Crime, poverty, Baloch nationalism and politics in Karachi

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The Karachi slum of Lyari was exultant after the 2008 election that toppled military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Populated largely by migrants from the state of Balochistan, where a separatist rebellion has been going on for decades, it is notorious for its poverty and gangsterism, which has also seeped into the cities politics. On a brief visit I met some interesting individuals, whose political activism could have been linked to other interests.

containers, port de Karachi, fév 08
Containers in the port of Karachi Photo: Tony Cross

Karachi, 19.02.2008

Lyari is a traffic-choked slum near Karachi’s port. Piles of rubbish fester underfoot and flies settle on anything that doesn’t move. Blocked drains spill sewage into the street, leaving puddles of filth which will become breeding-grounds for disease-bearing mosquitoes.

But many people in Lyari are exultant today. Unofficial results show a humiliation for President Pervez Musharraf and his allies. The politicians have rushed to Islamabad, as the People’s Party tries to form a government.

The PPP has come out in front, although some of the sympathy generated by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination seems to have evaporated in the polling booths. The party doesn’t seem to have lived up to the most optimistic predictions, while Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N is believed to have done a bit better than expected, mostly in Punjab where it rules the roost again.

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Boys sells offal to feed the birds on a bridge overlooking Karachi’s port Photo: Tony Cross

 

Karachi is in the PPP’s strongest province, Sindh. But the giant city’s politics are complicated by the existence of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the MQM, whose vote-base is the mohajirs, Urdu-speaking immigrants who fled India at the time of partition.

There have been many other groups of immigrants since then, both from other Asian countries and from Pakistan’s poorer provinces.

Listen to my report from Karachi in 2008 for RFI

The biggest group in Lyari is from Balochistan province. In an empty shell of a building, which should probably be a shop, I meet Khuda Baksh and Mahmoud Yacub.

They’re Baloches and they worked for the PPP. Baksh is clearly somebody around here. He’s tall, walks with a swagger, wears flashy wrap-around sunglasses along with more traditional Pakistani clothes and speaks passable English.

I don’t know whether he unduly influenced voters but he certainly tries to influence my interviewees. After agreeing to translate, he leans over and whispers to them, apparently anxious that they may fail to mention to his party favourably.

He doesn’t have to put words in the mouth of Air Bibi, who lives up to the reputation of Baloch women for forthright assertiveness. Without waiting to be asked, she explodes into praise of Benazir –“Benazir is in our hearts! Benazir is our star! Benazir is our daughter!” and condemnation of Musharraf “He will be out, insha’allah!”, punctuated with “aah! aah!”, “upurroopurroopurra!” and finger-clicking.

Air Bibi finishes with a declaration of Baloch pride. Further down the street, Zahid, one of a group of young men who gather around me, mixes Baloch nationalism with resentment of the poverty around him.

“Look at this area! We are not having each and everything, especially Baloch nation. And also Punjabis are providing each and everything by the government.”

He gestures to the grimy buildings. “See our areas? Nothing has been providing our nation. We are jobless and everything. If PPP governs, it gives each and everything to Baloch nation.”

Baksh and Yacub are clearly annoyed that the MQM, which allied itself to the PML-Q in Sindh and at a national level, seems to have resisted the anti-Musharraf wave in this election and won about 20 seats.

In one of those they-say-we cheated-we say-they-cheated declarations, Baksh claims to have been swindled out of votes in his ballywick.

Karachi is a violent place and in this election the city was up to its previous bloody form. Party workers have passed from polemic to shoot-out on several occasions. Five activists have been killed, the latest being a PPP member killed in a gunfight with MQM supporters on Friday.

le port de Karachi, fév 08
A young couple enjoy the late afternoon Photo: Tony Cross

The PPP accuses the MQM of vote-rigging and kidnapping some of its workers. The MQM accuses the PPP of using “the mafia” to improve its chances of electoral success.

Elsewhere in the city, Karachi residents amuse themselves. On the bridge by the port, crowds buy lumps of lung from ragged boys and throw them to scavenger birds. The birds swoop and catch them in their claws, never letting a single morsel fall into the water below.

Karachi, la plage Seaview, fév 08
Camel ride on Seaview Beach Photo: Tony Cross

On Seaview beach no-one swims. Here boys sell ice-cream and corn-on-the-cob and offer to take your photo. Families mount on camels and young men ride beautiful white and brown horses across the dark mud as night falls.

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Sunset approaches on Seaview Beach Photo: Tony Cross

Read and listen to my reports for RFI from Pakistan in 2007-08 here

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