Nearly 3,000 armed police personnel in bulletproof vests, armoured personnel carriers moving through rock-strewn streets, dozens of ordinary citizens dead or injured, hundreds of families displaced — these are the images and headlines that resulted from the week-long siege-and-search operation against alleged gangsters in the restive Lyari neighbourhood a few weeks ago.
The operation, that began on April 27 and ended on May 4, primarily aimed at clearing Lyari of strongmen who lead hundreds of well-trained and well-armed fighters and owe allegiance to the Peoples Aman Committee (PAC), which has changed many tacks over the last one year — from being an affiliated organisation of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), to an outlawed band of criminals and gangsters, to a political challenge to thePPP’s electoral dominance in Lyari. But the operation achieved none of its intended objectives: not a single gangster was hurt, killed or arrested — the police could not even enter their strongholds. Five policemen lost their lives to firing from the other side.
During the seven-day operation, the police mostly remained confined to Cheel Chowk, Faqir Eisa Khan Road and Gabol Park areas, facing strong resistance from well-positioned and well-armed supporters of the PAC. Every time they tried to step out of their armoured personnel carriers to capture pickets manned by gunmen, the police had to beat a hasty retreat due to heavy gunfire. When Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced that the government was temporarily “suspending” the operation on “humanitarian grounds”, it was effectively an admission of failure. The botched up operation exposed the police’s monumental inability in maintaining law and order, inKarachiin general and in Lyari in particular.
The announcement to suspend the operation was also the admission of another failure – that the government no longer has the ability to wrest the control of Lyari from the PAC and its many strongmen. Malik ended up issuing a 72-hour ultimatum to the “criminals” to surrender — a deadline that came and went without any action.
Could it have been different if the paramilitary Sindh Rangers had taken part in the operation along with the police? Perhaps. Since, Malik has requested Uzair Jan Baloch, the PAC chief, to surrender to the Rangers if he did not trust the police. It is highly puzzling, why the Rangers did not take part in this operation in the first place. After all, they are positioned inKarachito maintain law and order, so why did they balk at performing their duties in one of the most troubled areas of the city?
“The Rangers avoided joining the operation because they were skeptical about its motives,” says a police officer, not wanting to be named. “They considered the operation a move to replace one group of gangsters with another,” he adds. This sounds like the most plausible explanation for the absence of the Rangers from the operation as other sources within both the police and the PPP confirm that gangsters belonging to the Arshad Pappu group were active participants in the operation. The group was banished from Lyari when the PAC took control of the area in 2008 after uniting many criminal gangs operating in the neighbourhood under its command. Since then Arshad Pappu has been trying to make a comeback, sometimes with the alleged backing of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).
Another possible reason could be that the Army, which commands and controls the Rangers, does not want to antagonise the Baloch-dominated PAC. Some sources say that the PAC being a pro-Pakistan group works as a guarantee that Baloch separatists do not find a foothold in Lyari. The participation of the Rangers in the operation could have changed that, providing the separatists with an opportunity to enlist the support of Uzair Baloch and his associates for the cause of an independent Balochistan. “We would like to believe that the Army is sympathetic towards us [since] we have never supported any separatist groups in Balochistan,” says Zafar Baloch, a PAC associate, when the Herald asked him why the Rangers stayed away from Lyari. The Herald made repeated attempts to contact the Rangers to get their side of the story but they declined to respond.
Sources in the police say another major reason why the operation failed was because senior police officers and even the Sindh government were kept in the dark about its objectives and tactics until the last few hours. “President [Asif Ali] Zardari wanted an across-the-board operation to end extortion and lawlessness caused by miscreants belonging to different parties or groups in Karachi,” says a PPP source. The president also wanted the police and the Rangers to do such an operation together, he adds. Background interviews with police officials, government functionaries and members of thePPP, however, reveal that Owais Muzaffar, a family friend of President Zardari, took over the planning and the execution of the operation, deciding to begin from Lyari.
“A day before the operation was launched, Sindh’s Inspector General Police Mushtaq Shah was called to the Chief Minister House where Muzaffar informed him that an operation was to be launched in Lyari early next morning for which he required 1,000 police personnel,” claims a source privy to the meeting. Muzaffar was confident that the police would take over the PAC-controlled areas in four hours, the source adds. He is also known to have convinced Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah to appoint Aslam Khan, alias Chaudhry Aslam, a senior superintendent of police working withKarachi’s Crime Investigation Department and known for employing extrajudicial methods to tackle criminals and terrorists in the city. The combined effect of all this was that both, the Sindh government and police acknowledged the operation only after it was well underway.
Why would Muzaffar target only Lyari? Herald investigations reveal that he was very upset with the way Uzair Baloch was strengthening his personal credentials as the leader of Lyari. On March 2, Uzair Baloch organised Baloch Cultural Day at Lyari’s Dubai Chowk where other main participants included former Sindh home minister Dr Zulfiqar Mirza and former Sindh Chief Minister Syed Ghaus Ali Shah who is also a senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN). Instead of PPP flags or Benazir Bhutto’s portraits decking the venue, Uzair Baloch’s own portraits were ubiquitous at the event. “Muzaffar, who also attended the event, was irked by Ghaus Ali Shah’s participation,” says Habib Jan Baloch, a close aide to Uzair Baloch and the convener of the Friends of Lyari, a newly set-up group of people who until recently were active members of the PPP. An annoyed Muzaffar feared that Uzair Baloch and his team could join the PMLN, says Habib Jan Baloch.
Another factor which, according to him, fueled tensions between the PPP and the PAC was the latter’s exhortation to the people of Lyari to boycott the death anniversary of thePPPfounder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Larkana on April 4. APPPleader concedes that the presence of Lyariites at the death anniversary was relatively thin this year but he blames it on the PAC’s strong-arms tactics. “Uzair Baloch and his accomplices forced Lyariites not to participate in the anniversary; they also threatened transporters of the area with dire consequences if they provided vehicles toPPPworkers for traveling to Larkana,” a PPP source. Zafar Baloch of the PAC admits that his organisation asked people to stay away from the anniversary to protest against “PPP’s wrong policies towards Lyari”. But, he adds that they did not force anyone.
Together the two incidents reportedly convinced Muzaffar to “take action against me, Uzair and Zafar”, says Habib Jan Baloch, talking to the Herald from the UK where he has been living there since leaving Karachi in the wake of the police operation in Lyari.
But Taj Haider, a seniorPPPleader, says,”it is a wrong perception that Muzaffar masterminded or initiated the operation … The operation was carried out following the directive of the federal government,” he says. “Gang wars in Lyari have been going on for so long and the area has been facing such a law and order problem that the authorities decided to launch the operation,” he explains. “Such a major operation cannot be launched on the will or orders of one individual.”
Leaders of the PAC also claim that they held 12 meetings with Muzaffar, in February this year, at Bilawal House – President Zardari’s family house inKarachi– and the Chief Minister House to address their “demands”. “Our demands included the provision of 10,000 jobs to Lyariites, appointment to party offices from district to ward levels in [Karachi’s] District South and the nomination of candidates for upcoming elections from Lyari through consultation with the Lyari Elders’ Committee,” says Zafar Baloch. “But these demands were rejected.”
The Lyari Elders’ Committee, recently formed by Uzair Baloch, comprises 30 senior residents of Lyari who represent prominent families, clans and communities living in the neighbourhood. To the members and the leaders of the PPP, this strongly suggests that the committee is being used to promote the electoral ambitions of its founder. This is one of the many reasons why the party wants action taken against Uzair Baloch and affiliates of thePAC.
The party fears losing the support of non-Baloch residents of Lyari, especially the Kachhi community which mostly votes for the PPP but, over the last few years, has suffered many excesses at the hands of the PAC associates who are also known to be involved in criminal activities including murders, kidnappings, extortion of money, gambling operations and drug-peddling in Lyari. The PPP leaders feel that the party’s proximity with the PAC was causing resentment among people of the neighbourhood.
This explains why Karim Shah, a leader of the Kachhi Rabita Committee, a Kachhi community organisation, endorses the police operation. He also believes that the PPP will face no problem in the upcoming election even if PAC does not support it. “The Baloch in Lyari are 30-35 per cent and even they are not all supporters of Uzair Baloch. So the action against him will not harm thePPPin the elections,” he says. In 2002, Uzair Baloch, in fact, lost the local government election to aPPP-supported candidate even when he had the backing of Jamaat-e-Islami, says a PPP leader from Lyari.
Even though a senior PPP activist from Lyari claims that Uzair Baloch’s supporters are only the families of hundreds of criminals who seek his protection, he concedes that the PAC has the ability to capture polling stations in Lyari in the favour of its own candidates or it can force people to stay away from the polling, especially in Baloch-dominated areas of the locality (see Lyari map on page 40). “If the gangsters of Lyari, who are united under Uzair’s leadership, take over the polling stations then PPP workers will not be able to counter them,” he tells the Herald, asking to remain anonymous for security reasons.
All this puts the PPP in a quandary: if it does not act against Uzair Baloch and his associates, its non-PAC voters will become unhappy; but if it continues to act against the PAC and its affiliates through ill-advised and ill-planned security operations, it risks strengthening Uzair Baloch and his supporters even further — either way risking its electoral prospects.