It isn’t over yet


Reign of mafia in Karachi’s society and economy

There is an old and established bazaar (shops below, owners’ flats above) in Clifton, Karachi, close to the Defence Society – all in the now-famous NA-250 constituency – known as Delhi Colony. It is inhabited by Muslims of various sects, Christians, Hindus, locals and migrants, none of who give a hoot about what other people’s faith or ethnicity are, let alone who they vote for. Previously, its best feature was that even when all other city bazaars shut down, Delhi Colony always stayed open, quite oblivious of news and politics. So much so, when people in other parts of town had urgent need on hartal days, they would drive all the way to Delhi Colony – Until about 10 years ago.

On that fateful day, out of the blue, a gang of hoodlums brandishing clubs, charged in and overturned the thelas spilling cooked food and other items onto the street, flung and smashed goods from shop shelves, and beat up enough shopkeepers and roadside vendors for good measure. As word spread like wildfire through Delhi Colony, people quickly pulled down their shutters while thela-walas fled, some forced to leave their thelas behind, losing their wares and earnings for the day.

The attackers did not hide who they were. They warned their victims who were told to pass on the word, that if ever again Delhi Colony was kept open during hartals, they would not be left with a business to run – or perhaps their skulls. Delhi Colony has never again disobeyed. It took just one decisive assault to ensure that. Routine reminders come with ‘inspection’ or ‘bhatta’ visits.

It was therefore significant how quickly the patience of residents and shopkeepers wore thin, albeit justifiably, because of the PTI protestors’ dharnas in Lahore that inconvenienced traffic and affected business. How would they have reacted if they had to endure what Karachiites did for 30 years every time life suddenly came to a standstill.

The bigger the city, the richer the pickings. This makes any metropolis in the world — especially of 18-plus million potential prey – mouth-watering for mafiosi. Money can be made from rich and poor alike depending on nature and scale of activity. There’s hierarchy among thieves as well, and many are directly vertically linked. The police are a prime example of this.

But cruel and corrupt to the core though the police may be, it can be contained if, by some good fortune, some head honcho turns out to be honest, tough and transparent enough to get cracking. In fact, the police are the lesser of Karachi’s problems. The mafia leads, work in collusion with facilitating partners – government functionaries, and the police, who get their respective cuts. Favours done for politicians too.

The mafia calls the shots in Karachi. It is highly organised, fascist, carving up the city territorially, every apartment building or locality assigned an armed unit to ‘manage’ it. Grounds rules are spelt out to residents, regular ‘donations’ collected for voluntary services, like looking after their ‘security’. In return, they just need to attend mass meetings at short notice.

There are separate charges for one-off but more complex jobs. Want an electricity connection that won’t fetch a regular bill? Or some service, whether legitimate or document tampering, from a reluctant government department? Want to encroach and build on government land or private absentee property? Easily arranged. Teachers and municipal jobs also for sale. Of modest means? Need a permanent location on the roadside, ideal for selling fruit, vegetables or whatever from the thela? Done deal.

Own a conspicuously large generator that says you must be loaded to afford it? Then you can also afford the price for its protection. Or is some greenhorn trying to muscle into what you consider to be your territory, albeit through honest competition? For a reasonable price, he’ll be taught a lesson never to give cause again. One rule every family head must always remember: if rules are defied, someone will have to pay in the worst way possible. God help you if you have women and children in your family you can’t bear to see hurt.

There’s one serious – perhaps gutless – mistake every single government, civilian or military, has made about Karachi for over three decades. Or was it just cruelly easy, self-serving compromise?

Every government has always treated Karachi’s known but unacknowledged mafia hegemony as a political instead of a criminal issue, although dealing serious social and economic consequences. It was established long, long before the Taliban and other terrorists entered the scene. Yet it took the latter’s equally unacceptable behaviour to justify Rangers operations, although mafia mayhem wasn’t very different. As if democracy doesn’t include that citizens have a right to a mafia-free society and economy.