Editorial: Lessons From Lyari

The eight-day long police operation in Baloch-populated Lyari district in Karachi has created enormous problems for ordinary citizens of the under-privileged  locality. While the operation has been temporarily halted in the wake of a 72-hour ultimatum given by Interior Minister Rehman Malik to the People’s Aman (Peace) Committee (PPC), tensions are certain to engulf Lyari in the future. The operation has very ambiguous and undefined motives. The government justifies its action by claiming to be cracking down against “criminal elements”.

Who are the criminals operating in Lyari? The Interior Minister has provided a list of strange and unlikely bedfellows who have allegedly constituted their bases in the area. According to the government version, Lyari has become the hub of activities of ‘gangsters’, Taliban as well as Baloch nationalists. Yet, the government has not been able to achieve a breakthrough in all these eight days. No high-profile gangster or Taliban leader has been killed or arrested in this operation.

However, media reports indicate that the civilian population has enormously suffered because of what seems to be a politically-driven operation by the Pakistan People’s Party which is currently astonished over its almost absolute demise in what used to be one of  its most popular electoral constituencies.

There is no justification for the government to kill civilians in Lyari or deprive them of all amenities of everyday life by conducting an operation. Even if the government claims that Lyari has become the hub of gangs and drug traffickers are true, we would still stress the need to listen to what the other side has to say. The people of Lyari have to be heard. The PPP is in fact not worried about the presence of gangsters in Lyari because they were actually formed and pampered by itself in an effort to counter its political rival, the Muthida Quomi Movement (MQM), a Karachi-based Mohajir-ethnic party notorious for mixing violence with politics.

What worries the PPP the most is the public demand for truth and accountability. PPP’s voters in Liyari now ask what their party has done for them after coming into power by the virtue of their votes. Lyari is the most underdeveloped section of Karachi city. It reflects the opposite side of Karachi’s larger image of  a city of hope and economic opportunities. The youth in Lyari is unemployed, uneducated and sick. The government has done little to develop the infrastructure there to improve people’s living conditions and give the Balochs a sense of ownership and participation.

Only time will tell how accurate the assessment of Sindh Minister Rafiq Engineer is who reportedly suggested to  a fellow minister that the people of Lyari would “forget everything” if they were paid Rs. 10,000, conditioning reconciliation with economic incentives.  The situation has crossed a point where mere distribution of money could reverse the public uprising in Lyari. While the PPP’s growing unpopularity in Lyari is noteworthy, it is equally fascinating to speculate who will emerge as a replacement to the PPP in Liyari.  Uzair Baloch, head of the PAC, has promised to contest elections against PPP’s co-chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of President Asif Ali Zardari. This is an extraordinary decision considering the fact that Mr. Baloch is too popular among the youth of his town while the PPP government views him as the ‘most wanted’ of Lyari.

Baloch nationalism has significantly risen in Lyari in the recent times owing to its proximity to Mekran region in Balochistan. This rise has, nonetheless, not been very politically organized. In a city like Karachi where ethnic politics is more deep-rooted than any other place in Pakistan, the Balochs, unlike the Mohajirs, Sindhis and the Pashtuns, have not formed an ethnic party of their own. The Balochs are the only major indigenous ethnic people in Karachi who did not play the ethnicity card in the city’s politics. Since its inception, the PPP has manipulated the Baloch vote in Karachi without ever reasonably paying back to its voters with quality education, clean drinking water and improved health facilities.

Silence has always remained the only answer whenever one asks why the Balochs did not succeed in creating their own party in Karachi. There has not been much debate about it for long but it is probably the time to get more serious about it. Ethnicity is not always the best use of politics but it remains critical and inevitable in a place like Karachi.

Historically, Lyari has served as the necessary of Baloch politics, culture and literature. Even today, biggest Balochi music and film production houses are located in Liyari. Some of the first Balochi language newspapers and magazines, such as Monthly Sugaat, were launched from Karachi. What has unfortunately not worked well in Karachi is Baloch politics. Based in and confined to Balochistan, most nationalist political parties, such as the Balochistan National Party, the Baloch Republican Party, Baloch National Movement and the National Party, did not make serious efforts to represent the Balochs living in Karachi. The people of Karachi, on the other hand, have persistently stood with their counterparts in Balochistan, who have faced a military operation and extraordinary human rights abuses from successive Pakistani governments, through protest rallies and all forms of peaceful protest.

The lesson from Lyari is clear: The Balochs have to stand up for their rights and identity. In the long term, democratic Baloch parties, not armed gangs, must emerge  to represent the people of Liyari. It is for the people of the area to decide whether they would welcome the Balochistan-based political parties inside Liyari or they create a new democratic front to guard their own interest. This is indeed the time for some important decisions in Liqyari’s politics.

Published in The Baloch Hal on May 6, 2012