By late 1979, markets in the tribal regions of Pakistan were flooded with AK-47s, smuggled across by Afghan refugees. – File photo
The famous Russian assault rifle, the Kalashnikov, also called the AK-47, or Klashni in the street and campus lingo of urban Pakistan, has become a permanent feature of the Pakistani landscape. The weapon of choice during student movements, ethnic and sectarian clashes, kidnappings, government raids, and militant uprisings, the AK-47 continues to feature in most acts of violence committed in this country. It’s almost hard to believe that the weapon was a scarce commodity in Pakistan until about 1977.
Before the storm
It is believed that some of the militant nationalists who were fighting an insurgency against the Pakistan Army in the remote mountains of the arid province of Balochistan (1973-77), had acquired a couple of AK-47s from Iraq, whose ruling Ba’ath Socialist Party was allegedly supporting the insurgency.
In 1973, the Pakistan government under the leadership of the popularly elected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto claimed to have confiscated a cache of 350 AK-47s from the Iraqi attaché’s house. The cache, the government claimed, was destined for Balochistan. In fact, some of the guns, it was believed, had already reached the Baloch militants.
Despite the government’s claims, there were very few reported incidents where the fighters of the leading Baloch militant organisation of the time, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), or its youth wing the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO), were said to have used AK-47s in their battles against the heavily armed Pakistan Army.
Instead, the Kalashnikov is reported to first appear in Pakistan on university campuses in Karachi and Lahore. However, sophisticated weapons were hardly available to or used by the youth in the campus violence between various student parties during the 1960s and 1970s. The brawling students usually used bare fists, chains, knuckle-dusters, and knives.
For example, in all the reported cases of campus clashes between the left-wing National Students Federation (NSF) and the conservative Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT) in the 1960s, there is no mention at all of students ever using any firearms.
Similarly in the 1970s as well, where NSF and BSO frequently clashed with right-wing student groups like IJT and Anjuman Taleba Islam (ATI), there are only two reported cases of firing, one at the University of Karachi (in 1974) and the other at Lahore’s Punjab University (in 1975). On both occasions, however, old pistols were used, and that too for aerial firing only.
The AK-47 largely remained an elusive and somewhat unknown weapon on the campuses of Pakistan, even though some IJT militants who met future Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in Peshawar in 1975, brought back tails of this “amazing weapon that was easy to use and twice as effective.”
Hekmatyar had been a leader of Afghanistan’s radical Muslim Youth organisation at the Kabul University in the early 1970s. First arrested in 1970 after he had killed a Maoist student leader, Hekmatyar was released when the nationalist Pushtun leader, Daoud Khan, toppled the Afghan monarchy in 1974. Hekmatyar soon turned against Daoud as well and in 1975 escaped to Peshawar.
Here he was approached by the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto regime and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies that financed and armed his group of Islamist renegades for an insurgency in Afghanistan against the Daoud regime, which had been calling for uniting Pakistan’s NWFP province with Afghanistan as part of Daoud’s plan for the creation of a ‘Greater Pushtunistan.’
Hekmatyar also managed to get his hands on a couple of AK-47s, bought from Afghanistan’s illegal weapons market with Pakistani money. Even though his group of insurgents comprised disgruntled young Afghan Islamists, some IJT members claim to have met him in Peshawar in 1975, and offered their services.
The insurgency was a complete failure and was easily crushed by Daoud. Hundreds of Hekmatyar’s men were killed and arrested. Nevertheless, Hekmatyar escaped arrest and returned to Peshawar where under the patronage of the Bhutto regime he formed the Hizb-e-Islami and started planning another insurgency against the secular Daoud government.
The Klashnikov arrives
Things for the failed Islamic revolutionary changed dramatically when, in 1978, Daoud was toppled in a communist coup led by the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), and its supporters in the Afghan military. Soon after, when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, the American CIA showed interest in helping Islamist groups stationed in Peshawar.
At the start of the CIA-ISI backed anti-Soviet ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan in 1979, Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami was the biggest anti-Soviet group in Peshawar. It was also one of the first groups of Afghan jihadists to receive arms and aid from the CIA, ISI and Saudi Arabia.
When in 1977 General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the elected government of Bhutto and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), he invited the staunchly anti-PPP Jamat Islami (JI) to join his first ‘civilian cabinet.’
By 1979, the JI was vowing to help Zia bolster public support for the ‘Afghan jihad’ and expunge all leftist and pro-Soviet elements in Pakistan’s intelligentsia, journalistic circles and campuses. The JI also developed strong links with Hekmatyar opening up channels of regular contact between IJT and Hekmatyar.
As the first batches of Afghan refugees started to cross into Pakistan from war-torn Afghanistan, with them also came black marketers dealing in captured and smuggled AK-47s and heroin.
By late 1979, markets in the tribal regions of Pakistan were flooded with AK-47s and heroin. The Afghans trading in these items were profitably escorted by assorted Pakistanis looking to make a fast buck. These included Army personnel, tribal leaders, pro-Zia politicians and some enterprising civilians.
The AK-47 first made its proper introduction in urban Pakistan in mid-1979 when the then leader of the IJT in Karachi and president of the student union at the University of Karachi, Hussain Haqqani, appeared on the campus with ‘bodyguards’ armed with AK-47s.
The bodyguards were led by Rana Javed, the notorious leader of IJT’s militant wing, the ‘Thunder Squad’ – a violent group formed in the 1960s (at the University of Karachi and Punjab University) to “curb immoral activities on campuses.” NSF, BSO, the Peoples Students Federation (PSF), and the Liberal Students Organisation (LSO) had a history of regularly clashing with IJT and its moral squad.
During one such clash in Karachi in 1979, the Thunder Squad announced the first known usage of an AK-47 in urban Pakistan when it fired upon a gathering of progressive students. There were no deaths, but the incident left anti-IJT forces badly shaken and awake to the reality of an enemy that was fast changing its tactics.
Javed and his men had come into contact with a Pakistani middle-man who had gotten them in touch with an Afghan gun dealer in Peshawar. Funds were raised by the IJT in Karachi (accommodated by the JI and its connections with Hekmatyar), and a group of IJT men travelled to Peshawar to buy their first cache of AK-47s.
The guns were stashed under the beds of the hostel rooms occupied by IJT members at the University of Karachi and the NED University. These guns were once again used in mid-1980 during a clash between NSF and IJT in which one NSF student was killed. This is reported to be the first casualty witnessed in a clash at the university.
Alarmed by the rapid arming of the IJT – allegedly a part of Zia and JI’s designs to push out ‘pro-Soviet students’ from campuses – the PPP’s student-wing, the PSF, and the nationalist BSO, were the first two non-IJT organisations to acquire AK-47s. Already put under tremendous pressure by constant arrests, torture and jailing by the dictatorship, the PSF in Karachi grew a more militant wing, led by Salamullah Tipu.
Tipu, who belonged to a lower-middle-class Urdu-speaking family of Karachi, had been a member of NSF in 1974-75 and was considered to be ‘a terror’ by the IJT. He switched to the PSF sometime in 1977 and soon became the leading member of PSF’s somewhat anarchic militant wing. This wing was not under the direct control of the PPP.
Soon after the death of the NSF member at the University of Karachi, Tipu and a few members of the BSO travelled to Peshawar There they got in touch with a Pakistani middle-man who drove them to the open weapons and drugs markets in the tribal areas of NWFP. These markets were now flush with smuggled AK-47s and drugs arriving from the war zones in Afghanistan. Many of the guns were also pinched away for private sale by administrators handling the arming of the Afghan jihadists.
There, Tipu and BSO activists bought themselves a couple of AK-47s and smuggled them via train back to Karachi. Tipu and members of the United Students Movement (USM) – a progressive students alliance at KU – also raided an IJT arms’ ‘warehouse’ in Karachi’s Shah Faisal Colony, and got away with a number of AK-47s.
In early 1981, Tipu, along with at least three more PSF members, entered the University of Karachi in a white Toyota Corolla with a PPP flag. He started shouting pro-Bhutto and anti-IJT slogans in front of an IJT camp on the campus. To the IJT members’ surprise, he whipped out an AK-47 and started to fire at the camp. No one was hurt.
Tipu then sped forward in his car and looking at an IJT leader, Hafiz Shahid, strolling outside the university’s library, he started to shout anti-Zia and anti-IJT slogans mixed with a barrage of choice Urdu abuses, all the while waving his brand new AK-47.
Incensed by the commotion, Shahid pulled out a pistol and fired at Tipu’s car. He is reported to have fired at least three shots that missed the target. Tipu jumped out from his car and fired a burst from his AK-47 at Shahid, who was hit in the chest and head. He soon succumbed to his injuries at the hospital.
After the killing, Tipu and his group of PSF militants escaped to Peshawar, and with the help of some members of a small pro-Soviet party in the Frontier province, tracked across the tribal areas into Kabul, where he joined Murtaza Bhutto’s anti-Zia guerrilla outfit, the Al-Zulfikar Organisation (AZO).
Three alliances emerged in the wake of IJT’s attacks and the PSF’s counter-attack. At the University of Karachi, BSO, PSF, the Pakhtun Students Federation (PkSF), Punjabi Students Association (PSA), and the newly formed All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO) further shaped the USM. NSF got together with a militant faction of PSF to form the Jamhoori Mehaz (Democratic Front). At the NED University, the progressives formed the Progressive Students Front.
With temperatures rising, IJT members now started distributing AK-47s to Thunder Squad personnel at Punjab University as well. Distressed by IJT’s violent growth there, breakaway militants from PSF, NSF and Tehrik -e-Istaqlal’s student-wing, the Istaqlal Students Federation (ISF), formed the Black Eagles. Outside the IJT, the Eagles were the first student group to acquire AK-47s in Lahore.
In mid-1981, the AK-47 claimed its third victim at the University of Karachi when IJT members allegedly mowed down Shaukat Cheema, a member of the USM. USM responded by asking its BSO members to deliver the alliance the connections that had supplied BSO and PSF militants AK-47s.
To avenge Cheema’s murder, during the 1981 student union elections, USM militants led by BSO’s Boro and PSF’s Shirin Khan, entered the University of Karachi from the NED University with AK-47s and long-range rifles. They attacked IJT militants standing outside the Chemistry Department, and soon an intense gun fight ensued in which at least one IJT member, Danish, was killed.
By 1982, IJT, PSF, PkSF, BSO, USM and Black Eagles all had caches of AK-47s stashed in their hostel rooms. Universities and colleges in Karachi and Lahore were now sitting on a volcano. Adding to the violent environment was the arming of the separatist Jeeay Sindh Party’s student-wing, Jeeay Sindh Students Federation (JSSF) – allegedly by Zia’s intelligence agencies “to neutralise PSF’s influence on Sindh campuses.”
Hell breaks loose
The AK-47 was also instrumental in Pakistan’s first-ever case of hijacking. In mid-1981, Tipu had re-entered Pakistan from Kabul (as a card-carrying member of Al-Zulfikar), and along with at least three to four more PSF militants, hijacked a Peshawar-bound PIA flight and forced it to land at the Kabul Airport.
The hijackers demanded an end to Zia’s military rule and the release of some 50 students loitering in various Pakistani jails. The list included arrested members of the PPP, PSF, BSO, NSF, some radical journalists as well as some members of small communist and regional parties, all picked up by the police between 1977 and 1980.
Tipu shot dead one of the passengers when the Zia regime stalled its response to the hijackers’ demands. The passengers were finally released when most of the prisoners were let out from the cramped jails of Sindh and Punjab by the regime.
It is interesting to note that until 1982, the AK-47 was only used by pro-Zia student organisations such as the IJT, and subsequently by anti-Zia student militants. It had yet to fall in the hands of organised gangs involved in theft, kidnapping and other crimes.
However, it is believed that the first time the AK-47 was used in a robbery in Pakistan was in 1981, during a bank heist in Karachi. But this heist too was planned and executed by Al-Zulfikar men, to raise money for their anti-Zia operations. These men used the same AK-47s to assassinate at least three pro-Zia politicians.
In 1983, a movement against the Zia dictatorship in Sindh – headed by the PPP-led Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) – was crushed by army personnel using force. Scores of young PPP, PSF and JSSF activists managed to escape death and arrest, and disappeared into the thick forests near the dusty towns of Dadu and Moro. These forests were already infested with Sindhi dacoits.
After the MRD action subsided, leaving behind a trail of death, destruction and thousands of arrests, many of the dacoits and their new comrades came into contact with separatist Sindhi elements who had direct links with Afghans and Pakistanis involved in the booming gun-running trade in the Frontier. By early 1984, most of these dacoits had armed themselves with AK-47s, using them for murder, highway robberies and kidnappings.
Meanwhile, in 1984, the Zia dictatorship used the growing violence in student politics as a pretext to ban student unions across the country. The same year, a major battle in which the AK-47 was prominent took place between USM militants and the police – sent to clear hostels after the student union ban – at the University of Karachi.
The battle lasted for over 10 hours, during which time USM students armed with pistols and AK-47s fought the police from the rooftop and windows of the hostel building. The police responded with pistol and rifle fire and teargas. Scores of policemen and students were injured before the hostel was finally taken by the cops.
By 1985, AK-47s were easily available in Karachi and their usage extended beyond university and college campuses; organised criminal gangs were now armed with Klashnis as well.
The major reason behind the weapon’s widespread availability was the influx of Afghan refugees, who in the early 1980s had started moving into the shanty towns of Karachi. With them came gun and drug runners and supplies of the AK-47 and heroin. Compared to the 1970s, crime in Karachi almost quadrupled in the eighties, and Karachi soon had the second-biggest population of heroin addicts in the world.
Mohajir anger towards Afghan gun-runners and drug peddlers (most of whom were Pashto-speaking) metamorphosed into agitation against the city’s Pashtuns, who had migrated from the NWFP in the 1960s. The tension between the two communities erupted in deadly riots and pitched battles. This violence eventually saw the APMSO give rise to the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM).
In the bloody 1986 riots between the mohajirs and the Pashtuns – the latter had used AK-47s, while the former had to make do with crude homemade weapons, especially those prepared by the Biharis from Karachi’s poverty-stricken Orangi area. These Biharis had migrated to former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during Partition, where they saw militant Bengali separatists make home-made weapons to use against the Pakistan Army in 1971.
Baptised by fire and bloodied by the AK-47s of the enraged Pashtuns and Afghans of the city, the MQM became desperate for modern weaponry. An APMSO delegation met with PSF militants and asked to buy AK-47s from them. But on the behest of the PPP, the PSF refused. However, in late 1986, another group of APMSO leaders was advised by a PSF member in Karachi to travel to Hyderabad and meet with the leaders of the JSSF at Sindh University, who would be interested in selling them arms. APMSO bought three AK-47s from the JSSF and managed to secure a link with Sindhi militants also operating as middle-men for Afghan gun-runners.
By 1987, the APMSO was flush with AK-47s as it began supplying the MQM with street-fighters. At this point, a separate militant wing of the party called ‘Black Tigers’ was also formed.
It was also sometime in 1987 that the AK-47 started to be called ‘Klashni’ (a word coined by APMSO militants) and the phrase “Kalashnikov culture” started to appear in the press.
In the Punjab, too, the AK-47 became the weapon of choice for criminals. Most of these deadly rifles were now brought into the city by members of Afghan jihad outfits and sold to nascent sectarian outfits that had started to appear in the Punjab and the Frontier during the peak of the Zia regime. Many of these organisations, which also became involved in various crimes, started to stockpile AK-47s and other weapons.
One of the most violent sectarian organisations was the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), formed in 1985 in the city of Jhang in the Punjab. The SSP’s first action was fomenting anti-Shia riots in Lahore in 1986.
Back for more
By the time Zia’s C-130 military aircraft crashed just outside Bahawalpur on August 18, 1988, the Kalashnikov culture had been ingrained in Pakistani society. This culture was defined by violence, corruption and intolerance, and caused the bullet to replace the ballot in the national political arena as well as on campuses.
It was not surprising, then, that within a year of Benazir Bhutto’s election in November 1988, violence erupted in Karachi, especially between APMSO and PSF. Both organisations now had strong militant tendencies and were well equipped with AK-47s.
MQM had swept the polls in Karachi and was part of the PPP coalition government at the centre and in Sindh. However, there were some radical elements in PPP and PSF who had opposed an alliance with the MQM, terming it “an anti-Sindhi party created by General Zia-ul-Haq.” While friction grew between the two parties, its student-wings clashed on university and collage campuses of Karachi.
The APMSO had become an important player in the student politics of Karachi, successfully sidelining the IJT. PSF too was a resurgent force on Karachi campuses after years of harassment and repression by the Zia regime and IJT violence. The PSF was being led in Karachi by Najib Ahmed, who was a leading voice to oppose an alliance with the MQM.
After the gun battles between the two student organisations at the University of Karachi, Urdu College and Sindh Medical College killed activists from both sides, an ugly round of kidnappings began in which both organisations kidnapped, tortured and then killed their opponents.
In late 1989, when Ahmed and his army of AK-47 brandishing PSF men seemed to be getting the upper hand in the gory violence, the most tragic moment of the battle arrived. After a deadly gun fight at the NED University in which brand new AK-47s were used by both the sides, some six PSF men ran out of ammunition and were apprehended by their APMSO opponents. They were then marched towards the neighbouring University of Karachi and taken inside the university’s gymnasium. Surrounded by APMSO gunmen, the PSF boys were asked to gather at the centre of the gymnasium. They were then asked to make a run for the exit doors. As they ran, they were brutally sprayed with bullets and cut to pieces.
PSF avenged the killing by kidnapping and killing a number of MQM and APMSO activists in Karachi’s Korangi area. The violence between the two became so intense that the PPP and MQM parted company, with MQM joining the Nawaz Sharif-led opposition cluster, the Coalition of Opposition Parties (COP).
In early 1990, PSF’s leader Ahmed too died when he was ambushed by APMSO and MQM militants on a busy Karachi street. His jeep was fired on by AK-47s from all sides. As Ahmed stumbled out of the bullet-ridden vehicle, bleeding from multiple bullet wounds, he tried reaching for his own AK-47. He eventually died at the hospital.
Meanwhile, the Punjab was facing political challenges as well. The province was being run by the staunchly anti-PPP (and ‘Ziaist’) Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). The PML’s student-wing, the Muslim Students Federation (MSF), had heavily armed itself and tried to dislodge the IJT from various universities and colleges in the Punjab. Meanwhile, in Jhang, regular riots and clashes between the SSP and various Shia groups exploded in which both sides used sophisticated firearms.
And the beat goes on
If the 1980s was a violent decade in Pakistan, the 1990s were even worse.
During Sharif’s reign in 1991, violence between student groups shifted from Karachi to Punjab’s campuses, where the MSF and IJT fought deadly gun battles, enough for IJT’s mother party, the JI, to quit Sharif’s coalition government at the centre. The JI also accused Sharif of not implementing the Shariah law promised by him before the 1990 elections.
Back in Sindh, Sharif’s Chief Minister Jam Sadiq Ali courted support for the Sharif government from the MQM. In the process Ali also used MQM and APMSO’s militant muscle in his egoistical battle against the PPP.
Jam had been a PPP man until the mid-1980s, when he had a falling out with Benazir Bhutto and was expelled from the party. He further armed MQM and APMSO to tackle ‘terrorists’ whom he claimed belonged to the Al-Zulfikar Organisation and were “disturbing peace in Sindh.”
However, during the summer of 1991, two high-ranking members of the MQM, Afaq Ahmad and Amir Khan, were expelled by the party chief, Altaf Hussain, on charges of corruption. Both were also leading members of MQM’s militant wing, the Black Tigers. They at once formed the breakaway MQM-Haqiqi (MQM-H), allegedly patronised by the Pakistani security agencies. Then, in June 1992, the Pakistani army intervened in a government-initiated military crackdown code-named Operation Clean-up, in order to quell the chronic ethnic unrest and rising cases of kidnapping and murder in the province.
It soon became obvious, though, that MQM militants were the main target of the military operation.
Jam’s tactics had become increasingly controversial and the way he was using the MQM started to alarm the intelligence agencies and the army, both of whom advised Sharif to take action. Hundreds of MQM and APMSO militants were killed and arrested in the operation. A large number of AK-47s and pistols too were recovered from the militants.
In 1994, the second Bhutto government began a fresh operation against the MQM, convinced that the first operation had failed to break the party’s back. Clashes and gun fights between MQM and MQM-H too increased, as MQM tried to retake the areas snatched from them by MQM-H.
Hundreds of MQM, APMSO, MQM (H) activists and members of paramilitary forces and policemen fell in violent battles during the three-year operation. It saw the infrastructure and the economy of Karachi collapse and dozens of businessmen and industrialists moving their families, money and businesses to the Punjab. The operation and violence continued until the fall of the second Sharif government in 1999.
While violence between MQM, MQM (H) and paramilitary forces was taking place, it created an opening for various Islamist and sectarian organisations to eventually move from the Frontier and Punjab and set up shop in Karachi. Some of these Islamists posing as ‘scholars’ and clerics moved openly with bodyguards armed with the now ubiquitous AK-47s.
With the government busy in trying to reign in the MQM by force, many of the Islamist groups in Karachi started taking over mosques and madrassahs. Many of these Karachi-based Islamists were instrumental in helping the Pakistani government and intelligence agencies in the indoctrination, support and creation of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Abruptly, and as if out of nowhere, with the coming of Pakistan’s fourth military dictator General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999, ethnic violence in Sindh came to a sudden and surprising halt. The operation against the MQM was stopped, Sharif and the PML (N)’s vendetta against the PPP was suspended, and it was expected that the new military man would also reign in the Islamists. But as it turned out, Musharraf was not the man for the job.
The Kalashnikov culture was well ingrained by the time Pakistan entered the new millennium. By now, the AK-47 was also pulled out in times of celebration. This tradition began in the mid-1980s, but became widespread in the early 1990s. Since then, the sound of the AK-47 stands out when thousands of guns are let loose on New Year’s Eve. The AK-47 is also fired during weddings.
During the Musharraf regime, gun battles on campuses and in urban areas decreased, and the AK-47 was primarily seen in the hands of private security guards and bodyguards. That said militants belonging to various Islamist organisations also began to carry arms openly, especially as a reaction to the Musharraf regime’s operation against them after September 11, 2001. Unlike the student militants of yore, none of these organisations had to struggle for their share of AK-47s.
A number of anti-Wahabi clerics and scholars assassinated in the last 10 years have been gunned down by AK-47s. During the Lal Masjid debacle in 2007, most of the militants operating in the radical mosque and madrassah in Islamabad could be seen brandishing AK-47s long before the government decided to take its haphazard and much-delayed action. AK-47s were also seen during a gun battle in Karachi on May 12, 2007.
Protests against Musharraf’s decision to depose Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry had not gone down well with the general’s allies in Karachi, the MQM. And when Chaudhry and his supporters in the PPP, PML(N), ANP, JI and the lawyers’ community brought their movement to Karachi, mayhem ensued. Shortly before Chaudhry landed in Karachi, militants belonging to the PSF, APMSO, PkSF, and IJT could be seen with AK-47s taking up positions along Shara-e-Faisal, Bundar Road, Guru Mandir and Golimar. The truth behind the clashes that took the life of dozens of men was drowned in accusations and counter-accusations that the involved parties pitted against each another.
That incident, one of the deadliest battles on the streets of Karachi, shows that the AK-47 has remained the weapon of choice. Of course, since 2005, gun battles involving the ubiquitous Klashni have seemed small fry events compared to the rising number of suicide attacks, bomb blasts and insurgencies perpetuated by the Islamist terrorist networks in Pakistan.
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