Lyari has become a byword in Karachi, and the rest of the country, for places to avoid. The carnage that shook the area on Wednesday exemplified this sentiment. More than 55 people were injured and 16 were killed when rival gangs began armed clashes using heavy weaponry, including Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). School children and women were shot dead on the streets. The police arrived belatedly and were ineffectual. Protests by Lyari residents began yesterday outside the Karachi Press Club, with many holding keys to their locked houses in their hands saying they won’t go home until the Sindh government brings some semblance of law and order to the area. The battle between loyalists of the Baba Ladla and Uzair Baloch gangs was the city’s single bloodiest incident of gang violence in recent years.
Lyari is Karachi’s most populous locality and was for many years a stronghold of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). However, the Muttahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) scored a political coup when they wooed Lyari’s longstanding representative and populist powerbroker, Nabil Gabol, to their ranks from the PPP. Gabol is an ethnic Baloch like most of Lyari’s residents. His defection just before the 2013 elections meant that simmering tensions between rival factions in Lyari were bound to collapse into violence sooner or later, especially since Lyari is home to rival gangs that enjoy the collusion of the police and government officials. Some politicians allegedly struck deals with gang leaders to keep the area free of the influence of other parties. However, when the MQM and PPP became coalition partners in 2008, they worried about the power of the Lyari gangs. Subsequently, former interior minister Rehman Malik launched an ill-fated police operation to push out the gangs in 2012, only to find they could not be pushed out and instead sent the police scurrying home with their tails between their legs. What details news reporters or others may know about Lyari’s gangs remains mostly unpublished since the penalty for revelation is usually painful. What is clear is that Lyari has become a victim of collusion between political militias, gangs, and other armed groups, which blurs the distinction between government and criminals.
In many ways Lyari is symbolic of Pakistan as a whole. What used to be a vibrant community, known for its footballers and culture, has become a bloodstained, run-down locality, held hostage by unscrupulous killers. For those on the outside looking in, the situation appears irretrievable. However, that is largely because the shifting epicentres of power in Lyari are not public knowledge. Lyari and its residents are hostages of a genuine underground, that operates with secrecy and impunity, but that was cultivated by political parties in order to manage electoral support. Which gang allegedly does what for whom is a matter of detail that clouds the real issue, which is that maintaining electoral strongholds at the point of a gun has become the norm for Karachi and that parties with armed militias at their disposal are responsible for the city’s downward spiral. This is democracy undermined at a fundamental level. It is an indictment of the city’s political class, when innocent children are shot in the street by gangs who have political links and are consequently above the law. Target killings were the first part of the turf war that engulfed the city, but outright street battles are going to become its future. Above it all is the spectre of terrorism, since the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) reportedly has a network of terrorists spread through the city’s Pashtun areas, waiting for the other parties to knock each other unconscious before they step in with their unique style of homicide. Maintaining armed cohorts is an unfortunate part of Karachi’s political landscape now. However, direct collusion with and cultivation of criminal organisations is another matter. The Sindh government and the MQM must investigate and purge any political links to organised crime, so that even if they have to pay for peace in cash, the residents of Karachi won’t be forced to pay for it in blood too. *