Time has covered over the story with dust, but this fact is clear: one night in 1983, Pakistani police brought Muhammad Parial Chandio to the Shah Panjo railway station, an inconsequential stop along the line from Karachi to Quetta, in Sindh’s gritty Dado district. There, the police put a bullet through his head. His brothers, Ali Gaugar Chandio and Ali Gauhar Chandio, also died in shootouts with the police — just deserts, some newspaper reports from the time seemed to suggest, for the bandits who had killed hundreds.
But in the days after his death, thousands of mourners arrived at the grave of Paru Chandio — the affectionate name by which the bandit was known — bearing handwoven ajrak shawls to pay their respects. His life would be made into a Sindhi movie, starring top actor Mansoor Baloch, in which Paru Chandio appears as a benefactor of the poor, and a protector of their honour against the landlord.
Now, Pakistan’s army is chasing after Paru Chandio’s heirs: the bandits of the badlands along the Indus Valley, running from southern Punjab into northern Sindh — a bizarre operation involving helicopter gunships, that can only be likened to using a sledgehammer to swat mosquitoes.
What has happened to necessitate this extraordinary expedition — unprecedented since the days of Mughal expeditions against bandits preying on their supply lines? The answers lie in part in politics — but also go to the heart of the kind of order that Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif is trying to bequeath to his nation.
Last week, the army got its man — Ghulam Rasool, known by the affectionate and improbable alias ‘Chhotu’ — but vowed to stay on until the dozens of other gangs operating in the Indus were eliminated. It is, Pakistan’s generals ought to know, a Sisyphean enterprise: they’ve been here before, and failed. In the late 1980s, the bandits of the Indus emerged stronger than ever before — a little-noticed early blowback of Pakistan’s state sponsorship of jihadists in Afghanistan and India.
In the sole photograph of his that survives, Paru Chandio, his face adorned with a pink cap and a ferocious moustache, carries only a simple bolt-action rifle. His successors, the scholar Imdad Husain Sahito has recorded, were empowered by the easy availability of the Kalashnikov, as well as rocket launchers, supplied in epic numbers to the Afghan jihadists by the ISI.
The bandits, Sahito has noted, got modern weapons long before the police, supplied by traffickers, Afghan refugees, and corrupt security forces personnel — particularly in Balochistan, where many of the gangs had ethnic links.
In 1987, a former officer in Pakistan’s élite Special Services Group, Tahir ‘Dino’ Naqash, set up a gang supplying modern military training to bandits. Several other former military personnel who followed him even ran factories to repair weapons and store ordnance, contemporary accounts suggest.
From 1984 to 1994, Sindh alone saw 11,436 officially-recorded kidnappings for ransom, as well as 1,337 killings. The gangs also operated the equivalent of a rural protection racket, demanding payoffs from the region’s notorious Wadera landlords, and cutting down their mango and lemon orchards should they not cooperate.
Like all entrepreneurs of violence, the bandits established their authority through terror. In one infamous case, the bandit gang of Qabil Chacher raided the village of Yoonis Kosh and shot dead 18 members of a family, including six children, to avenge his brother’s murder.
In 1991, fearing the dogged independence of ethnic nationalists in Karachi, the ISI fabricated the now-notorious Jinnahpur plot — an alleged conspiracy by the Mohajir Qaumi Movement to set up a separate state.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1992, followed by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1993, backed the army’s plans to crack down on the MQM — leading to a bloody war in Karachi — to break the complex web of organised crime operations that sustained the party’s power.
In rural Sindh, the operations, codenamed Blue Fox, took the form of anti-dacoity operations — a codeword which was liberally applied to trade union organisers, peasant activists and bandits alike. The bandits, ironically, appear to have seen a surge in their legitimacy, by making cause with urban dissidents.
In other areas, the bandits served as protectors of their clans or caste groups. Thus, in last year’s byelection for the Haripur National Assembly seat, PML-N candidate Babar Nawaz proudly proclaimed: “I come from a family of robbers and dacoits. We have been doing this for generations, and we will do this unto death.”
Ever since Prime Minister Sharif took office, there’s evidence the police have been doing battle with the bandits. Last year, several hundred police, backed by helicopter gunships and armoured personnel carriers, took on bandits in the Raunti area of Ghotki district, following the kidnapping of seven police officers from an outpost near Rahim Yar Khan. Their key target, Muhammad ‘Sulto Shar’ Sultan, escaped after blowing up a police vehicle using a rocket-propelled grenade.
Top dacoit Nazroo Narejo was shot dead in an operation last July, while four bandits and five policemen lost their lives in a pitched battle near Mirpur Khas early this year.
But, like bandits in so many settings across the world, Pakistan’s dacoits have proved resilient in the face of state action, dissolving into their welcoming social milieu when faced with repression — only to resurface again.
For many among the region’s élite, though, the pervasive lawlessness in the Indus forests — hitting their lives in the form of kidnappings for ransom and extortion — are a sign of how ineffective Pakistan’s democracy is. The army’s intervention speaks to this élite, and its hopes for a reordering of Pakistan’s political life.
Gen Sharif’s objective is, thus, to show that the Pakistan Army can restore order more effectively than civilian government — legitimising his claim to institutional primacy as a kind of manager and chief executive of the democratic system.
Though the results aren’t in fact stellar — 13 members of the Chhotu gang have surrendered, with an army spokesperson saying they will be “transported and interrogated” but notably omitting the word “prosecuted” — few have challenged the army narrative head-on.
The army seeks a reason to remain engaged in Punjab, thus allowing it to hold a sword over Prime Minister Sharif’s political machine, without actually starting up a bloody war with jihadist organisations present there — the stated raison d’etre of its initial deployment. The anti-bandit operations will allow the projection of military power in the countryside, creating an axis of patronage that, the generals believe, will slowly undermine the PML-N.
Is this game going to succeed? It is hard to say, but there’s at least some reason for doubt. For one, banditry has deep roots in the region, drawing on deeply iniquitous power structures in the agrarian countryside. And a stagnant economy and decaying institutions mean there are few prospects for the large youth cohort.
The jihadi and the bandit both offer liberation to this group: while the jihadi offers redemption through sacred violence, the bandit holds out the prize of agency and wealth in this world.
Leaders from Pakistan’s political parties, understanding that complex social problems can’t be beaten into submission, have chosen to walk softly around the problem. The generals, with their big sticks, might be stirring up more trouble than they counted on.
Who are the Chhotu gang?
Bandits operating along a 150-km stretch of the Indus, roughly between Dera Ghazi Khan in southern Punjab and Kashmore in Sindh. The gang, which has perhaps 300 members and controls several river islands, is one of several that are active at the intersection of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan provinces. It is led by a man called Ghulam Rasool alias Chhotu, who surrendered to the Pakistan Army along with 13 members of the gang on April 20. Profiles of the bandit in the Pakistani media say the name Chhotu was given to him by Baba Long, whose gang he joined as a teen around 1990 to take back his family land allegedly snatched in a tribal dispute. He was by then already accused of murder. In 2005, his gang kidnapped 12 Chinese engineers working on the Indus Highway, but ultimately released them without a ransom.
With ENS input