat-e-Islami, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen al Alami, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Jamaat-ul-Furqan, Harkat-ul-Jihad ul Islami, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, Jandullah, Tehrik-e-Islami Lashkar-e-Muhammadi, Lashkar-e-Islami, the Mehdi Militia, Hezbollah, Kharooj, Tawheed Brigade, Al Mukhtar group, the Punjabi Mujahideen. According to reports, there are 11 areas of Karachi currently under the control of these groups.
One of the “overlapping sovereignties” in Karachi mentioned by Gayer has been established by the criminal underworld. Crime has ballooned because at least one son of every lower-middle class family breaks bad after seeing what a good time he could have snatching cellphones before graduating to target-killing for money. Sons of Sindhi feudal landlords, living in bachelor apartments along with their bodyguards, often run their own gangs of extortion and trafficked girls. They are more often than not joined by the sons of the big bureaucrats and police officers with clout fattening on “reverse-bhatta,” that is, money taken from the criminals in return for exemption from “mischief of law.”
What has died actually in Karachi is governance. The city is the paradigm of what is happening gradually in other cities of Pakistan—Quetta, Peshawar, Islamabad. The death of Pappu’s brothers at the hands of the police is a sign of the decline of one don which unfurled during the gang wars. Now the rendition of Uzair Jan Baloch will probably mark another transition in the lives of the luckless people of Lyari who have learned to pin their loyalty to the next rising gangster.
From our Jan. 24-31, 2015, issue.