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.
Written by Praveen Swami
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.
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