Small matter of the Chotoo gang

Updated April 15, 2016


The writer is Dawn’s resident in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident in Lahore.

THIS was hardly the teaser the Punjab police were looking for. The force has spent the last fortnight trying to somehow get hold of the infamous Chotoo gang in the kacha area of southern Punjab bordering Sindh and Balochistan. This action has come at a time when the government has declared its intentions of carrying out an ‘operation’ against the terrorists. It was presumed that the operation would at some point also target common criminals.

At this crucial juncture, a debate was on as to what role was to be assigned to the police department in the fight prescribed under the National Action Plan (NAP). There was one group that was totally disillusioned with the police’s ability and capacity to play more than an occasional errand boy in the scheme. Even that part was to be assigned to your everyday policeman in the face of considerable risk. The theory saw the police condemned as part of the problem — perhaps a reason for NAP to work out a solution to the multifaceted law and order situation.

There was another school though which appeared to base its argument on reality. It stressed with a lot of sense that the police had to be central to the campaign for uprooting terrorism and other crimes in Punjab. Indeed, a case was presented for utilising police expertise that had not been properly tapped into so far for one reason or another. Not least, the senior police officers were heard frequently murmuring about the dire need of restoring the prestige and morale of the force.

The latest operation may be one of the most sustained operations carried out against Chotoo. But the modus operandi has raised several questions.

Action where the police led the advance against a prominent target could well have been the ideal way of starting a drive for bringing about a much-wanted change in the police’s image and their fortunes. The long-drawn-out, at times most frustrating, raid inside the gangsters’ safe havens in southern Punjab is the worst thing that could have happened to the police at this stage.

The area that has been home to various gangs, among them one led by Ghulam Rasul alias Chotoo, has been a real headache for law enforcers for the last so many years. Journalists and other residents in and around D.G. Khan recall many attempts at flushing out Chotoo and the rest from their island-like refuge that, by virtue of having been hidden from view, has been a source of unending stories, some of them quite incredible.

Chotoo himself is the stuff of legends. The account of his life follows a familiar pattern. He is described as someone stumbling upon a career in crime at a very young age. It is said that he fell prey to the police who were looking for easy suspects after his older brother had been accused of multiple murders. A tainted reputation and a leg broken by police torture, the story goes, led Chotoo into the camp of those who are called hardened criminals.

This was back in the 1990s. Over the years, through his battles with the law enforcers and rival gangs, Chotoo has grown into the most dreaded and most elusive gang leader in the area. He has defied the police for long, and his hideout has come to be known as the safest destination for those kidnapping individuals from various parts and then selling them off to gangs in this southern Punjab safe zone. His has been, by and large, a no-go area for the police, barring a few sporadic strikes that failed to have a huge impact on his status.

The latest operation may be one of the severest and most sustained operations carried out against Chotoo and his gang. But the modus operandi has raised several questions. Not least pertinent, and linked to the police image, is the sensitive point about the apparent lack of direction the raid suffered from. It was as if the police were ambushed, whereas those leading the operation ought to have been familiar with and prepared for the tactics adopted by the gangsters. There were times when it appeared as if the law enforcers had volunteered walking into a trap.

Maybe, there was more to it than was allowed to emerge from the battle zone. The police were not inclined to share details about the action with the media — unlike previous occasions when attempts were made to quell these criminals. There was this bit that, from the beginning, the Rangers wanted to have an operation of their own.

It was clear that while the senior officers in the police might be unable to absolve the force of the more serious accusations of inefficiency and lethargy, they were good enough to follow one basic principle of the new-wave combat strategy: keeping journalists as far away as possible from developments on the ground.

Even the counter-terrorism department or the CTD, which is wholly comprised of the more able and salvageable elements within the police, is most reluctant to share information with the media save for occasions where a leak is useful and thus necessary.

To many, it was obvious that the law enforcers needed to find ways of starving the gangsters taking refuge along the river for supplies. If the tactic was attempted, quite probably the gangsters had more in store than the police had estimated. The prolonged stand-off created an impression relating to the unpreparedness of the law enforcers, which in turn spelt out the dangers that lay ahead amid all these vows about cleansing Punjab of all kind of criminals — and fast.

So many members of the police force so bravely went out into the difficult territory to take on gangs that were fully equipped to take advantage of the conditions. Despite this, the police action seemed rushed, even forced, and short of ideas at a time when a morale booster was desperately needed.

The writer is Dawn’s resident in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2016