August Issue 2015
In Hot Water
Asif Ali Zardari’s speech on June 17 was a frontal attack on the security establishment, a warning to back off from recent moves to link corruption among political forces to the funding of terrorism and criminal activities. Predictably, it met with intense criticism from the ministers of the ruling PML-N and outrage in the media and social media.
In an attempt at damage control, PPP senior vice president Sherry Rehman and PPP secretary of information, Qamar Zaman Kaira, addressed a press conference. Rehman offered a clarification and reinterpretation of the speech, and Zardari himself took a similar plea in his address at Naudero on the commemoration of Benazir’s birthday, claiming that his remarks were aimed at former military rulers and not the present leadership.
In an apparent continuation of the policy of appeasement, Sindh Chief Minister, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, soon after announced the approval of a long-standing army request by granting 9,000 acres of forest land in Sindh, to the families of military men who had been martyred — a move that has since been criticised by environmentalists and concerned citizens.
Commentators were of the view that Zardari’s outburst was aimed at protecting personal interests rather than addressing an imbalance in civil-military relations. Indeed, the PPP has had a troubled past when it comes to its relations with the military. During their last stint at the centre, they faced severe pressure from the military on different issues such as the Kerry-Lugar Bill, the UN Commission report on Benazir Bhutto’s murder and the Memogate affair, but they opted for compromise in each case. The backtracking after Zardari’s speech, therefore, did not come as a surprise.
The argument that the PPP leadership is wary of the overarching role of the paramilitary forces in Karachi is also questionable. “They are wary of this role only if it hampers their own interests and not those of the people of Karachi who have been left at the mercy of politically-backed mafias,” says Faisal Shah, an educationist and PPP worker in Orangi Town.
Given the PPP’s lack of any serious interest in the welfare and development of Karachi, party workers find it hard to defend their position. Localities with strong PPP voting patterns were abandoned as the party chose instead to support the armed gangs of Lyari in different areas, including Lyari, Mawach Goth, Musharraf Colony, Hawkes Bay, Yousuf Goth and Dawood Goth. This was a clear sign of short-sightedness on the part of the PPP’s local leadership, who thought the gangs would support them in the elections. The strategy backfired, as the gangs first turned against local PPP workers, and then perpetrated atrocities against the Katchis and Hangooras that turned these communities against the PPP, resulting in the loss of NA-239 to the MQM, who won this constituency for the first time.
In contrast to the strong reaction by the PPP against the Rangers’ move against their own interests, the party has taken no notice of the complaints of their former coalition partner, the MQM, regarding the high-handedness of the Rangers and the extrajudicial killings of its workers over the last year-and-a half.
“Dozens of MQM workers have been picked up by the Rangers from their homes and party offices during the raids, and their bullet-riddled bodies recovered from different parts of the city,” says a member of the International Communications Department (ICD) at the MQM head office.
Muhammad Ilyas Surti, a nephew of the MQM’s former town Nazim, Hanif Surti, was picked up by the Rangers from his house in Godhra on February 8, New Karachi, and his body was found in early June in an Edhi morgue. The law enforcement agencies (LEAs) claimed that he was killed along with gangsters from Lyari, said MQM lawmaker Faisal Sabzwari.
Party sources claim that 40 MQM workers have been killed extra-judicially since January 2013 and that there has been an escalation in this practice, as 19 of the 40 were killed in the first six months of 2015 alone.
Lyari, which is known to be a PPP stronghold, was, for most part of the PPP’s last term, left at the mercy of the criminal Peoples Amn Committee (PAC). Some of the PPP’s city level officials enjoyed good terms with the PAC gangsters to the extent that even the selection of PPP candidates to participate in the 2013 elections from Lyari and adjacent areas were only finalised after consultation with the PAC.
When the operation against the warring gangs was started, PAC bigwigs left the area and residents became victims of the LEAs ferocity.
“No one within the PPP has raised the issue of implicating innocent Baloch from Lyari in false cases, accusing them of links to the gangs of Lyari and eventually killing them in staged encounters,” says Imam Baksh Baloch, an estranged PPP worker.
A Balochistan-based journalist says, “My brother and nephew were picked up from Lyari and their dead bodies were found near Lucky Mor on the Northern Bypass. They were falsely accused of having links to the PAC. The rest of my family has now shifted from Lyari to Hub Chowki.”
“For the PPP, the role of the Rangers became questionable only when they shifted focus from addressing the law and order situation to disclosing the network of financial crimes and irregularities in different departments, especially the practice of land acquisition through political influence,” a political analyst remarks.
According to this analyst, the MQM and PPP had joined hands in making money through land acquisition and sanctioning irregularities in land records in their last term. At the upper level, MQM and PPP stalwarts worked in partnership and, in some cases, have joint ownership of various construction projects. However, cordial relationships were limited to the higher levels of the leadership. In the lower ranks, this policy did not go down well and resulted in turf wars and clashes between party workers, resulting in killings of workers from both sides.
A city level official of the PPP assigns blame for the killings of PPP workers in NA-239 to MQM workers or Lyari gangsters. He says, “Almost all those workers who were our polling agents in the past elections have been eliminated during these years. The MQM at least makes a hue and cry over the killings of its workers, but the PPP has hardly raised any serious concerns.”
It was Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who first raised the issue in Karachi. In his October 18 speech at Karsaz last year, he criticised the MQM leadership and raised the issue of killings of party workers in Karachi. This was perhaps the first mention from the higher leadership of the issue of 500 plus killings of PPP party workers in political conflict during these years.
When the PPP announced that Bilawal would start his political career by contesting elections from Lyari, it was considered a welcome change. But then Bilawal disappeared from the political scene and it has now been announced that he will contest from Larkana instead.
Amidst the dysfunctional relationship between the PPP and MQM, a targeted operation in Karachi, to counter target killings, financial crimes and shut-down calls on working days, was seeing significant progress. But the operation took a different turn when the Rangers extended their role to fixing almost everything.
For instance, the Rangers went after small hotels and food stalls in the industrial areas, demolishing stalls in informal settlements after declaring them criminal dens. Thousands of such stalls were demolished in SITE, Korangi and New Karachi, which has deprived thousands of people of their livelihood and stripped labourers of access to affordable meals.
Similarly, the Rangers’ action against water hydrants created a water crisis in the suburbs. In the absence of a piped water facility in many localities, water supplies through tankers and other vehicles were the only available option. As a result of the operation and limited availability, tanker rates shot up.
It is also evident that the Rangers’ presence in the city over decades has familiarised them with ways of doing business. They have established a company to produce construction material for their own installations, as well as for the commercial market. They have also established their own licensed security company, recruiting former members of the armed forces, to provide security to business enterprises.
Civil society organisations have also raised concerns over the Rangers’ use of public buildings, college and university premises, as well as hostels, as residential facilities, when there is an allocation of millions of rupees in the budget every year for them to build their own installations.
Some people suggest that the present standoff between the Sindh Government and the Rangers, in the light of past experience, has more to do with renegotiation on different aspects of financial benefit and less with the pursuit of corrupt elements. Though some news reports have also hinted at an internal purge in the ranks of the armed forces as well, to take out elements involved in objectionable activities.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s July 2015 issue.
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order