Illegal Land Grabs, Class Divides, and the Orderly Chaos of Karachi

Declan Walsh on the Cop Who Held the Pakistani City Together

Chaudhry Aslam acknowledged that he operated in a morally complex world where the line between criminal and cop could be hopelessly blurred. But compromise was the only way to survive.

Aslam took a cut from the bookies but not from the pimps; he offered his services as a mediator between warring businessmen; and he sold prison privileges to the better-off criminals—a nicer cell, a good meal, or a promise to water down the charges, in return for cash. One colleague who saw his ledger of receipts told me it amounted to thousands of dollars a day. Aslam argued this was not corruption, per se—it was the cost of doing his job.

Although he was famed for his ability with a Glock, the secret of his success was in fact his citywide network of informants—street children, traders, prostitutes, criminals. It cost up to $10,000 to nab a major criminal. Where else would he get the money for  that?

He had other outgoings. During the Eid holiday, Aslam sent bundles of cash to the wives of slain officers. He gave a slice of the profits to the police leadership. And he kept a cut for himself, which helped explain the mansion in Defence and his investments in Dubai. To Aslam, this quasi-feudal system was a matter of loyalty. “He gives, and the men give it back tenfold,” one officer told  me.

And he insisted that it was possible to fight for the law while breaking it. Somehow, he was sure, all the bloodshed and mayhem would lead to a safer city, even a better Pakistan. Besides, what choice was there? “Who are we?” he rhetorically asked one reporter in a private conversation. “We are killers. But who do we kill for? The State. We just do our job. On our own, we are nothing.”

*

Karachi’s wealthier residents enjoyed little more than to wax lyrical about the glorious 1960s and 70s—a halcyon era of nightclubs, racecourses and casinos, when Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie played the cabarets, the Beatles were swamped by screaming schoolgirls and Che Guevara was photographed on the beach. Long-haired Western hippies passed through, on the trail between Iran and India, arriving in Volkswagen buses emblazoned with slogans about love and peace.

Some paused to smoke dope with the Sufi fakirs at the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine. The city boasted hundreds of cinemas, including one, the Bambino, run by the family of a brash young playboy named Asif Ali Zardari. Guns were rare: the greatest trouble came from gangs of macho young men who roamed the streets armed with knuckledusters.

That era drew to a close after 1977, with the ban on alcohol and the start of General Zia’s Islamizing drive, which injected Karachi’s middle classes with a cloying piety. Among the witnesses to this change was a 20-year-old American college student named Barack Obama, who visited the city with a college friend in 1981.

In any case, fond memories of Karachi’s glamorous past are tinted in rose: even in its heyday, the good life was accessible only to a minority of Pakistanis, and it ignored the ethnic and social tensions that would explode with such destructive force decades later. Like resilience, nostalgia was a psychological crutch for Karachiites struggling with the present.

The other city—Karachi Noir, with its Dirty Harry cops and strutting gangsters and simmering ethnic tensions—was never far away.

Even so, Karachi remains a cosmopolitan ideal for many Pakistanis. Professionals and women thrive here in a manner that is difficult, or impossible, in other parts of the country. Gay couples discreetly cohabit. A working woman can rent an apartment on her own without, as happens in other cities, being accused of prostitution by a suspicious landlord. At weddings, women wear belly-baring saris, a form of dress shunned in other parts of Pakistan for its associations with the culture of Hindu-dominated India.

My regular digs in Karachi were at Bhopal House, a ramshackle, century-old mansion in Clifton, a patrician neighborhood by the sea. The house was a high-class wreck, with deserted rooms and ancient plumbing and a large, weed-infested garden. I stayed in a room with an ancient air-conditioning unit that thrummed so hard that it gave the pleasant sensation of sleeping in the bowels of a rumbling ocean liner. My host was Faiza Sultan Khan, a young editor descended from subcontinental royalty.

The house once belonged to Faiza’s grandmother, Princess Abida Sultaan, one of the most eccentric figures of post-independence Pakistan. She was born in Bhopal, a gigantic, Muslim-majority princely state in the center of British India, said to have one of the world’s largest palaces.

The people of Bhopal boasted an unusual distinction: for a century they had been ruled by a succession of powerful matriarchs known as the Begums of Bhopal. Abida, who was recognized as the heiress apparent in 1928, was an iconoclast, with passions that included hunting tigers, flying airplanes and repairing car engines. One photo, taken in her thirties, shows her with cropped hair and riding boots, standing over an engine  block.

Three years after Bhopal was forced to accede to India in 1947, Princess Abida, aged 37, abandoned her husband and flew to Karachi with their infant son, Shehryar—Faiza’s father. She also carried a portion of the crown jewels of Bhopal. To help get Pakistan on its feet, she offered the new state her Karachi residence for its foreign ministry—Bhopal House. Later she became Pakistan’s ambassador to Brazil, and Shehryar become ambassador to the United Kingdom and  India.

But after the capital was shifted to Islamabad in 1960, the government refused to relinquish possession of Bhopal House, marking the start of a knotty legal dispute that was still dragging on, decades later, when I got there. The state had already staked its claim to half the property by erecting an ugly office block that served as the local headquarters of the Intelligence Bureau, a civilian intelligence agency controlled by the interior ministry.

Faiza’s family had clung to the rest—the crumbling mansion and its abandoned garden—and was disinclined to invest any further until the dispute had been resolved. There was little sign of  that.

Faiza downplayed her royal roots, the Indian cousins who lived in palaces and her storied grandmother (who, by several accounts, could be a demanding relative). “Darling,” she said in an accent shaped by private schooling in England, “I find people who discuss their family history utterly odious.”

Instead she wrote pieces of acerbic social observation for Pakistani and Indian publications, mulled over a novel on the sexual mores of upper-class Pakistanis and ran a short-story competition that attracted a wide range of entries, including a fascinating piece of erotic pulp fiction in Urdu that was set on a Karachi  bus.

Much of the time, Faiza was in her room, smoking and reading; occasionally she floated through the baking corridors in her pajamas. But a couple of nights a week, the old mansion sprang to life for impromptu gatherings that opened my eyes to a different aspect of Karachi. The guests were writers, architects, singers and professional dilettantes, and they would sit on her balcony for hours, drinking warm beer and sickly vodka concoctions.

The crowd typically stayed late, smoking and gossiping and conducting long arguments on subjects from weighty politics to arcane pop trivia. Under orders from Faiza, nobody took mobile-phone photos of the Intelligence Bureau building over the wall. We tried not to think about the jihadi sympathizers said by human rights groups to have been tortured inside.

The balcony scene was a bubble of privilege, of course: part of a world of coffee shops with tasteful furniture and stone gardens, art galleries and expensive French restaurants where the ladies who lunched drank freely, sometimes even from an open bar. But the other city—Karachi Noir, with its Dirty Harry cops and strutting gangsters and simmering ethnic tensions—was never far away.

Growing up in the 1990s, wealthy friends told me, their posh schools would close sometimes every week as gun battles rocked the city. Uncles or cousins were kidnapped for ransom by criminals and spirited off to the tribal belt. Now the enemy was dysfunction. Giant diesel-powered generators squatted in their gardens, to combat power shortages, and armed guards stood at their gates.

Some showed me their extensive private gun collections. But it was impossible, even for the rich, to completely isolate oneself from Karachi, which was the tension, and occasionally the thrill, of the  city.

Perhaps that explained the pervasive sense of decay and rot. Unlike stately Lahore or modern Islamabad, Karachi resembled the set of a dystopian thriller. In the city center, the stately Raj-era buildings cowered behind tangles of power lines and garish neon signs. Rubbish was piled outside elegant mansions in upmarket Clifton. In the summer, when power cuts were frequent, slum dwellers slept on the rooftops, and clouds of flies swarmed around people as they walked to work.

Every day, 400 million gallons of untreated sewage poured from the city into the Arabian Sea. Karachi’s conservationists were a suicidal lot. “Loving Karachi is like loving an unfaithful mistress who has not hesitated to discard her earlier charms and replace them with the tear-streaked makeup of an unhappy harlot,” noted one.

And yet, Karachi has a unique vibrancy and urban sensibility that many residents wanted to celebrate. One Sunday morning, I went to visit Hameed Haroon, who was in his sixties, the chief executive of Dawn newspaper. The Haroons were among the oldest families in Karachi, and Hameed lived in half of a rambling mansion located on a road named after his grandfather. (His brother, Hussain, the politician who boosted Chaudhry Aslam into the police and was later Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, lived in the other half of the building.)

Parks, playgrounds, beach promenades, even the mangroves along the Arabian Sea—no corner was safe from their insatiable appetites.

Hameed had transformed his abode into a temple to art, its rooms filled with sculptures, paintings and silks by Pakistan’s most celebrated artists. When I arrived, the door was opened by Hameed’s friend George, a chirpy Greek art dealer. After some conversation about how to make a decent foie gras, Haroon announced we were leaving for Gadani, a coastal village 30 miles to the  north.

Known for its ship-breaking yard, Gadani had once been home to Sadequain, a towering figure of Pakistani art and an eccentric recluse. His most famous paintings adorned Haroon’s house, and Haroon had published a giant book about Sadequain, a 700-page tome that weighed 12 kilos.

Sadequain’s work was risqué by the standards of orthodox Islam, with naked figures often disguised as calligraphy. “You see this breast” Hameed said, pointing to a squiggle. “If a mullah came in, Sadequain could transform it into a ‘noon,’” a reference to the letter N in Urdu.

His themes varied: the crucifixion of Christ, the death of Martin Luther King, sex, the mysteries of Islam, often expressed through sweeping strokes. Unconcerned with money, he donated paintings to friends and admirers, and the story goes that he once painted a large mural on the wall of a travel agency in exchange for a bottle of whisky.

Hameed’s summer house at Gadani, overlooking the sea, was still under construction—a grand edifice with colonnades, steam rooms and a swimming pool. Fiberglass lions, replicas of the ones in London’s Trafalgar Square, stood guard on the lawn.

In the distance, I could see the cranes, jibs and rusting hulks of the ship-breaking yards. Sadequain lived here, in a modest house between the desert and the sea, fascinated and inspired by cactuses and gnarled brambles, which became prominent motifs in his work. I could see why he might have liked Gadani, although it also must have been a lonely existence. By the time he died, in 1987, his painting strokes had become harder and more dramatic: one of his last works depicts an exterminating  angel.

*

Those who tried to make Karachi better often found themselves frustrated. Ardeshir Cowasjee sat in a cane chair in his study, a small Jack Russell terrier resting in his lap, as he stirred his pre-lunch vodka-and-tonic.

By way of small talk, I asked how things were going. “Down,” he said with a sad clown face, pointing a finger to the floor, “because otherwise it would be like this.” Cowasjee slowly flipped his middle finger up until it was pointing directly at me. His face cracked into an impish  grin.

Even at 81, Cowasjee reveled in his role as the city’s provocateur-in-chief. A small man with a snowy goatee, he had devoted his life to the art of laser-guided offense. He lived in an elegant mansion in Bath Island, near the sea; kept cats, cockatoos and Jack Russell terriers; and liked to drive through the city in his silver open-top Mercedes, resplendent in a tailored suit, silk handkerchief and hat.

Accounts of his social japes were legion in Karachi high society. He once attended a board meeting of the city electricity company dressed in Bermuda shorts; at a dinner, he provoked French diplomats with lewd comments about their president’s wife. The pious were favored targets. As he led the way to the lunch table in his home, he gestured towards a cluster of nude sculptures, saying that he made a point of showing them to any Muslim cleric who came visiting. “They do like this,” he said, half-shading his eyes with one hand, again in cheeky schoolboy mode. “Great  fun.”

The Cowasjee family once had a fortune in steamships and stevedoring. But their business, the East and West Steamship Company, was nationalized in the 1970s by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and with it the family’s six ships. The loss still rankled with. “One of ours,” he said wistfully, gesturing to a model ship in a glass case. “Bhutto was an evil man.”

But for all his affected curmudgeonliness and comic-book venom, Cowasjee was a man of principle and purpose, and his outsider status came as much from his bravery as from his Zoroastrian faith. His weekly column in Dawn, in which he railed tirelessly against corruption, bigotry and the swelling forces of radicalization, had become a lodestar for Pakistani progressives. For Cowasjee, it was a way of coming to terms with a country that had betrayed its promises to him.

He pulled a photograph from his pocket. Taken in the 1940s, it showed a fresh-faced young man—Cowasjee—at the wheel of a jalopy with Jinnah in the back seat. A fervent supporter of the Quaid in his youth, he now used his weekly column to defend Jinnah’s legacy. When I suggested that Jinnah had failed to articulate a clear vision for Pakistan, Cowasjee banged his fork on the table.

“You don’t know much, do you?” He summoned a servant to bring a tome of Jinnah’s speeches. “They re-write history to suit themselves, the stupid bastards,” he said of his countrymen, flipping through the pages. “But you can’t blame Jinnah. Someone else fucked it  up.”

A police van idled outside his front gate. Cowasjee had enjoyed VIP protection for years, but he viewed cops like Chaudhry Aslam as part of a bigger problem he was determined to solve. For years, Karachi had been devoured by the “land mafia,” a broad class of politicians, army generals, policemen and mafioso business types who enriched themselves through rampant illegal development of public land.

Parks, playgrounds, beach promenades, even the mangroves along the Arabian Sea—no corner was safe from their insatiable appetites. To oppose them was a risky business. Campaigners faced threats and beatings; a handful had been murdered. Cowasjee railed against their depredations in his columns and he financed court actions that stalled new construction.

After lunch, we went for a drive, twisting through the chaotic traffic of Shahrah-e-Faisal, a busy highway, before turning into a compact, upscale neighborhood named Kidney Hill. Cowasjee’s four-wheel-drive vehicle halted outside a small park, about 50 acres of wild grass hemmed in on two sides by capacious villas.

It was a breezy afternoon, and palm trees rustled gently in the wind, the city stretching out before us—a vast panorama of grey apartment blocks, mobile-phone towers and tangled highways. We took a stroll. Kidney Hill was one of Karachi’s last green lungs, but it was being eaten up by illegal development.

Political parties nibbled off plots to sell or to build houses for their supporters, he said; one-third of the land had disappeared. The mullahs were also in on the act. Inside the park gates, we passed a clutch of worshippers prostrated in prayer outside a ramshackle, recently constructed mosque. “It’s like children nibbling on a biscuit,” grumbled Cowasjee. “They won’t stop until it’s all  gone.”

We headed back towards his car, passing a newly constructed extension at the side of a large mansion, which jutted into the park. It belonged to the chairman of the Pakistani Senate, Cowasjee said, without emotion. “If there was no Central Park, there’d be no New York,” he said. “But try telling these people.” He shuffled towards his vehicle. “Philistines.”

*

The suicide bomb attack that destroyed Chaudhry Aslam’s suburban villa in early 2011 was not only a worrisome milestone for a cop who was burning through his proverbial nine lives—it announced that a new gang was vying for control of Karachi.

The Pakistani Taliban had been arriving quietly since about 2008, hiding amid a flood of Pashtun civilians fleeing the military’s anti-Taliban operations in Swat, Waziristan, and other corners of the tribal belt. After a spate of bank robberies, police investigators reviewing surveillance footage noticed that the robbers often wore shalwar trousers that were hitched above the ankle, and handled their guns with practiced ease.

Then the militants became more brazen, kidnapping businessmen for ransom, extorting money from Pashtun haulage companies, and—in a sure sign they had arrived—becoming players in the property rackets. In Sohrab Goth, a labyrinthine Pashtun shanty town on the outskirts of Karachi, Taliban clerics established informal sharia courts to settle disputes; the Awami National Party, a secular party that had traditionally represented Pashtuns in Karachi, was drummed out of  town.

I became aware of how serious the situation had become when I tried, and failed, to visit a famous Sufi shrine at Manghopir, on the northern edge of Karachi. There, a green pool surrounding the tomb of a saint is filled with luxuriating crocodiles who feast on sweets and morsels of meat offered by devotees who believe the leathery reptiles possess sacred powers.

Taliban commanders regularly phoned Aslam directly with insults and death threats. He repaid them in kind.

The shrine’s guardians are the Sheedi, descendants of African slaves who were transported to South Asia by Arabs, Persians and other invaders over many centuries. Every year, the Sheedi hosted a festival at the shrine, where pilgrims danced before the crocodiles, showering them with rose petals, anointing them with saffron and feeding them sacrificial  goats.

But when I tried to visit Manghopir months after the attack on Chaudhry Aslam, I was told it was impossible. Fixers, policemen, even the local MQM parliamentarian, advised against it. “It’s too dangerous,” the parliamentarian told me when we met at Nine Zero.

The Taliban had seized control of the area, taking up positions on a nearby hilltop. The local police were cowering in their station. The famous shrine had closed, leaving the crocodiles in the care of charity workers who sneaked in to feed them. Even so, some crocodiles  died.

When the security forces—army-led paramilitaries from the Sindh Rangers, working with the intelligence agencies—took action they turned to Aslam as their partner. Acting on information provided by the ISI, his team raided dozens of Taliban hideouts, seizing arms caches and making hundreds of arrests.

The militants hit back hard. In 2013, 138 policemen were killed in the line of duty in Karachi, the highest toll ever. Taliban commanders regularly phoned Aslam directly with insults and death threats. He repaid them in kind. “Get lost, sisterfucker,” he told Ehsanullah Ehsan, the main spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban.

After the attack on his home in Defence, Aslam sold the property and moved his family to the Naval Housing Colony, a modest yet better protected military housing development. He started to vary his routes to work, as a security precaution. The authorities lauded Aslam’s actions. President Asif Ali Zardari decorated him with the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz, one of Pakistan’s highest civilian awards, and gave him a bulletproof jeep. But friends worried Aslam had gone too far. “He was under immense stress,” a senior police officer told me. “It looked like the situation had gone beyond his control.”

On the night of January 8th, 2014, Aslam led a raid on a Taliban lair in Manghopir, a mile from the crocodile shrine. Three militants died in the operation, he told a press conference early the following morning, supposedly after succumbing to their injuries on the way to hospital. His old deputy, Irfan Bahadur, watching on television, phoned Aslam. “Aslam yaar,” he said, “this is enough. Please distance yourself from the press. Get yourself posted to another  job.”

Later that day, after taking a rest, Aslam left his home in the Naval Housing Colony. His armored jeep was in the garage, being serviced, so he traveled in an unprotected vehicle. As it turned onto the Lyari Expressway, a major highway that sweeps across Karachi, the driver of a waiting pick-up truck gunned his engine. Two hundred kilos of explosives, packed in blue barrels, were strapped into the vehicle. It hurtled towards  Aslam.

The blast tossed Aslam’s jeep across the road like a toy, where it burst into flames. When an emergency rescue team reached the scene, they found a pile of charred, twisted metal. Three people had been killed: two police officers and  Aslam.

Hours later, the Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, claimed responsibility for the hit—payback, he said, for the militants who had been tortured and executed in detention under Aslam. “He was on the top of our list,” said  Ehsan.

The godfathers of Karachi—gangster politicians, police chiefs, army generals and former president Asif Ali Zardari—attended Aslam’s funeral, standing together to pay their respects to a man who, for his many faults, helped bind their chaotic city together. I followed the news from London, watching on television.

As Aslam’s shattered body was lifted into an ambulance, I noticed that he was dressed in his usual white tunic, now drenched in blood. It made me think of the remark Aslam made on our first meeting. He had fulfilled his own prophecy—his shalwar kameez had become his shroud.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Nine Lives of Pakistan. Copyright © 2020 by Declan Walsh. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Declan Walsh
Declan Walsh
Declan Walsh, formerly the New York Times Pakistan bureau chief, is based in Cairo. He was educated in Dublin and has also reported from sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, the United States, and across the Middle East.





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