By Laurent Gayer, Nida Kirmani and Zia Ur Rehman
Feb 10, 2017
On February 2, the Pakistan Rangers (Sindh) announced the death of Noor Muhammad, alias Bada Ladla, during an encounter in Karachi’s volatile inner city. Ladla was certainly the most dreaded gangster of Lyari—one of its most resilient too: this was the third time that he had been declared dead in less than three years.
As often in these murky circumstances, the matter was settled by Janbaz, Lyari’s most widely read newspaper. The next day, the front page of the newspaper stated that, “The Rangers have sent Baba Ladla to join Rehman Dakait”—an allusion to another legendary figure of the local crime scene, who was killed by the Karachi police in 2009. But what really carried public conviction were the photographs. Besides some clichés of Baba Ladla in his prime was a grisly picture of a bearded man soaking in blood, missing a significant part of his skull. The photograph was flanked by the mortuary masks of two of his acolytes killed in the shootout. These images also seemed to have been taken at one of the city’s morgues.
As gruesome as they might seem to the untrained eye, such images are nothing new to Lyari’s residents. For many years, they have been assaulted with a daily dose of blood and dirt from the local media, with Janbaz being the uncontested jewel of Lyari’s gutter press.
Until violence receded in Lyari and Karachi at large a couple of years ago, many readers saw in the crudeness of these photographs a mark of authenticity, restoring certainty in a troubled world.
Janbaz, which literally means “those putting their lives at play” or “the fearless”, was launched in 1999 by the small media group, Kainat, which runs a few more print publications and three TV channels. The five-rupee newspaper gained notoriety at the height of the gang war between Rehman ‘Dakait’ and his archrival Arshad Pappu in the mid-2000s, mainly for its coverage of criminal and political violence in Lyari. For its detractors, Janbaz provided a platform for gang leaders to aggrandize themselves; it also fuelled the conflicts between gangs through the publication of provocative statements, with some gang ‘commanders’ (and the odd maverick police officer, such as Haq Nawaz ‘Commando’, alias ‘Dabang’) even hurling death threats at their rivals through its front-page headlines.
More than any other material published in Janbaz, the ghastly pictures of the laashain (bodies) appearing everyday on the front page have been a matter of controversy for the 20,000 to 30,000 estimated readers of the paper (a figure which can go up to more than a hundred thousand during the most intensive episodes of gang warfare). These readers are concentrated in Lyari but can also be found in other parts of the city, such as Malir, where residents have familial or historical ties to Lyari. Until violence receded in Lyari and Karachi at large a couple of years ago, many readers saw in the crudeness of these photographs a mark of authenticity, restoring certainty in a troubled world. These images and the stories that accompanied them were not always taken at face value, though. After all, this newspaper was made in Karachi, a city where even the dead are not always what they seem to be.
Bringing out the dead
Janbaz was not the first Urdu newspaper of Karachi to publish pictures of the dead on its front page. This editorial practice became common during Operation Clean-up (1992-1994) when the army was deployed in the city to teach the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) a lesson and to dismantle its so-called ‘state within a state’. The dissident faction of the MQM (Haqiqi) allegedly received the support of the army, and its militants turned against their former comrades in many localities of District Central and District East. Every day, bodies bearing torture marks were being found in gunny bags dumped in the streets and sewers of the city. The bori band laash was fast becoming Karachi’s most iconic artefact, and some editors were determined to give it the coverage it ‘deserved’.
This editorial move was encouraged by the competition between ‘eveningers’—those Urdu dailies that resemble tabloids and that are focused mainly on sensationalized stories related to crime and violence. Most prominent among these newspapers reputed for their sulphurous ‘mizaaj’ (flavour) were Qaumi Akhbar and Awam, and it was their photographers who were expected to provide a steady diet of the dead each day.
One such photographer was Athar Hussain, who started working at Qaumi Akhbar in 1995. By then, the army had retreated from Karachi but the tussles between MQM factions and law-enforcement agencies (the police and the Rangers) were more ruthless than ever. The city seemed to be on the brink of a full-blown civil war and for his first assignment, Athar had plenty on his plate.
The editorial practice of publishing pictures of the dead on front pages became common during Operation Clean-up (1992-1994) when bodies bearing torture marks were being found in gunny bags dumped in the streets and sewers of the city every day. The bori band laash was fast becoming Karachi’s most iconic artefact, and some editors were determined to give it the coverage it ‘deserved’.
Every crime photographer has a trick to reach the scene before everyone else. Weegee tuned in to police radio while Enrique Metinides was embedded in the rescue teams of the Mexican Red Cross. Athar Hussain’s solution was to maintain close contacts at the Police Centre and at the control room of the Edhi Foundation, Karachi’s largest philanthropic organization. This cost him a few gifts every year—a nice meal here, a diary there—but it was worth it as within minutes of a killing being reported to any of these call centres, his pager would start beeping. He would then hop on his motorcycle or jump into an Edhi ambulance, often reaching the spot before the cops. This sometimes made him suspicious in the eyes of the police but it also helped him build his street cred. By his own admission, he was “very aggressive” and soon became famous for taking “on the spot” pictures of the dead. “Being unmarried helped,” he says, recalling how he would wake up at 5am, work throughout the day and then hang out with the press club crowd in the evening.
The same year, Major General Naseerullah Babar launched yet another crackdown against the MQM. And once again, newspaper editors felt that publishing the faces of the deceased would sell more copies as having pictures of dead bodies meant your newspaper would ‘flash’. Qaumi Akhbar’s editor, Ilyas Shakir, was particularly insistent as photographer Athar Hussain discovered. “If you missed even one dead face you would get a notice [from the editor] the next day,” he says. “So if 25 to 30 people were killed, we needed to get their faces in. I would be really happy if my photo of the corpse would print in three columns.”
As the number of victims of state terror and political violence kept ratcheting up, it became impossible for Athar to hit up every crime scene in the city. A simple solution was to go to the place where they would all end up: the morgues. Personal contacts helped there as well. He became acquainted with a chowkidar working at one of the city’s prominent hospitals, who gave him privileged access to the otherwise forbidden room: “I used to go to this morgue. The chowkidar would chuck the keys over the wall and I would go in and quickly take pictures of the laashain.”
These lonesome encounters with the dead could be a trying experience. The comforts of routine—pull down the sheet, uncover the body, click, pull back the sheet—did not shield him from shock. Athar still vividly remembers the day when one of the corpses he was photographing started moving: “I was alone in the room and as I pulled down the sheet, his arm dangled from the edge of the bed. I felt really scared!” Panicking, he went to get the Medico-Legal Officer (MLO) and informed him that this dead man didn’t seem so dead after all. The MLO calmly replied that he was dead all right, after receiving multiple gunshots. His arm had simply become stuck in the sheet before the onset of rigor mortis. “This happened because it was a fresh death (taza tha). He had been dead for only two to three hours,” Athar explains.
The ‘whodunnit’ was never his concern: “Who died, why, what for, those were not questions for me,” he says. Rather, the photo itself was his trophy. “My sole motivation was to get pictures to put on display on the front page of the newspaper, so that people would praise me.”
Soon enough, however, Athar Hussain and his employers realized that the power of these images exceeded both their own commercial motivations and the voyeurism of the public: “When a death happened, the MQM would blame the government. Every time a dead body was found, they would say, ‘Government ne marke phainka hai’ (the government has dumped the body after killing that guy). This would earn them (the MQM) a lot of sympathy.”
For the last decade or so, it has become less common for Urdu newspapers to publish pictures of bodies on their front page. Dr. Tausif Ahmed Khan, who teaches journalism at the University of Karachi, says that after the emergence of the electronic media in the early 2000s, rules of conduct were decided, forcing newspapers to stop publishing “violent and horrifying pictures”.
Urdu newspapers with a focus on Lyari never cared much for these rules, however. In addition to Janbaz, the now defunct Josh (Fervour) was a case in point. To this day, gruesome images continue to be published in Janbaz on an almost daily basis. Each full-colour photograph is accompanied by a caption indicating the name of the deceased, the location and the cause of death. Most of the victims are residents of Lyari, but if no one is killed in the neighbourhood on a given day, pictures of people murdered in other parts of the city will be published. The crudeness of these images has been subject to much criticism, especially from its most educated readers. Even Iqbal Swati, a forty-something Janbaz photographer known by the self-explanatory nickname of ‘Morchary’ (Mortuary), says he avoids bringing the newspaper home to spare his children.
At the same time, many readers of Janbaz ascribe these images with a peculiar power to establish proof in a context in which extrajudicial killings by state and non-state actors are commonplace. Here, the rules of evidence are reinforced by market forces. As a thirty-something reader employed at the Karachi Municipal Corporation says, “Jo dikhta hai, voh bikhta hai” (what you see is what you get). These images would sell because they tell the truth, and vice versa.
Like veterans of crime photography such as Athar Hussain, Janbaz photographers also argue for the power of unveiling of their images, and the liberating effect it has for the families of the victims. “We help people,” says Janbaz photojournalist Iqbal Swati. “Thanks to the photos of corpses published on the front page of Janbaz, several people have found traces of missing relatives. After seeing their photo in the newspaper, they often come to see us. We give them the original photos and tell them where they were taken.” In an environment of perpetual insecurity, such access to information can provide closure for the relatives of those who may otherwise remain indefinitely namaloom and lapatta (unidentified and missing).
The utility of this mechanism is confirmed by Adnan Baloch*, a resident of Lyari whose brother disappeared in April 2016 after plainclothes men picked him up from his home. Baloch, who claims that his brother had no connection with the Lyari gangs, spent the next few months looking for him in police stations, Rangers offices and hospitals across the city. His quest was brutally interrupted three months later when he discovered on the front page of Janbaz the image of a corpse found in a peripheral locality on the road to Balochistan. “On the same day,” he says, “I went to Janbaz’s office and asked them to give me the original photo and tell me the exact location where they found the body. It was then confirmed that this was my brother.”
These macabre discoveries can also satisfy a desire for vengeance. Mir Ashfaq Baloch, a Lyari-based politician, is another regular reader of Janbaz. On January 17, 2016, his younger brother Mir Ishtiaq Baloch, alias Mullah Pappu, who had contested local government polls from Union Committee 8 of Lyari, was killed outside his office on Ahmed Shah Bukhari Road. Gulabo, a gang commander loyal to Baba Ladla, was suspected to be behind the murder. Mir Baloch said that there were several rumours of Gulabo being killed in shootouts with the law enforcement agencies. “I heard that on the night of November 8, the police killed Gulabo in a shootout in Musharraf Colony. I could only confirm it when I saw the photo of his laash the next day in Janbaz.”
For Janbaz’s Iqbal Swati, who works with rudimentary equipment (the G5, a low-end compact camera by Canon), everyone can claim that someone was killed, “but a picture tells the truth”. The low technical standards of these images tend to reinforce their veracity, even if the blood of those pictured tends to be clumsily colour-enhanced for effect. As Susan Sontag writes in her last essay on war photography, “pictures of hellish events seem more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being ‘properly’ lighted and composed”.
The outsourcing of some of this photographic work to readers also endows it with a promise of immediacy. While sparing the newspaper the burden of reporting across the city, subcontracting these images provides readers with a representation of reality that circumvents professional journalists, who are always suspected of interfering with the naked truth. ?Some of the photographs of corpses published on a daily basis are sent to the paper by readers who arrived at the scene before the police or the ambulances of the Edhi Foundation, two institutions in which the journalists of Janbaz have key informants helping them with their own ‘forensic’ pictures. The use of subcontractors, who generally send their photographs via Whatsapp, is even more common for homicides occurring outside Lyari. This works well for Janbaz’s photographers, who are not always welcome as the newspaper has attracted many enmities in Lyari over the years. Iqbal Swati says, for example, that he was “tortured” several times by local thugs, and that he has been repeatedly robbed of his mobile phone, his camera, and even his motorcycle. Like other members of Janbaz’s editorial team, he limits his movements in Lyari and relies on a local network of informants and occasional contributors.
Thirty-five year old Akbar Jan, a resident of the Mai Garhi area of Manghopir, has been reading Janbaz for the last ten years, mostly out of curiosity over the feats of Lyari’s gangsters. A few years ago, he contacted reporters and photojournalists working with the newspaper. “They [journalists] cannot come to Manghopir easily to cover crimes and take photos of those killed in violent incidents,” he says. “So, occasionally I provide them with information and take photos for them.” Akbar Jan says that a number of photos he took and sent to Janbaz have been published. “I still keep those newspaper copies,” he says.
Not all inhabitants of Lyari buy into this promise of veracity-through-immediacy, though. As Saeed Khan, another photographer working for Janbaz explains: “When we take photographs of corpses in the morgue, sometimes we face major problems, especially when the families of the victims arrive and throw the journalists and the photographers out because they are afraid that we will write that their relative was affiliated to this or that group.” In addition, it seems fairly frequent for the parents of victims to burst into the newspaper office and protest against their loved ones, both living and dead, being labeled gangsters. “After that, we must publish disclaimers and explain that we were wrong and that in reality, that person was not related to any [criminal] group. Sometimes the police mislead us,” Khan says. But once a picture has been published, the damage has already been done. For example, one young man who was accused of being affiliated with the gangs on the pages of Janbaz was eventually sent to Dubai by his family as a means of protection until things cooled down.
As with any other image, reading these photographs—or in this case simply viewing them without flinching—is the outcome of a learning process. An illiterate housewife living in the troubled area of Kalakot in Lyari has been “reading” the paper for several years by looking at the photographs and having family members read stories out to her—a common practice in a context when many members of the older generation are illiterate. She explains how she initially struggled to look at the images of bloody corpses, how frightened she would get, and how she eventually “hardened” or became mazboot after years of exposure to them.
During the period of heightened conflict between rival gangs and law-enforcement agencies, many mothers spoke about reading Janbaz as a means of protecting their children from exposure to violence. Neelofar* said she only bought the newspaper during particularly tense periods to find out what happened and what was going to happen in order to make her children aware of possible dangers and to help them navigate the violence unscathed. Ghumnaam, a local poet and critic of the newspaper, even referred to Janbaz as ‘Nostradamus’ because of its seemingly visionary qualities. While readers may take what they read with a pinch of salt, in a climate of uncertainty and a context in which the mainstream press only selectively reports on Lyari, some information is still better than none at all.
For the readers of Janbaz, the appeal exerted by these images does not only have to do with a search for authenticity in a troubled world. When describing their ‘addiction’ for the paper, readers often use words such as “maza” or “chaska”. From the most assiduous to the most furtive of readers—those who content themselves with a mere peak at the bloody front page on newsstands—almost everyone acknowledges that there is also some pleasure to be derived from this cruel spectacle. This is what Muhammad Saleem, a 38-year-old Kathiawari running a newspaper kiosk in the Kalri locality of Lyari, suggested: “People enjoy reading Janbaz. By reading it they become really addicted. If you tell them that the newspaper is out of print and you suggest they buy another title, they will say, ‘Oh, it must have been a nice bundle of lies today to sell so well!’ When two or three wickets fall [when two or three people have been killed], they are not happy. ‘What are two or three wickets?’ they ask. ‘Give us more news!’ they say.”
Other residents speak about reading Janbaz because, if nothing else, it is their newspaper. Shagufta*, who lives near Timber Market and reads the newspaper religiously, says people like her read Janbaz because it is the only newspaper that covers Lyari so extensively: Galli galli ki khabar hoti hai (it reports the news of every street and lane.) In a context in which many residents feel otherwise marginalized, a hyperlocal newspaper solely dedicated to their area restored in them a sense of self worth and marked their place within the city—even if all the news reported about the area was negative.
Neither utilitarian nor moralist approaches à la Sontag take the full measure of what is at stake here, in the thousand and one ways that the readers of Janbaz have to navigate these illustrated news and arrange themselves with a troubling reality. The relation of the readers of Janbaz with their favourite journal is irreducible to its monitoring function of an unstable environment. In a context where many are unemployed or underemployed, Janbaz can also be experienced as a form of ‘timepass’ and can provide fodder for idle gossip among neighbours and friends, which suggests that the nonchalant consumption of horrific news is no monopoly of Western societies. This is not to say that these readers have been numbed by the spectacle of ordinary violence, or dumbed by the overflow of ‘fake news’. Even though they enjoy being taken for a ride now and then, they haven’t surrendered to the idea of living in a ‘post-truth’ era.
A challenging read
Besides the gruesome photographs adorning its front page, Janbaz has built its reputation around its riotous headlines. Where else would you find pieces of ‘news’ such as “Baba Ladla urf Ganja group auraton ke libaas mein burqe pehen kar grenade phektaa hai” (The gang of Baba Ladla, alias the gang of the bald, dresses as women and wears the burqa to throw grenades) (2 October 2015), or “Liaquatabad daak-khana: rickshaw pe firing. Driver golion se chalni ho gaya” (A rickshaw targeted at the Liaquatabad Post Office: its driver riddled with bullets) (2 March 2015)? Until recently, part of the ‘masala’ spicing up its front page was provided by the gangsters themselves. Gang leaders and their ‘commanders’ sent incendiary quotes to the paper via SMS or Whatsapp, in which they challenged or threatened their rivals. On November 14, 2014, for instance, a leading ‘commander’ of Uzair Baloch’s faction, Shiraz ‘Comrade’, lobbed a challenge at his rival, senior PPP worker and former UC nazim, Rauf Baloch: “Rauf Baloch teri ulti ginti shuru ho gai. Jan bachani hai, Lyari se bhag ja. Tum India ki sazish ke tehet Lyari mein Balochon ko qatl karane ae ho. Rauf Baloch tum jitna marzi bhaag lo main tumhen marunga” (Rauf Baloch, the end of your life is near. If you want to save your own life, pack your things and leave! You came to Lyari via an Indian conspiracy to kill the Baloch. Rauf Baloch, you can run as much as you want, but I will kill you.)
The police have often accused the newspaper of fuelling the conflicts between local gangs. A police officer at Kalakot police station termed it a ‘fasadi’ (incendiary) newspaper and claimed that, “They used to call up some gang commanders and provoke them in order to record statements against their rivals. Then they would contact rival commanders for a retaliatory statement. After the publication of such statements, we would often witness armed clashes between members of each faction in the streets of Lyari”.
But the police themselves were also a party to these press wars, with the boundary between criminals and the state becoming increasingly blurred. This mimesis culminated in January 2015, when the SHO of Kalakot, Haq Nawaz ‘Commando’, alias ‘Dabang’, exchanged a series of ‘challenges’ with Shiraz Comrade. The tussle started with the following statement from Haq Nawaz: “SHO Baghdadi Haq Nawaz Commando ka Shiraz Comrade ko challenge: Jitni marzi dasti bam hamle kar le, tera anjam ibratnak karunga. / Shiraz Comrade tu ‘hijra, khusra’ hai. Main mard hun. Teri laash ko pure elaqe ghaseetunga” (SHO Baghdadi Haq Nawaz Commando’s challenge to Shiraz Comrade: No matter how many homemade bombs you throw at me, I will ensure you meet a dreadful end. / Shiraz Comrade, you are a eunuch. I am a man. I will drag your body all over the neighborhood.) To which Shiraz Comrade replied: “Auraton ki tarah sar par dupatta aurhkar gharibon ko darane wale jali commando apni harkaton se baaz a jao, varna tera janazah uthane wala bhi koi nahin milega.” (You fake commando terrorizing the poor and wearing a scarf on your head like a woman, mend your ways or there’ll be no one to carry your bier at your funeral). Those exchanges went on for several days, with each protagonist questioning the manhood of his rival and threatening to “drag his body across the neighborhood”. While pointing at the mirroring effects between some police officers and their criminal ‘other’, these theatrics bore testimony to the banalisation of extra-judicial violence in Lyari and Karachi at large. (Laurent Gayer)
*Names changed to protect the anonymity of the respondent.
Laurent Gayer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI), Sciences Po, Paris, and the author of Karachi. Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, London, Hurst, 2014
Nida Kirmani is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)
Zia Ur Rehman is a senior journalist, covering Karachi at The News International