December Issue 2003
Gangs of ‘New’ Karachi
A young boy is kidnapped by a group of his peers — his own schoolmates — and driven to a deserted part of the beach. Once out of the sight of passers-by, he is beaten so severely that when his corpse is discovered a week later, he is found to have suffered multiple fractures and a broken back. His crime: going out with a girl that one of his assailants was interested in. To compound the horror, the facts that emerge subsequently. Autopsy reports determine the youth did not die immediately: he was tortured for approximately a week, probably beaten intermittently and kicked mercilessly before he succumbed to the injuries inflicted on him. The murder was a warning other kids are not likely to take lightly.
In an elite Karachi school, a 12-year-old boy is sodomised in the boys’ bathroom by a ‘senior’ he is acquaintanced with — a 14-year-old who is also a member of one of Karachi’s elite youth gangs. No charges, however, are levelled by the victim who, shamed into silence, merely pleads ill health after the incident, only to return to school a week later and face knowing glances and innuendos from his classmates as news of the rape spreads like wildfire. The perpetrator of the rape meanwhile, remains untouched and continues to strut around school.
Even until a couple of years ago, horrific incidents like these among Karachi’s elite youth were rare, and when they did occur, incurred the wrath and shock of the whole community. Today, however, teen violence is almost common fare — like natural death or taxes — ugly though it may be. While many of us may scoff at the idea of our kids being involved in a teenage gang — “not my children — why would they resort to crime? They are not denied anything” — increasingly, large numbers of affluent youngsters are choosing to group into formations resembling American street gangs — but with a twist. While gangs from the ghetto almost exclusively comprise disenfranchised and disillusioned youths of black, Asian or redneck origin, their Pakistani counterparts are often affluent and from influential families.
Many boys have no pattern of delinquent behavior, but some are loners, and others may be obsessed with guns and firearms. And although the anti-social behavioral patterns of the privileged Pakistani youth have received little press in a nation already numbed by state and underworld aggression, instances of drug abuse and gang violence among elite kids are on the increase, often with disastrous consequences. Plenty of kids this side of the Clifton bridge are members of unruly groups glorifying brute force, and while the ‘fun’ may begin as a harmless bit of ‘boys will be boys’ machismo, it can have fatal consequences, not only for others, but for the youths involved themselves.
“Most boys in Pakistan have some sort of mental problem,” admits 20-year old Ali aka Biskit, a former leader of an elite street gang. Ali could be one of your children — he is polite, articulate and lives in a large white-washed house in Defence Phase V.
As we approach his house, Ali emerges, dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt. He is accompanied by a friend. Together we proceed to DÃ©jÃ vu. Ali is eager to tell us about his life He seems confident for a man his age, unabashed about his past, almost too self-assured, in fact. En-route, pointing to the graffiti scrawled on the sidewalks of main Zamzama Commercial Area, he explains what the cryptic letters mean. “Look at this sign on the road, ‘PSUBGS’ — those are all initials of gang leaders. These are kids from big wadera families of Sindh and Balochistan. They have their own guards and gunmen. Smokers, Next, Demons, LAPD, these are other big gangs and their top leaders are kids from ‘decent,’ affluent backgrounds. One of the gang leaders is the son of the denim king of Pakistan. But some gang members come from middle-class, conservative families.”
“What binds this disparate group of youngsters together?” we ask Ali. “Burgers (affluent children from respectable business-class families) won’t fight each other even if there has been some provocation, for fear of wrecking their reputation in their own circle of friends, and also, because they are too afraid to fight on their own. So they join gangs,” he says. The wadera youth gangs, for their part, want to make inroads with the burgers — to be known and feared by them. “They want to be invited to parties, and enjoy the same pseudo-western lifestyle that the burgers enjoy,” he says.
With the mushrooming of western and Indian cable channels, churning out more sex, drugs and violence than ever before, it was only a matter of time before youngsters, especially those with more cash than dash, were sucked into a culture they do not really understand, primarily because of the glamour factor. Ali points to the loudspeakers at the restaurant blasting out an Eminem track. “Listen to the words,” he says. What are Tupac’s songs all about, if not sex, drugs, alcohol and addiction. And nasha (addiction), he continues, matter of factly, “is really the nucleus of the groups.” His friend adds, “All gang members usually have some form of addiction. In Pakistan this addiction is mostly drugs and alcohol. And those who are smart enough to abstain from these, have another kind of addiction — sex.” Ali interjects, “It is not easy for a kid with a reputation for being a trouble-maker to land a girlfriend. This necessitates the services of prostitutes, which requires contact with pimps. This is why people join gangs. Gang leaders are usually on good terms with dealers that cater to all these addictions; they may even provide these services and pleasures to their friends and gang members for free.” Interestingly, many drug dealers come from respectable, middle class backgrounds — not exactly society’s victims or individuals with any criminal affiliations.
Are gangs all-male affairs? Says Ali, “Girls in gangs are essentially there because of their boyfriends who are gang members.”
We had met some of these girls. Many come from troubled homes. One of them had told us she was her parents’ so-called ‘love child’ — conceived while her parents were separated. After attempting a reconciliation for a few years, they divorced. “My mother is liberal and lets me go out till 3 a.m. in the morning,” said Ameena. She spoke about her boyfriend — the leader of a gang — and her perception of gang life. “The kids in a gang have an almost symbiotic relationship with each other. They may come from different backgrounds, but the mailas (conservatives), and the burger kids, use each other to get what they want. A lot of the times it’s just about proving how macho they are — fights are pretty much just an extension of power and domain. It’s all rather stupid if you think about it. Thankfully, my boyfriend has given it up now, I think because of me. I believe he has realised that challenging rival groups to fight is a stupid way to pass the time,” Ameena told us.
But there are hundreds of others still attracted to the ‘gang scene.’ And increasingly, it has acquired a far more chilling dimension. “While fights used to take place on a small-scale and drug use was limited a few years ago, the difference now is that everything is taken to the extreme,” says Ali. “There is a lot of drinking. It is becoming more and more acceptable for kids to drink. Drugs are going designer, and are very accessible. Weapons are becoming much more sophisticated. Kids used to fight with sticks and bats, now they have KKs and TTs.”
And while Karachi is no stranger to student violence — be it from tanzeemi groups or student groups of the big political parties — elite youth gangs differ in their modus operandi: student groups fights are usually confined to campuses, but the city’s numerous roads and alleys belong to gangs. Gang ‘hangouts’ include the G-spot in Darakhshan market, close to Greenwich Institute, as well as Boat Basin in Clifton. These youngsters, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, sporting distinctive bandanas, knee pads on for protection and wielding knuckle-dusters and other more lethal weapons, driving the latest model most sooped-up cars with Tupac or Eminem tracks blasting from surround speakers, are easy to spot. Says Ali, “It’s basically all about competition — whose car is more sooped-up, who is the most fearless. Each gang wants to rule the streets. If a fight takes place, gang members want their peers to know who is the most powerful.”
The levels of violence youth gangs are willing to resort to, vary. Take for instance, the gang which rules one of Defence Society’s commercial areas. “The gang leader belongs to rural Punjab and comes from a clan of fighters,” says Ali. “His boys take on fights with everyone — and it doesn’t matter if they’re old men or women. While some of them fight as a show of strength, and others to help their friends out of a situation, some do it just for fun. In the process, sometimes kids get stabbed. Some have their heads bashed in.” And most of the time the perpetrators get away with it.
Ali relates a chilling story. “Recently a judge and his son were beaten up by gang members. The judge filed an FIR against them. The gang members in turn fired upon their own car in Boat Basin and threw the pistol into the judge’s car. They then filed an FIR against the judge, forcing him to withdraw his FIR.” He also recounts the story of the recent kidnapping by a gang of a young man who was lured to the spot he was picked up at by a girl he met on the internet who had made an assignation with him. As it turns out, she was the gang leader’s girlfriend.
Given that connections, influence and a corrupt system result in few trouble-makers ever being brought to book, parental involvement and punishment are lacking, and peer pressure is immense, it is not difficult to understand why so many youths are going the gang way. “These are not bad kids,” says a psychologist at the Aga Khan University. “They could be your kids. They are intelligent, precocious, even articulate. A lot of them just want to vent misplaced anger.”
Ali, however, seems acutely aware of the trouble venting this anger could get one into. “If you take drugs you cannot study or work,” he says, and cites the case of two of his friends. “They were from middle class backgrounds, but they became failures because they got hooked on drugs. In the end, unable to get decent jobs, they became dope dealers.”
Today Ali is drugs-free and enrolled in a local college. Just as we start to think this is one story with a happy ending, a waiter laden with food and drink appears at our table. “Compliments of the manager,” he says. “The first time this happened to me I was embarrassed, especially since the manager couldn’t stop telling me how honoured he was to meet me,” says Ali with a sheepish grin. And judging by the respect he is afforded, it won’t be easy for Ali to leave his past behind.