February issue 2010
Beyond the Grave
From gangsters to peace activists, the transformation of Sardar Abdul Rehman Baloch alias Dakait and his band of “merry men” is a story fit for a folk tale. And like most protagonists of an action-packed tragedy, Rehman died young. A controversial police encounter in August 2009 ended Rehman’s ambitions of taking a plunge into electoral politics. But in Lyari — a PPP stronghold in Karachi — his name and legacy seem to have survived, at least for the time being.
The Peoples Amn Committee, which Rehman founded in June 2008 following a truce with his rival, Arshad Pappu, helped end the protracted Lyari gang war, which claimed more than 300 lives during the last couple of years of the former PML-Q-led government in Sindh. But after the February 2008 general elections, the formation of the PPP-led governments both at the centre and Sindh province enabled Rehman and his men to try to change their image. And they really worked hard for this transformation.
The peace committee took off with a bang. Not just Rehman’s gang members, but many disgruntled PPP activists and jobless youngsters flocked under its banner. The committee took upon itself the task of serving the people and doing social work.
Encroachments in the Gabol Park were demolished and its status as a football ground was restored. A small medical centre was established; several places, including some key educational institutions were cleaned and given a face-lift. People were encouraged to donate to local seminaries and educational institutions. In these donations, Rehman himself took the lead.
The peace committee members claim that Rehman even donated some of his family property for the use of the people of the area. From the dreaded Rehman Dakait, who eluded the police for years, he earned himself the honour of being called Sardar Abdul Rehman Baloch in no time. Some key PPP leaders and elected representatives acknowledged Rehman’s street and muscle power and started to give him due respect.
“Yes, he was controversial. People dreaded him, but he seemed to be a rising star of Lyari,” says a local PPP leader, requesting anonymity. “He was both a helping hand for the party [PPP] as well as a challenge. Owning him was a problem as was disowning him. Even during the last elections, his support proved a blessing for the PPP candidates in Lyari.”
However, the biggest achievement of Rehman and his men, according to his admirers, was their success in beating crime in Lyari.
“Unlike other parts of Karachi, you won’t find any mobile phone snatching incident in Lyari or any other street crime,” says Zafar Baloch, a member of the peace committee. “We even managed to ban the sale of heroin and other lethal drugs.”
An old resident of Lyari, who is a member of the PPP, says that street crime — including phone snatching — almost stopped. “As far as drugs are concerned, they are still available, but no longer openly. It is being done in a very discreet manner, which is a big change,” he says.
The committee even proved successful in implementing a ban on aerial firing at weddings, which claims several lives each year. Violators of this ban are slapped with a fine of Rs 200,000 and committee members ensure that it is paid.
The job of fighting crime has become one more bone of contention between the committee and the police, who once enjoyed monetary gains for protecting and abating crime, claim the committee members.
However, for human rights activists like Iqbal Haider, a former PPP leader, some criminals do humanitarian work to win acceptance and support. “It is basically a cover-up. It should not change the reality that they break the law and resort to heinous crimes.”
Waseem Ahmed, CCPO Karachi, says that the killing of Rehman, who carried head money of five million rupees, along with his three accomplices, was a major achievement and underlines the resolve of the police to fight crime. “He was wanted in around 80 criminal cases including murder and kidnappings for ransom.”
However, notwithstanding the police version, thousands of people attended Rehman’s funeral, giving him a hero’s farewell. In the ensuing violence, at least two people were killed and several wounded. Rehman left behind three wives, 15 children and scores of relatives, personal friends and followers.
Thirty-year-old Uzair Ali Baloch, who now heads the Peoples Amn Committee and is also a first cousin of Rehman, alleges that the cases against Rehman were all cooked up. “He did not commit a single robbery or kidnapping. More than a decade ago one of his cousins was murdered. He took his revenge in line with the tribal tradition and that was all. But the police framed him in dozens of cases,” he tells Newsline.
“They [the police] have even framed 19 cases against me,” says Uzair, while holding court in a lawn owned by Rehman’s family in Lyari.
The beautifully landscaped lush-green lawn — also used for weddings — gives an impression that one is in some affluent area of the city. The labyrinth of dusty, narrow, polluted streets does not give a clue that they can also lead to such a well-maintained place.
Uzair says the police first arrested Rehman in 1996, but he managed to escape from the court. And since then, the hide-and-seek with the police continued — till the fateful day when, at least according to many of his followers, he was assassinated by police in cold blood after the arrest. Police, however, deny the charge.
Rehman’s bloody enmity with the Arshad Pappu gang started when the latter kidnapped and killed one of Rehman’s uncles — Uzair’s father. Politicians — especially under the previous government — played off one gang against the other to make a breach in the PPP stronghold, residents of the area allege.
“We have been PPP supporters all along, the Pappu group was backed by the MQM,” says Uzair. Pappu is now in jail. “When the PPP government came…we all were happy. But its representatives here have disappointed us. They did nothing for the people. They were always found wanting. That’s why the committee started its work.”
“These representatives were found missing even when Rangers clamped down in the area, entered houses and misbehaved with women. This crackdown stopped only when we protested and came out on the streets,” Uzair adds.
“There was a time when PPP could pit a donkey from Lyari and he would win the elections. But now we don’t need donkeys…we need lions to represent the people of Lyari,” he says.
In an attempt to regain its popularity, the PPP has announced a development package for Lyari that includes setting up a medical college and a university in the area.But local residents dispute the plan.
Habib Hasan, a former union council nazim, says in a neighbourhood where the drop-out rate from primary schools is around 70%, it is wrong to open a university and medical college especially when the existing Lyari Degree College and the local hospital are just being given a face-lift.
“They should have concentrated on the basics, including school, employment opportunities, water and sanitation…but they don’t know what the people of Lyari want,” says Hasan.
Aslam Baloch, a resident of the area, says Lyari’s population is booming. “While the city is expanding horizontally, in Lyari we expand vertically — by constructing more floors on our small houses, which multiply our problems — from air pollution to a dearth of clean water to the worsening of sewerage and sanitation facilities — you can keep on counting,” he says.
But the most pressing issue for the Amn committee members perhaps remains its rivalry with the MQM, which is sitting on the outer fringes of the PPP stronghold. The popular talk in Lyari remains that the MQM wants to expand its tentacles — a charge MQM leaders deny.
Dozens of supporters belonging both to the MQM and the peace committee have been killed in recent months in tit-for-tat killings, which were halted in the second week of January after President Asif Ali Zardari himself intervened.
But the basis of the truce remains fragile and violence can explode again as there has been little change in the ground realities — from the dispute over the amenity land of Gutter Baghicha to that of re-demarcation of constituencies. Yes, it all boils down to the fact that there is a tussle for power — a turf war. And in this war, like any other, there are no rules of the game — especially when the rule of law has given way to the rule of armed bands, peace committees and militants of rival political parties. The writ of the state has receded and the vacuum is filled by the local tough guys. Welcome to the brave old world of Lyari.
Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.