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Shahid Hayat — A Heroic Life Well-Lived

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Omar Shahid Hamid writes about the life and times of former Karachi police chief Shahid Hayat Khan, a Pashtun, who came to Karachi in the 1990s and as a police officer, emerged as a hero that the city needed in its dark days of unrest and violence.

Shahid Hayat Khan joined the Police Service of Pakistan on 19th October 1991, as part of the 19th CTP. Four days from now, he would have completed 28 years of service. As a young officer, he served in Punjab and in UN missions, before he and his entire batch were sent to Karachi in 1995.

At the time, the city was a war zone. The MQM had declared war against the state and the lives of 12 million people were in the hands of a vodka-Pakola swigging person sitting in an office situated above a convenience store and a taxi stand in North London. Citizens were murdered on a whim by Kalashnikov-toting MQM militants, bodies were found in gunny sacks on the roads everyday, and policemen were warned not to travel to their duty posts in uniform, for fear of being targeted.

The days that the body count strayed below double figures was considered a blessing.

Into this milieu arrived Shahid Hayat, an urbane, boarding school educated, proud Pashtun filled with a zest for life and a boundless curiosity, like all immigrants, to discover this city of lights, that had by a cruel twist of fate become something imagined in Dante’s vision of hell.

To start with, he was sent to one of the epicentres of the violence, an ASP Pak colony. The way, his Batchmate’s tell the story, he volunteered to go there because no one else was willing to. At a time when police officers went out to work every day assuming they would not be coming back, Shahid would go on patrol with a smile on his face and the latest Bollywood song playing in his Mobile’s tape deck.

It wasn’t that he didn’t fear death, he just didn’t believe in wasting time worrying about it.

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A few months into his posting , death came knocking. Orangi, neighbouring Pak Colony, was considered one of the two most dangerous police stations in Karachi. Walking in its gullies 25 years later, one could still feel the palpable sense of dread that the police officers must have felt back in 1995. MQM militants there organised an ambush, targeting Shahid and his police escort. The five of them were left for dead, and it was only through a miracle that Shahid survived, with a shattered jaw and proud scars that he would wear for the rest of his life.

He spent several months recuperating and on his return, when he was asked where he wanted to be posted, without a moment’s hesitation, he went right back to Orangi. For the next nine months he fought the terrorists to a standstill, until the streets of Orangi were safe.

18 Years later, he became the Karachi police chief at an even more crucial moment. The citizens of the city were plagued by a three pronged assault, from the Pakistani Taliban, the Lyari gangsters, and a new generation of MQM hitmen. Businessmen were shutting their shops, and everyone stepped out of their homes with two mobile phones: their own, and a cheap spare that could be surrendered without protest.

The police force was demoralised after 500 of their number had been murdered by the terrorists, without any attempt by the state to avenge them or even acknowledge them.

In its darkest hour, Karachi found its saviour. Over the next 8 months, the Karachi police suffered terrible losses, including one of its iconic officers, Chaudhry Aslam. Shahid went to every funeral, cried on every coffin, but kept fighting, through the city’s long night. 20 million people go to bed every night and wake every morning, in a city that is considerably safer, where Bhatta parchis no longer arrive with regularity to businesses, where Mangopir, Lyari and 90 are no longer no go areas, in large part due to the efforts that Shahid started in those 8 months, and that were then continued by those who followed.

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An overwhelming majority of those 20 million citizens will never know what a man from Dera Ismail Khan did for his adopted city, but perhaps they should know his story. He never did it for their thanks, he did it because it was his duty, and because it was the right thing to do.

They say a man is measured by the friends he makes and the enemies who stand against him. Shahid’s friends were legion, and they stood with him to a man through the raging torrents of every crisis he went through, from imprisonment, to death threats, to a trial by media, to, finally his battle with an incurable disease. If you asked any of them why they did this, the answer was always a simple one: “Because its Shahid. He would do the same for us without a thought.”

And what of his enemies? They were never smaller than him, always more powerful, malevolent, bullying entities who preyed on the weak and defenceless, whether it was the corpulent Altaf Hussain, the faceless hordes of the Pakistani Taliban, corrupt media moguls or sniveling and hopelessly compromised TV anchors. Shahid fought them all, and never gave up.

Life is about the battles you fight. Not whether you win them or not, but how you fight them. In the course of his life, Shahid Hayat was wounded twice in the line of duty, spent 24 months in jail, saved a city (twice), brought up two wonderful daughters, befriended even a fool like me, and finally, after having fought a deadly disease to a standstill literally with his last breath, succumbed to the will of the almighty. Truly it was a worthy life. We will all miss you.

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