On October 18, 2007, two bombs exploded in Karachi, targeting Benazir Bhutto and millions of her supporters on the eve of her return to Pakistan after a nine-year exile. Minutes after the explosion, Benazir was spirited away in a white car that sped to her residence in Clifton.
According to eyewitnesses, there was another passenger in that car that night: Rehman Dakait, one of Karachi’s most notorious criminals and Lyari’s most infamous son.
Lyari, running alongside a tide of sewage, is one of Karachi’s least developed areas and home to over six million people, the vast majority of whom are unemployed and uneducated. Home to multiple ethnic groups, including the Sheedis, whose lineage can be traced back to African slaves, the locality has been the birthplace of numerous boxers and footballers.
Sardar Abdul Rehman Baloch was born there in 1980, the son of a resourceful drug-smuggler, and a mother who would learn to rue the day. Baloch’s transgressions began early, when he showed an aptitude for peddling drugs. He is claimed to have stabbed a man at the age of 13.
In 1995, Rehman murdered his mother Khadija Bibi.
Rumours and theories about his motives for matricide abound, it is most commonly speculated that Khadija Bibi had links to a rival gang member which led her enraged son to kill her. As the charge sheet against him grew, a new identity was created, Sardar Abdul Rehman Baloch became Rehman Dakait and a legend of sorts was thus born.
Eventually making the transition from member of Haji Laloo’s gang to its chief after Laloo’s arrest in 2001, Rehman was involved in extortion, kidnapping, drug smuggling, the sale of illegal arms and more. For nearly a decade, gang war left life paralysed in Lyari as Rehman and his gang battled it out with rival Arshad Pappu and his acolytes.
But the rise and rise of Rehman Dakait’s sphere of influence cannot be credited to his gumption alone. According to a Pakistan People’s Party insider who did not want to be named, political patronage of the Rehman Dakait family has been going on since the 1960s, and continues to this day: “During General Ayub Khan’s rule, there was a trend of doing politics with gangsters by your side. A member of a prominent family used to support Dadal and Sheru, Rehman’s father and uncle.” The family owns a newspaper and various industries in Pakistan.
The answer to why Rehman’s family flourished and became close allies with politicians lies in the years of bad governance that followed shortly after Pakistan gained independence. After the death of founding fathers Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan in the first few years after Pakistan’s birth, the military and bureaucracy ruled over Pakistan for nearly two decades. Politicians were nowhere to be seen in the public arena. Instead, rulers relied on a workforce of the bureaucracy, army, police and the civil administration to consolidate their power base, with one hidden ace up their sleeves: their support for criminal elements.
But the status quo seemed to change when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto emerged as a leader of the people in 1967. When he founded the Pakistan People’s Party, Lyari, like most of the country, fell under Bhutto’s spell. His agenda of power to the people and promise of food, clothing and shelter resonated with an impoverished society. Since then, Lyari has remained a PPP stronghold, and has almost always elected a PPP leader in the general elections. Benazir Bhutto, who was born in a hospital in Lyari, had her wedding reception there in 1987 and Asif Zardari was elected as a member of parliament from Lyari.
Despite this show of solidarity, the PPP has ignored the area’s urgent need for employment opportunities and civic infrastructure and also turned a blind eye to crime. According to a PPP insider, criminal elements in Lyari were scared of local political personalities in the area in the 70s. But eventually the criminals became more dominant.
A Baloch himself, Rehman had allegedly been involved in selling arms to the Balochistan Liberation Army, the rebel group accused by the government of being involved in terrorist activities in Balochistan. SP Aslam Khan denies any knowledge of this, as does CCPO Waseem Ahmed. “We have never received any such investigation about Rehman supplying arms to the BLA,” insists Ahmed.
In the years that Rehman battled Arshad Pappu for the rule of Lyari, he was twice arrested by the police, yet managed to escape from custody on both occasions. Following his arrest in 2006, Rehman had confessed to enjoying the support of police officers. Lyari residents had complained that the police was not taking sufficient action against criminal elements in the area and turned a blind eye to the gang war shootouts. According to Superintendent of Police Chaudhry Aslam Khan, “The reason it took the police so long to capture Rehman is because he kept eluding us, he used to escape after police encounters on motorcycles and buses. When we received information of his whereabouts, we went there and he died as a result of that encounter.”
Local newspapers have published pictures of Rehman with Sindh Home Minister Zulfiqar Mirza and in a crowd surrounding Benazir Bhutto in Karachi. However SP Aslam Khan denies that Rehman had links with any political party, as does CCPO Waseem Ahmed. According to Ahmed, “The police was never influenced by any political personality in Rehman’s favour.” He also insists that it takes times to catch hardened criminals like Rehman. “If you go by the history of criminals, even in advanced countries like the USA or UK, it takes time to catch hardened criminals. This is why the government announces offers a bounty for them.” The sum for the capture of Rehman Dakait was five million rupees.
There are many reasons for Rehman’s rise to power, the most important being that he filled a void created by the absence of political personalities, government infrastructure and law enforcement agencies. In the words of a PPP insider, “Political personalities ignored Lyari. As a result, people like Rehman Dakait filled that gap. Unemployment was and still is a huge issue in Lyari. Rehman used to give boys daily wages and hand them a Kalashnikov and tell them to patrol the area, and these boys had no idea who they were firing at.”
But while most criminals continue their life of crime, Rehman actively worked towards legitimising his power in Karachi. In 2008, after the PPP won general elections and came to power, Rehman shunned the label of Dakait and presented himself as a modern day Robin Hood, with a new name: Sardar Abdul Rehman Baloch. The Sardar signalled that he was a leader of his tribe, and the Baloch a sign of his pride at hailing from Baluchistan. He forged an alliance with his rival gang, and formed the People’s Aman Committee (PAC), which appeared to be affiliated with the PPP at the time. No rally or public gathering of the PAC was complete without hundreds of PPP flags fluttering in the air. It seemed like the days of Rehman the dacoit were over. Rumours at the time indicated that Rehman wanted to stand for a seat in the local government. In 2008, prior to his election as Pakistan’s president, Benazir’s widower was often seen accompanied by a gang of gun-toting security guards, rumoured to be part of Rehman Dakait’s followers. The boys were also entrusted with ensuring security at Zardari’s residence in the capital, Islamabad.
Maulana Abdul Majeed Sarbazi, the new chairman of the People’s Aman Committee says Rehman’s motive behind the PAC was based on the desire for peace and the advancement of Lyari’s residents.
“Some people had created a situation in Lyari in which the Baloch nation was divided into two groups. Scores of innocents lost their lives in the gang war. The people who died didn’t even know who killed them and why they’d lost their life. We don’t know who was behind the creation of the groups. Khan bhai (as Rehman is often referred to by his supporters) felt that the fighting had to stop, he made a huge sacrifice; he went to meet his rival Ghaffar Baloch to come to a settlement. The idea behind setting up the People’s Aman Committee was to bring an end to criminal activities. There is now peace in Lyari; once there was a time that people wouldn’t leave their houses after the afternoon prayers, now people are out till 2:00 am.”
Sarbazi says they have at least 80,000 members in the PAC, with dozens of units in the city. Rehman also did what the PPP had always promised to do: provide children with education and help support dozens of families. According to Sarbazi, “Rehman asked his acquaintances to donate money to the madrassas in Lyari so that children could get an education, he also paid for the teachers’ salaries. Khan bhai built a madrassah and three schools near his house.”
Last August the People’s Aman Committee organised a peace rally in the city against the burning of a church and indiscriminate killing of Christians in Gojra, Punjab. The rally’s participants shouted slogans in favour of the PPP and the late leader Benazir Bhutto, and were accompanied by a member of the local church. If it was ironic that a man who was a notorious criminal was now carrying out peace marches, it went by unnoticed. What was evident though was that Rehman was gearing up to become a key player in the public sphere.
A day later, on August 9, 2009, he was shot dead in an encounter with a police team led by Superintendent of Police Aslam Khan in Karachi’s Steel Town area.
Sarbazi has his doubts about the encounter that led to Rehman’s death. “The autopsy reports say that Rehman was fired at a distance of three feet. That’s not how people die in encounters. It is extremely sad that when for seven years there was a fight going on between two groups no one interfered, and when things got better they killed Khan bhai. We don’t understand why this happened or who was behind it.”
Whether Rehman Dakait’s death was an extra-judicial killing or not is another Pandora’s box, but following his death, chaos and panic spread in the city. Sources close to the PPP said that the party’s top leaders ordered the hit on Rehman. The reasons are unclear, but range from “Rehman wanted political power” to “He was getting too big for his boots”. However, the PPP insider dismisses rumours of the party’s involvement in Rehman’s death. “I am no well-wisher of Zardari, but neither he (Zardari) or Nabeel Gabol were involved, Rehman was too insignificant for them.”
However the PPP insider suspects a deal going sour as the reason behind Rehman’s death, “I think the BLA had a hand in his death, because of the arms deals that Rehman used to allegedly carry out for them. Rehman did have links with them; a Baloch Student Organisation member was allegedly involved in Rehman’s escape from custody when he was arrested for the second time.”
The People’s Aman Committee and the police are unanimous in the opinion that Lyari is now a place of peace. According to Aslam, “Rehman Dakait is dead and his gang is finished. The main members in the rival Arshad Pappu group, Arshad, his brothers and his father, are in jail. However there are people from the Ghaffar Zikri gang, including Ghaffar and his associates who are on the loose and involved in criminal activities in Lyari.” CCPO Waseem Ahmed says the police are making efforts to catch Ghaffar and company, whereas the PAC is not creating any problems. According to Ahmed, “Karachi has 18 towns, if there ever is a situation in the area, that doesn’t mean we should label Lyari in a bad way, there are good people who live there as well. Lyari is not a no-go area for the police.”
Nearly two years after his death, Rehman Dakait’s shadow continues to loom large over Lyari. His portraits adorn the area, and residents sing his praises, and mourn his loss. Many of them seem to have forgotten that Rehman’s gang once brought life to a standstill.
But where the residents feel they’ve lost a saviour, politically it’s the PPP that has suffered the greater loss — a vital vote bank in a city whose majority supports the ethnic party Muttahida
Qaumi Movement, also an ally in the PPP-led Sindh government. The residents of Lyari, especially Rehman’s supporters, have lost their trust in the PPP since Benazir Bhutto’s death, and Lyari’s problems haven’t ended even with the PPP in power.
In late December 2009, political workers from different parties began killing each other in Karachi after a Baloch boy from Lyari was murdered. The MQM, now an ally of the PPP, labelled the PAC as a criminal organisation and demanded that criminal elements be flushed out of the area, something that has not gone down well with the passionate people of Lyari. To appease their ally, whose support they need in both the provincial and the national assembly, the Interior Minister Rehman Malik, also a close aide of President Zardari, announced that the PAC had no links with the PPP. The residents of Lyari reacted with extreme anger, and to make the extent of their feelings obvious burned the tricoloured PPP flags that had once adorned their houses and hurled choice curses at Rehman Malik in front of television cameras. But instead of investigating the claims, a public statement from President Zardari soon after that no police operation would be launched in the area served to end the debate over the PAC’s motives, as well as quell the anger of Rehman’s supporters.
Sarbazi sneers at Rehman Malik’s statement that the PAC has no links with the PPP. “I’ll be very open about this, these statements are made by people like Rehman Malik who weren’t even in the PPP, who no one in Lyari knows. But our leaders from the PPP, such as Rafiq Engineer [Sindh Minister for Katchi Abadi (Shanty Towns)] and Nabeel Gabol, know and openly state that the PAC is part of the PPP. They know that if Lyari’s youth who are in the PAC are excluded from the PPP then the party has no members.
“People like Rehman Malik and some elements from the MQM have begun to believe that they are the heirs of Karachi. We are part of the PPP and will remain part of it, unless the PPP announces that they are distancing themselves from us. I don’t think the PPP, including President Zardari want that, the President has announced that Lyari’s residents are part of the PPP’s supporters.”
So is it too late for the PPP to win back the hearts of estranged Lyari residents? According to the PPP insider, “Even now, if political parties play a positive role, Lyari can remain a PPP stronghold.”
The question really is, are political parties willing to play such a role? For over 40 years, development has been ignored in the area by various governments, with the PPP only venturing towards Lyari come election time and taking for granted that come hell or high water, Lyari’s residents will vote for them. And as maligned as he may be, it was people like Rehman who filled the void created by the absence of both political leaders and development work.
Even with another name being crossed off the roster of criminals, there are many unanswered questions that loom large. Will Rehman’s People’s Aman Committee will live up to its name and work for peace in an area that has been ravaged by nearly two decades of gang war and faces multiple problems or will it continue to act as a front for Rehman’s Robin Hood persona? And is it too late for the PPP, or any other political party, to muster up support on its own, instead of relying on gangsters and criminals? In death, Rehman has left behind a legacy of intrigue, deceit and political power plays, and no tangible solutions.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2010.
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