Javed Shinwari was born in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – to be more precise, in the Khyber Agency subdivision of Landi Kotal and. Due to economic motives, he moved to Karachi. Javed’s tribe, Shinwari, is living on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.
For long, this historic route from the Khyber Pass to Torkham has had immense strategic importance. Clearly Pakistani policymakers’ idea of “strategic depth” was never replaced by any concept of “economic depth” in FATA. According to the 1998 census, FATA consists of not more than 4.5 million people. Pakhtun nationalist political forces consider the census incorrect and biased. They argue that during the recent counter-terrorist operations, particularly during Zarb-e-Azb, only 80% of the area of North Waziristan among seven FATA agencies was evacuated and these Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) numbered one million. Some experts say the population of FATA has reached 10 million at the moment. Whatever the precise number of people, a general idea of the low level of development in FATA is easy to establish with just the following simple facts: there is one University which has started its enrollment in the previous years and there is not a single industrial zone.
Dr. Ashraf Ali heads the FATA Research Center based in Islamabad which organises discussion programs and has published research articles in journal “Tigah” exclusively on FATA issues. He says, “If the ten-year reform plan for comprehensive socio-economic change is implemented in its letter and spirit, FATA residents would get lot of employment opportunities.” He further adds, “Talented youth of KP and FATA either try their fate in big cities like Karachi and Lahore or choose a criminal path for speedy earnings.”
Javed Shinwari is one of those who chose to come to the big city. He came to Karachi back in 1997 to fulfill his family’s economic needs. For his journey he borrowed money in his village. First he had worked as a transport broker with various shipping companies. It took him three to four years to learn and understand the atmosphere of the city. He started his own business later. Now after almost twenty years he has built a valuable plaza of more than 40 shops and owns heavy vehicles worth Rs. 15 million. The modest and simple tribal businessman narrates his struggle in the Pakistani megapolis.
The owner of the local Green Shinwari Hotel was asked for extortion money. He resisted and was assassinated in front of dozens of people in his own hotel
“I left my sweet home for the port city in a tough and uncertain time. It wasn’t possible for our elders to earn enough for bread,” Javed recalls. He also remembers the chaotic time from 2011-13 as a “killing period” for the city’s economy and social life. Javed is living in near the port in an area famous for its truck stands. This area was completely torn apart by the gang wars of Lyari – all the business was distributed amongst many splintered criminal groups.
Wall-chalking and graffiti by the gangs is still visible on the walls in the vicinity. In gang war language, this particular area was called “Number 55”. On one wall the names of Shakeel and Bilal are scrawled, proclaiming them to be the people in charge of constituency number 55.
Fear amongst the working class and other residents in the area ran deep. Despite the efforts and visible successes of the paramilitary Rangers in taking on local criminals and terrorists; local residents of Maripur and its surroundings still hesitate to talk about the brutalities of the gang war era: extortion, kidnapping for ransom and plain killing.
Nisar Khan, a local resident, had fled the area due to that violence and lived underground for over two years. “I have some apartments and I’m doing an electronics business. But continuous threats and extortion from many groups forced us to close down our business activities at that time” he says.
Khan considers these past few years as being amongst the worst in his 30 years of life in Karachi. Business owners as well as residents tell me that when differences between Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leaders reached their peak, the gang war worsened all over Lyari. Militant wings of all political and religious parties were required at that time to align with competing political interests. MQM, ANP, PPP, ASWJ and Sunni Tehrik – all are alleged to have been linked to militant wings that were involved in land-grabbing, killing and extortion. There was an unwritten agreement to not cross the invisible borders. If anyone ventured onto the wrong street – their dead body would be received by Edhi or Chipa ambulance services the next day.
In Maripur, I am told that the gunmen of “Bilal group” would get only Rs. 500 per day as wages. These hired fighters were from 15 to 25 years old on average, an eyewitness of that era narrates. Every shop would pay Rs. 1,500 per week to the gunmen. No one was brave enough to deny the weekly extortion funds. I am even told that Bilal was a regular visitor at the local mosque, for prayers. Once Nisar Khan, my interlocutor, summoned the courage to ask him how he could reconcile such devotional activities with his line of work. “He replied to me in a harsh tone, ‘I am Muslim, not an infidel!’” Khan recalls
To resist was clearly a bad idea. The owner of the local Green Shinwari Hotel was asked for extortion money. He hesitated and requested the aid of other groups against the Bilal gang. For the time being, he succeeded. Later he was assassinated in front of dozens of people in his own hotel. Residents tell horrifying tales of teenage hired guns, who loved nothing better than toting guns and opening fire on the slightest provocation. Lyari gangs and various political forces used these young men mercilessly.
Author Zia Ur Rehman in his book Karachi in Turmoil writes that Pashtuns live primarily in the western and eastern parts of the coastal city. By the time of the 1998 census there were 1.3 million Pashtuns living in Karachi, which was 14 percent of the city‘s population. In his chapter on Pashtun politics, Zia further elaborates that the mass migration of Pashtuns started in military strongman Ayub Khan’s industrialisation era.
Usman Khan, 22, was born in Karachi and has never been to his ancestral part of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Now he runs his father’s tikka business – after the latter was killed. He has more than 20 employees and daily he slaughters some 10 sheep. For the popularity of the restaurant, he credits his father. “My father,” he says, pointing towards his father’s photo over his shoulders, “was killed for not giving extortion money to the gangs. It was the second day after my marriage and our family was utterly destroyed. I was in trauma, and so was my mother, of course. For three continuous years we leased our hotel and during this period we lost our regular clients and the business went into an abyss…” Usman pauses to spits red pan into a waste bin near him.
“We thought evil forces are following us from the mountains to the sea!” Bahadar Kaka says wistfully
It has been an unavoidable fact of Pakistan’s war on terror that it was mainly fought on Pashtun soil – which further shrank opportunities for livelihood in the northern parts of Pakistan. The fighting between state forces and Taliban militants forced hundreds of thousands of Pashtuns to live in camps in sizzling summer heat, chilly winters and the torrential rains of the monsoon. From these camps people left for places with greater opportunities for rebuilding their lives. Karachi, with all its difficulties and violence, was a prime destination.
Bahadar Kaka, 67, migrated in the recent past from Swat district due to a poor law and order situation in the Malakand division. He built his home on his agricultural land but never got to live there – thanks to the famed Radio Mullah (Fazlullah, the Taliban chief in Swat). Like many other Pashtuns, Bahadar is neither educated nor did he have the opportunity to acquire a particular skill. So he is security guard on a meagre salary of 8,000 rupees. Caught in the crossfire of a war between brutal religious fundamentalists and a heavy state crackdown in his native region, he found peace to be an elusive state of affairs in Karachi too. “We thought evil forces are following us from the mountains to the sea!” he says wistfully.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the largest party in Karachi, often positions itself as the defender of ethnic Urdu-speaking people who immigrated to Karachi from India in 1947. During the ethnic violence which took on a gang war colour, the MQM and the ANP – which represented Pashtun nationalism – clashed fiercely.
“MQM fears of losing their grip over the city led to discrimination in government and private firms with non-Urdu speakers!” ANP leader Shahi Syed blames his opponents squarely. “Pashtuns are deprived from keeping identity cards and when one lacks an ID card, he or she wouldn’t get admission in schools or colleges – neither could they register to vote. As a nationalist politician, Syed claims this was a process of disenfranchising Karachi’s Pashtuns.
Fazal Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist who covers Pashtun cultural, political, social and economic issues for Voice of America. “Due to identity crises and invisible fear of being ‘strange’ in this port city, Pashtuns prefer to live together in slum-like areas”, Aziz believes.
Historically it was mainly the MQM – and in some areas PPP – that won legislature seats in Karachi, because of the nature of the ethnic divide. Former MQM stalwart, mayor of Karachi and now leader of the Pak Sarzamin Party (PSP), Mustafa Kamal is credited with large-scale developmental work. But amongst a significant population of Pashtuns, the perception is common that he focused on Urdu-speaking areas and that Pashtuns were left behind.
Fazal Aziz further adds, “Pashtun leaders are as scattered as their ethnic voters, and this prevents them from achieving power in Karachi’s mainstream politics.”
Meanwhile, another nationalist party, the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) claims that they have worked on constituencies and in future Pashtuns would get fair representation in the provincial assembly in Sindh – under their leadership, of course!
Fazal Aziz is skeptical of such claims.
In previous general elections, the ANP won two provincial assembly seats, which was considered historic. But in last elections the nationalists lost both of them. The chance for delivering on promises was badly missed by the leadership – at least according to many residents of Pathan Colony.
In my interviews of Pashtun people in Karachi – of diverse backgrounds, including transporters, hotel owners, educated minds, political leaders and the youth – everyone willingly gave me their time. But in this whole period, I couldn’t find any interesting conversations around the role of Pashtun women in the city.
Fazal Aziz is quick to condemn the seclusion of Pashtun women to the traditional “four walls” of the home. “Depriving women of basic rights in a metropolitan city means that the Pashtun community isolates half of its population from taking active part in daily affairs.”
Zia Ur Rehman in his book Karachi in Turmoil estimates that currently, the Pashtun population stands anywhere from a low of 4 million to a high of 6 million. This comes to some 25 percent of the port city and 15 percent of the entire Sindh province.
On the economic and political front, despite hardships, it appears that the Pashtuns have achieved enormous progress as compared to previous decades. Many families have been able to move from slums and undeveloped areas to expensive and planned sites in the city. But socially they remain comparatively marginal, because of lesser interaction and investment in the city’s cultural and literary points. Various organisations within the Pashtun community in Karachi are trying to remedy that latter issue.
According to Zia Ur Rehman, there were almost over 20 Pashto cinemas in Karachi, but due to cheap internet services, families can now watch movies inside their homes. “Besides new technology, the growing but ill-planned trend of commercialisation compelled property owners to convert entertainment venues into markets and shopping plazas, which ruined the beauty of port city.” Zia adds. “The militant wings of various parties and armed fundamentalists also created terrible fear in the minds of citizens – who prefer to avoid crowded areas.”
Muhammad Arshad Khan, known by his initials MAK, is a professional artist living in Karachi and is in love with this city of millions. MAK’s family is from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s district Swabi. He has a rich heritage to draw upon: for centuries the culturally rich Swabi region has remained a custodian of art, music and culture in what was once the famed ancient region of Gandhara. MAK is working hard to keep Pashtun cultural and literary activities alive in the city of Karachi. “If their culture remains full of life, the Pashtuns will prosper politically” MAK is convinced. For a peaceful Karachi he is clear that a pluralistic and democratic society is the only way.
Yasir Ali Kundi and his friends organized a “Pukhtoon Culture Day” on the 23rd of July. It was a rare scene in Karachi: hundreds of Pashtun people in their traditional attire gathered for the event. Their day started with a large rally – they started out in front of Karachi Press Club and then ended at Sea View. Pashtuns of all ages participated in the traditional and energetic attan dance.
I wonder, though, how this immense community’s leadership plans to cater to the needs of young men like Aqib Khan. He tells me he passed his 10th-grade exam in his home town, Khyber Agency in FATA. He had to leave his home for faraway Karachi to seek new economic opportunities. Like Aqib, every year, unknown numbers of young Pashtuns arrive in Karachi – looking for opportunity amidst all the chaos.
Their future remains an open question.
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for The Friday Times from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @raufabdur