Asif Nazar Butt, better known by his stage persona DJ Butt, coordinates the music during a rally of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Islamabad | AFP
Asif Nazar Butt, better known by his stage persona DJ Butt, coordinates the music during a rally of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Islamabad | AFP

It was just over a month ago that the mercurial sound artist known as DJ Butt was assailed by the police in Model Town Lahore.

He was sleeping in his café-turned-event management office at the time. Now, when the newsreels and talk shows have moved on, when the murmurs of political retribution have gone quiet, he shows me CCTV footage from the day of the incident. He wants the world to know exactly what happened.

The 11 cameras cover the entirety of his three-floor set-up. A basement which he uses as a store room, a ground floor with a kitchen and some tables, and a second floor with two white Rexine sofas sitting next to a computer. His work station.

The time stamp says 2am on December 9. He’s sitting with his video editor and some clients, discussing a promotional video for their event. At this hour, the market outside is empty. He points to the footage and highlights the speakers in his basement, covered and unused. Speakers that will be the subject of police charges in a few hours — that he was playing music loud enough to wake the dead.

After the clients leave, he spends the night rendering videos till he falls asleep on one of the sofas, at eight in the morning. At 12pm, a police van drives up to the café entrance. One of the officers asks Butt's office helper, who's dusting and rearranging furniture, where his employer is. The boy tells them he’s sleeping, and they leave, only to return with more vans and more purpose 30 minutes later. The officers climb up the stairs, this time to demand Butt's presence.

The office boy tells them he's in the washroom on the roof. I see two of them push him aside and burst into the final CCTV frame. On an otherwise quiet Wednesday afternoon, while he's washing his hands in front of a faucet, DJ Butt is being commanded by police officers to accompany them to the A Block Model Town station. Without telling him why.

Still from CCTV cameras during the police raid on DJ Butt’s office
Still from CCTV cameras during the police raid on DJ Butt’s office

Outside the café, two Dolphin Police bikes and one Police Response Unit vehicle join the scene; inside, Butt can be seen remonstrating on camera. He says he kept asking the police what crime he was being charged under, but their reply was only insistence that he turn himself in. Butt takes out a phone to call his brother next. "I had to ask him to come and help."

The most famous sound engineer in Pakistan finds himself caught, yet again, in the crossfire between the government and the opposition. But who is DJ Butt anyway?

It’s at this point that the officers start dragging him by his arms. When that doesn't work, they grab one of his legs and start pulling. Two officers at first, then more join the tussle. Butt tries to flatten himself on the ground, but enough hands exert enough force to drag him away. When they reach the stairs, Butt manages to entangle his free leg inside a railing. For the next 30 seconds, they're unable to make him move, until one policeman in a hoodie starts kicking him with his leather boots, to force him to let go.

Shouting for help, screaming injustice to his neighbours, DJ Butt is dragged outside and put in the back of a Hilux. He says he had 63,000 rupees in his pocket as advance for the promotional video, from earlier.

“They took that too.”

Asif Nazar Butt first met Imran Khan in 2011, when PTI was looking for someone to set the stage for their never-ending protests. Asif is his given name, but he goes by the epithet of DJ, which is what he does, what he’s known for.

Khan wanted to blow open conventional politics and move away from familiar names and ideas. He wanted to appeal to the nation's youth and DJ Butt seemed an ideal hype man, because he had an ear for rhythms, for moods. He had entrance music, segue music, intermission music; he played patriotic anthems around speeches of nation-building, he played Jazba-e-Junoon when the gatherings entered a lull, he played Ataullah Esa Khelvi when the crowd was jovial.

Imran Khan with his friend-turned-foe DJ Butt, during PTI dharna days
Imran Khan with his friend-turned-foe DJ Butt, during PTI dharna days

In person, Asif Butt is long locks and flashy shirts. He has a yellow Honda Civic fitted with an air dam to make it look sporty, he has a red Toyota Sera with side hatching doors. All his cars carry the DJ Butt number plate. In one of his social media videos, he mentions a guy his fans can call to have gold bracelets made with personalised inscriptions on them, "like mine". His bangs, his chains, his modes of transport, are all there to make a statement, and it's one people have clearly been paying attention to.

Butt was a helper at a coffee shop back in 1996. The owners left and sold the machines to him and his brother, who decided to keep the coffee corner in Model Town's Bank Square Market. But his success in life didn’t come from caffeine, it came from weddings. He used his track-spinning skills, honed at the cafė, as a platform for tapping into Lahore's biggest monetary expenditure on entertainment: rich people's mehndis.

He is the first person I remember with his own brand of wedding music systems. Before him, there was generic, unlabeled paraphernalia. Then suddenly the equipment had a name. He doesn't remember, but he provided the sound for numerous events in my university too. He was doing corporate launches on one side and religious events on the other. He was doing concerts, he was doing private gatherings, and soon the parties he provided the sounds to turned political.

Having worked on Tahirul Qadri’s International Milaad Conference at Minar-i-Pakistan in 2007 — the first of that scale and the first at that venue — Qadri called him again, six years later, when he was in Islamabad to topple a federal government. He called to say he'd lost his voice after days of shouting over a megaphone and he needed his sound wizard again.

Around the same time, he was providing the soundtrack to the political trajectory of PTI. Khan was so impressed with his first performance that he dubbed DJ Butt his 'official sound engineer'.

To clarify his status, he sent Khan an email in 2013 asking if he could do sound systems for other political parties too. Khan said ‘yes, but you must come whenever I call you for something important.’ Butt went on to do the Metro Bus Service launch for Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN). Then suddenly, every televised political event had the words DJ Butt emblazoned on the podiums and lecterns, replete with his phone number that he says people often called — for bookings — even while the speeches were going on.

Ever the nose for commerce.

Taking it all in: DJ Butt enroute PTI's Minar-i-Pakistan rally on March 23, 2013.
Taking it all in: DJ Butt enroute PTI's Minar-i-Pakistan rally on March 23, 2013.

After the police took DJ Butt from his café, after the ruckus was over and the CCTV cameras were serene again, two officers came back to the premises to look for the memory storage they connected to. They were told it was all online, not here, but they searched the place anyway.

I saw them look up at the cameras often, in the hopes of unveiling their secrets. They inspect something for 10 minutes that Butt told me was just an amplifier — disconnecting which didn't stop the monitor feed. Then I saw two armed policemen standing there watching themselves in the CCTV footage, trapped in a digital loop they were unable to end. When they finally gave up on finding the DVRs, they recovered a 12-bore rifle from Butt's closet instead. Then they started picking up his speakers and putting them in the van along with the rifle and the amplifier. Speakers that were still covered, still unused.

Back at the Model Town station, his friends and supporters were surreptitiously recording audio clips to document proceedings. One clip he plays for me starts with the SHO asking him to confirm that Butt is his actual caste: "There are some just going about calling themselves that name these days." Butt insists it is. It is a Lahori custom to ask not who you are, but who your ancestors were.

In another clip, the SHO is asking, ”What are all these other people doing in my station?” Butt replies that they came when they found out what happened, he hadn't called anyone other than his brother.

Asif Nazar Butt first met Imran Khan in 2011, when PTI was looking for someone to set the stage for their never-ending protests. Asif is his given name, but he goes by the epithet of DJ, which is what he does, what he’s known for.

The SHO asks him about the rest of his family, other siblings. "Any sisters?" Butt says yes, "But you can look up the Nadra records. I'm not telling you their names." The SHO asks why, we are not going to cause them shame or embarrassment. Butt says, "Isn't that all you people do?"

The FIR against Butt reads ‘possession of illegal weapon’ and ‘violating the Speakers Act.’ The rifle, he says, he got during the 2014 rallies, where he claims he received death threats. "It is licenced. They know it is licenced." Butt laughs and tells me the SHO Model Town has gone hunting with that very same rifle, borrowed for a weekend. "I have no idea what the police are doing."

A few weeks prior to his arrest, Butt had provided the sound system for the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM) countrywide protests, against what they term anti-democratic forces in the federal government — another mass political agitation, but against the PTI's own incumbency this time. PDM had a rally planned for December 13, in Lahore, just days after Butt was picked up. There have been a number of other PDM leaders and workers arrested over public gatherings too. There were warnings from Islamabad that political processions and rallies were violating Covid-19 protocols and thus a threat to public health.

Butt was not only fitting PDM's stages, he had made public pronouncements that he would work for Maryam Nawaz — Imran Khan’s burgeoning political adversary — if he were adequately compensated. That he was a technician, not a politician. That his business was not his ideology. That he was still Khan’s Tiger, at heart, but he would not forsake his work.

Still, Asif Butt denies having any plans for the December 13 rally itself. "I was heading to Malam Jabba and Kalam the next day, for the Explore Pakistan event. I have the bookings to prove it." Yet he ended up behind bars anyway.

He posted bail of 50,000 rupees the next day. The District Court judge hearing Butt's case then sent the documentation back to the police because the gun serial number was incorrectly filed. Butt resignedly says this is just how they waste people’s time. He says the case has no legal legs to stand on, that it was an abduction not an arrest. "I know people in the police. I kept asking them why I was picked up and they kept saying the orders came from above. ‘Nothing we can do’.”

Butt HQ: Coffee with a sweetener of music.
Butt HQ: Coffee with a sweetener of music.

Butt is no stranger to police reports. Back in 2014, during the PTI Islamabad sit-in, he was charged with violating Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code — which bars the use of loudspeakers at political gatherings. He was taken into custody from a guest house near Melody Market during a police raid. I remember PTI's social media was outraged and trending #FreeDJButt.

Just a year after that, the tables of outrage suddenly turned.

Butt called a press conference to say the PTI still owed him money promised for his services. He claimed they paid him 60 million rupees while his expenses amounted to 140 million. Imran Khan constituted a committee to look into the matter, yet Butt says when he called them they would never give him a straight response, blaming this and that for the delay. "I was being kicked around like a football."

Things became more convoluted in 2015 when the Punjab Revenue Authority sent him a notice of 17 million rupees in unpaid taxes on revenue earned through his political rally incomes. Butt maintained he never received the complete payments from PTI for the tax to be eligible. He fought and overturned the notice in a year. He says he forgave most of PTI’s outstanding payments in deference to the work Khan had got him, and still promised to, in the future.

Then in July of that year, eight men armed with weapons and sticks assaulted DJ Butt and his workers at his embattled café. The attackers tried bundling him into their vehicle before nearby traders came to his rescue. "Then they fled while resorting to aerial firing."

He filed a police case, which was described as 'a scuffle over a parking issue' involving an influential person's wife, a car stopped from parking in front of the cafė, and belligerents sent to avenge the influential people’s honour. Recordings from the same CCTV cameras the police were unable to locate this time, were sent as evidence for the FIR.

Butt has a strong sense of being victimised. He complains of the smaller Urdu dailies that carry paid, defamatory content against his name. Butt says he's vilified because he's famous, because he's self-made. He has this sense of the working-class struggle. He’s a married man — he has a son and a daughter — but he doesn’t talk about his family in public out of fear of retribution. Now he’s stopped talking politics too.

At the end of December 2020, Butt was invited to a sound association conference in Multan to reiterate the stance he's been giving in interviews, that the government should stop harassing sound engineers and technicians. That if they want to stop processions and rallies, they should arrest the people organising them.

He says dozens of FIRs are filed every day on the purveyors of sound systems, but none against the people paying the money for them. "We are working-class people making ends meet. We pay tens of thousands in taxes. We don't do it to disturb the peace."

An ASI who met Butt in jail last month, told him he would get more cases registered against Butt’s mercenary sound services. Targeting every rally he’s associated with, offering endless other legal threats. He says he didn’t know how to respond to that. "The police claim they don't hate the person, they hate the crime, but the reality is completely opposite."

When he was looking at the cameras at his post-bail interview, when he was asked for comparisons and saying 'this incident was much worse than what the police did to me under the last government', DJ Butt took a minute to address Prime Minister Imran Khan directly and asked, "Where are those police reforms you promised?"

It is a question that resonates with the rest of the country.

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @haseebasif

Originally published in Dawn, EOS, January 24th, 2021