IN April 2016, a clean-up operation was carried out in the kutcha area of the Rajanpur district in Punjab which supposedly uprooted the notorious Chotoo gang from the lawless stretch along the Indus River. There were many who warned at the time that this was not quite the end. Fears remained and many of the gangsters who had fled in the wake of action which involved the military quietly returned to this troubled part of southern Punjab, and eventually to their old ways. In the last six weeks alone, there have been at least four murders blamed on one or the other splinter group of the erstwhile Chotoo gang. Two of the casualties were policemen, who were again targeted on Sunday when seven of them were kidnapped before being released under unclear circumstances. Some reports said the policemen had been recovered after a crackdown ordered by the Punjab chief minister. In what is not unusual in such instances, there were also rumours of a deal. In the end, the police officials vehemently denied that the captive law enforcers had been swapped with gangsters in police custody; yet it was clear that in some ways, the criminals in the kutcha area, vanquished with so much fanfare last year, were dictating terms to those responsible for law and order.
The kutcha areas are a real challenge to govern at all times given the natural cover they provide for those looking to hide after committing a crime. The stretch is even more difficult to penetrate when the Indus is at its annual peak as it is these days. On the other hand, the police are not at all equipped to deal with these elements, the remnants, so to speak, of the Chotoo gang, whose numbers, according to some estimates by local journalists, could run into the 40s or 50s. They are not your usual criminals but hardened combat-happy souls whose removal necessitated help from the army last year. Once again, there are voices calling out for the military to augment the police’s law-enforcement apparatus for decisive and hopefully final action against the criminals who are regrouping in the area. The ultimate answer to the problem will have to be a police force which is crafted in accordance with the particular demands of the place. Being ill-equipped cannot be a permanent excuse for inaction.
Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2017