Why exactly do criminals gangs flourish in the katcha area of South Punjab and what lies in store for the area in the wake of Operation Zarb-e-Ahan?
Soon after the terrorist attack in Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, security forces launched an ‘operation’ in Punjab, especially its southern part.
The operation Zarb-e-Ahan was first started by the police and Rangers on April 5, 2016 which did not yield the desired results. Dozens of policemen lost their lives and 24 policemen were held hostage by the Chotu gang. In about 18 days, the army had to intervene. The ISPR announced that "the Pakistan Army had taken charge of the operation and launched a full-fledged ground and aerial offensive" in the Kacha Jamal area of tehsil Rojhan in Rajanpur. It is located in Koh-e-Suleman Range, near the inter-provincial borders of Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab.
The army laid siege around the hideout of Chotu for many days. After negotiations and the help of mediators, Chotu along with his other 12 companions surrendered before the army and released 24 hostages. There still are 150 people belonging to other gangs who are determined to fight till death.
This is one example that proves the provincial minister Rana Sanaullah wrong who insisted there were no no-go areas in Punjab. It shows how formidable the gangs operating in South Punjab and across the provincial boundaries are. Police is no match for their strength and only the army could make a few of them surrender.
It should be noted that there have been about half a dozen big and small operations against the Chotu gang, and every time police has had to return empty-handed.
One needs to look into the reasons that allow such gangs to flourish in this part of the province and factors that hamper efforts to eliminate them or bring them to book.
Sources among locals tell that many such gangs have been operating in this area for decades. It is commonly believed they even enjoy the support of sardars, police and local administration. They also say that local people take pride in these gangs, and tribes with stronger outlaws feel superior to others whose members form weaker gangs.
Mushtaq Gaadi, an anthropologist and academic who hails from South Punjab, says the area of Kacha has strategic importance as it connects Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab. "Chotu is a desirable character needed by the local elite in such kind of topography. He was created by the state and will be eliminated when the state wants him no more." He says local sardars and administration had used him for political purposes. "Sardars engage these elements to achieve their prime targets and Chotu is just one of the many like him," he says.
According to Gaadi, the writ of the state has weakened in this belt and the past is evidence of it. "Now the security forces will fix their eyes on this route. Most probably a cantonment will be established here."
Sarmad Saeed Khan, former additional inspector general Punjab (IGP), endorses his sense that security agencies will focus on this area now. During his posting in this region, Khan tried to crush local gangsters but found it difficult to do that.
Gaadi says local people like lawbreakers give a tough time to the police because people are treated badly by police. "It is cathartic for them. Local sardars of this terrain deliver justice to the residents and run parallel courts for simple and illiterate people. Rarely do they visit police stations for justice as our policing system has failed to provide justice to them. Even the FIRs are lodged on the instructions of local MPAs and MNAs. So the commoners and dacoits knock at the doors of influential sardars where they get results within no time."
To get their orders executed and decisions implemented, the sardars need gangs like Chotu’s, he says.
Khan says the belt is located next to Dera Bugti, Balochistan. "Rebels come from there and hide in Kacha. The Sindh border also falls in the area. The criminals reside on both banks of Indus River and belong to Multan, Muzaffargarh, Ali Pur, Rajanpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Jacobabad and Sukkur. They have close ties with each other. This area is safe haven for hardcore criminals due to its location."
Besides, he says, when the criminals cross over to other provinces, the [Punjab] police "cannot follow them without permission".
Gaadi says that the Baloch tribes are nomadic. They leave the area when water rises in Indus River. "As the water level goes down they return to river Indus. Many of them live in the riverbed." He says these gangs kidnap and loot people, and return to the islands in River Indus where they feel safe. "Due to illiteracy, they cannot find jobs so they have to rely on kidnappings for ransom, stealing and robberies. Being part of a criminal gang is not a matter of shame for the families."
The area is said to be without any proper educational and health facilities. Gaadi says neglect by the state is the main reason for lawlessness here. "It is the responsibility of the government to open new schools and give them proper education. The government should open new venues for jobs. People should be sent to the Gulf countries to earn if opportunities at local level are limited," he suggests.
Khan recalls that when he was posted in Rahim Yar Khan in 2002-2003, he raided the Kacha areas to crush Baba Luong gang which was one of the many gangs operating at that time. But the operation could not succeed. "People of the area inherit criminal traits from their parents. They rear animals like goats and sheep. Their sources of livelihood are limited so they depend on kidnapping for ransom, car snatching etc."
He believes a police operation against the Chotu gang without understanding the terrain of that particular area was impossible. "The dacoits were hiding in dense forest and riverine island. They know how to use trees and plants for hiding. Bunkers made of concrete were shelters for gangsters. The policemen who advanced to attack on the dacoits were sailing on ferries that were not bullet proof. So, the policemen became easy prey of dacoits and lost their lives."
Khan says the Punjab police was not given gunship helicopter despite repeated requests. "It seemed the IG Punjab sent police in haste on the pressure of Chief Minister Punjab Mian Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, so that army could be restrained from taking part in the operation."
A local tribal elder thinks there will be many more operations "as this belt is in the way of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and it will have to be made safe. Chinese are also concerned as Chotu gang had kidnapped 12 Chinese engineers from the Indus Highway in 2005."
Nabeela Ghazanfar, spokesperson for IG Punjab, tells TNS that a long-term plan is also being adopted. "A riverine force will be deployed in the rivers in Punjab. The force is especially being trained against dacoits in the Kacha areas of South Punjab. After completion of Zarb-e-Ahan, security issues will be revised by the IG Punjab."