Goodbye, Perween Rahman. We will miss you. Your only crime was that for three decades, you devoted yourself to the cause of the poor. You gave them a voice and hope. You helped families better their living conditions, encouraged women to stand on their feet and brought a community spirit into some of Karachi’s most deprived and neglected neighbourhoods. You are my hero.
On 13/3/13, you were shot dead. Possibly because you were upsetting the status quo. You did this by encouraging people to better their lives. They cleaned up their neighbourhoods, built better houses, laid down proper water and sewerage lines and set up schools.
You were an inspiration for others. When I worked at The News, we invited you to give a talk to the paper’s young journalists. On how they should not always expect the government to deliver and how they should take things into their hands to better their future. And most important, on how they should not give up on Pakistan. You knew this because you faced the trauma of separation, when as a teenager, you left Dhaka, your birthplace, and relocated to Karachi.
You were soft-spoken but there was a determination in your voice. For thousands of people, who visited you at the Orangi Pilot Project, you were their only hope. They came to you to solve their problems, to give them encouragement, and show the way. But your work came in conflict with two very powerful entities or systems. First, the city’s oft-talked about mafias. These mafias, which work with the blessings and connivance of the government and its high officials, suck the blood of the poor.
These are the land encroachment mafia, the water tanker mafia, the transport mafia, and other smaller mafias. None of these mafias would last a day if there was no official patronage. But they continue to thrive and grow over the years.
The other more potent enemy that you seem to have challenged, we are told, were the Taliban. They have gradually established themselves in the hills that overlook Karachi. On one side of these hills is Orangi Town. On the other side is ilaqa ghair. Even the police don’t want to go into these parts of the city. But you did not make that distinction and helped communities on both sides. But on the “other side”, there is a different set of rules. We are told that a strict code of conduct, not unlike what we saw in Kabul, under the Taliban and currently are seeing in parts of the tribal areas, is enforced. Schools are boys-only. There is a dress code. Anyone who enters or leaves the area is monitored. The Taliban also ensure law and order. One goes to them for justice, not to the local police.
We are told that it was these people who killed our Perween. In fact, in a rare show of efficiency, within days of your death, the police nabbed what they called a Taliban local leader and shot him dead in an encounter. Case closed. But one can only wonder whether it is as simple as that. We know that in Orangi Town, a number of people have been killed for a variety of reasons. Recently, a local MPA was shot dead. Before that, priests working at a Korean-run seminary were targeted. In between, we saw the killing of polio workers. In fact, hundreds of people have died over the past years, in this area, to shootings.
The city’s mafias have had their share of victims. Nisar Baloch, who worked at freeing encroachments from Gutter Baghicha — a continuous piece of green space which serves as the lungs for old Karachi — was shot dead in 2009. We have never found his killers. Similarly, anyone who was seen as outspoken against land encroachment, a multibillion industry, has been silenced or threatened. This is indeed the Wild West of Karachi.
Over the past five years, encroachment has been taken over by political parties, including activists of our ruling party. Then there are the petty criminals who seem to have captured parts of the city. Both have proliferated. In the recent action being conducted by the Rangers in Orangi Town and its environs, we are nabbing kidnappers, recovering the kidnapped, unearthing a dazzling amount of arms and ammunition that is stored here, and arresting a variety of criminals. And this, without even crossing the hill.
You were a brave woman, Perween Rahman. For three decades, you worked tirelessly against the odds. Maybe your family thinks it would have been best had you continued as a private architect. By now, you would have made millions. Instead, you now live in the hearts of millions. RIP Perween Rahman.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2013.