EVERY few years, Sindh’s dacoit problem becomes too big to ignore, the violence too egregious to overlook, and the impunity with which the outlaws operate too shocking to brush under the carpet. Once again, action is being planned against their hideouts in the riverine forests of upper Sindh. Precipitating this sense of urgency is the bloody encounter that took place between law-enforcement and dacoits in Shikarpur district’s Garhi Tegho area on Sunday.

The clash left two policemen, an SHO’s private guard and a police photographer dead. Seven cops were wounded in the operation to rescue six kidnap victims. On Monday, Shikarpur police along with local police claimed to have arrested a tribal chief and his two sons in Karachi for allegedly patronising criminals in the katcha areas along the Indus. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah told the press yesterday that an ‘operation clean-up’ is being finalised against the dacoits and their abettors in Kashmore and Shikarpur districts.

The dense riverine forests provide excellent cover for the outlaws where they can disappear after committing their crimes, which run the gamut from murder and extortion to kidnapping for ransom. While that is true, there is also a political dimension to the perennial law-enforcement problem. In the 1980s, Gen Ziaul Haq gave a free hand to the outlaws in order to counter the resistance movement, which had its primary support base in Sindh, against his military regime. Later, the PPP’s political opponents in the province were said to have patronised the dacoits so as to keep parts of interior Sindh in a perpetual state of lawlessness, which of course reflected poorly on Benazir Bhutto’s government. However, a report by former SSP Shikarpur Dr Rizwan Ahmed that came to light last year contained explosive allegations about a nexus between certain Sindh cabinet members and notorious criminals of the area leading to a complete breakdown in law and order. The episode ended without a credible investigation into the charges by the senior police officer, who was himself then subjected to an inquiry and transferred out of the province.

Now, matters have again come to a head, as they were bound to do. It is high time the Sindh government dealt with this menace comprehensively without fear or favour. If the dacoits have no support within influential segments of the area, how are they able to evade capture time and again, and how do they get their hands on sophisticated weaponry like anti-aircraft guns that can kill policemen inside their APCs? Law and order cannot be sacrificed to political expediency. If the government’s actions cost the support of some tribal leaders, so be it. At the same time, the centre is chomping at the bit to get involved in what is a provincial subject. It must refrain, unless the Sindh government itself asks for its assistance in what is bound to be an ugly denouement.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2021

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