The Sindh police got so fed up of the lovesick men that they put up billboards every five kilometers on the Indus Highway from Shikarpur and Kashmore.
“Beware! If a woman calls you for a friendship on your mobile phone, they have connections with dacoits and can kidnap you,” it says.
The kidnapping-for-ransom racket is run by dacoits from their lair in the swampy inaccessible marshlands of the riverine strip of the Indus river. The dacoits are in cahoots with sharp women who are said to speak Sindhi, Urdu, Punjabi. They cold call numbers and reel receptive men in with the promise of romance. The victim is persuaded to eventually meet for a date.
The victim arrives at spots such as Karampur or Ghauspur. According to a DSP, some of the simpletons bring boxes of mithai, a suit or two and even mangos for their lady love. The victim is received by men who tell him they are the woman’s cousin or brothers. “Baji has sent me,” they tell the victim. They get on motorcycles and take him into the katcha area. It is known that the Shar and Jatoi tribesmen play this role, and they then hand over the victim to the Teghanis who take them deep into the forest.
“Will sain have nashta?” the dacoit asks the police wallah who is connecting me to the gang. When I decided to investigate this story I was told it was not possible to venture into this terrain without, ironically, getting the help of the police and dacoits themselves.
To my surprise, the dacoits treated me like a guest. To give you a sense of how hospitable they were, imagine how I felt when the police wallah and the dacoit chota who came to escort had this conversation shortly after I arrived.
“Will sain have nashta,” the chota asked the cop. As a mark of respect perhaps he asked the policeman if I would have breakfast.
“He’s already had nashta,” the cop responded.
“You should have brought him to us for nashta,” the chota replied. “We want to give him a dawat.” They wanted to invite me for a meal. He then proceeded to inquire after my gastronomic palette.
“Does sain like rice? Does sain like dessert? What will he have for dessert?”
As we headed closer to the riverine area, we passed a fish farm. Here too, the chotas asked if I liked fish. So they pulled out a live one, so fresh it almost wiggled out of their hands. They cooked me the damra and it was possibly the best I had tasted ever.
After the fish, we head on further along the Indus Highway past irrigation land and more fish farms before we approach an seemingly unending forest before the katcha. This entire area is serviced by only one police station, at Kot Shaho in Garhi Tegho, a small village along the highway. The police station is nowhere near the katcha area.
There are five points on the highway that connect to the no-go katcha area: Karampur in Shikarpur and Mir Wahi, Machi Bundo, Ghauspur and Dari in Kashmore. The kutcha has been controlled by dacoits since the mid-1980s after they expelled the fishermen in a tribal feud.
From 1984 to 1994, an estimated 11,436 people were kidnapped for ransom, reports Imdad Hussain Sahito in his 2005 book Decade of the Dacoits (OUP). More than 1,337 people were killed and ransoms to the tune of Rs2 billion doled out. Once you were kidnapped it was virtually impossible for the police to extract you.
The dacoits have makeshift posts to monitor the movement of people visiting the katcha. You can tell who are they are because they patrol on motorcycles with their faces swathed in ajraks. As we approach, the dacoits give the DSP directions for the best route to take. When we reached one point, the DSP tells me a story of how another DSP had been killed at that spot in Karampur in an exchange over a singer. Something started to feel very different to me.
I pulled out my phone and called my wife. “I’m going into a sensitive area,” I told her. I’ll send you two location pins.” She responded that the pin didn’t show up. It was only later that she told me, several hours after I had disappeared for reporting, that her blood had felt cold until I had called her when I got back into range.
The chota is asking me a question: “Does sain like guns?”
“No, he doesn’t go near them,” the police wallah replied.
“That’s a shame,” said the chota. “We had a G3 to give you.”
As a city crime reporter I am more than familiar with the strange relationship between criminals big and small and cops. But what I see on this trip is entirely new. For instance, at one point when the cops and dacoits came face to face on my journey into the katcha, the policeman would put his palms together in a greeting. One cop stooped to do the traditional Sindhi greeting which looks like you are scooping the air at someone’s knee. At one point, we stopped to buy some oranges for the dacoit we are going to meet because it would have been rude to go empty-handed.
I also learn about the difficulty of policing this terrain. The policemen who accompany me have bosses. One has a brother who is well-placed in the bureaucracy in Kashmore. The two brothers live here in Kandhkot where they are stationed but their children live in Karachi because it is safer. This is the only way they can discharge their duty without fear of reprisal for their families.
The system works differently here. People often assume there is a rough justice in these parts of the countryside in Sindh, but actually, lines are clearly marked. If the police kill a dacoit they have to pay blood money worth Rs5 million otherwise a cop’s body will find its way to the police station’s threshold in return.
The DSP who received me was so scared about being held responsible for taking a reporter into the katcha that for two days he didn’t patrol, monitor or take action along his strip of the highway or say anything to the dacoits. The result? It was a free for all for them or as they put it, “khulli chutti.”
Otherwise it is notoriously difficult to maintain a balance of power in these parts. It is the police who are rescuing the lovesick simpletons who are roped in by the women’s phone calls. One of them is Naveed Masih who lives in Gujranwala but came all the way to Sukkur to meet the woman. Her name was ‘Komal’.
When he was kidnapped upon arrival, he was put in chains in the katcha and beaten. They starved him and forced him to call his family to ask for ransom that went up to five million rupees. He suffered this for two months before he was blindfolded and moved elsewhere. “I don’t know where they were shifting me,” he said. “Suddenly I heard gunshots. I lay down on the ground. After half an hour, someone removed my blindfold and I saw policemen around.”
The women who make the phone calls are so effective that one of them, Kulsoom, even managed to entice a serving policeman from Larkana, Syed Muhammad Ali Shah. Just like the others, he arrived in Karampur and was received by the fixers. They took him on their motorcycle to ostensibly meet her but at one point he felt something was not right. “I told them to stop the bike as I don’t want to go,” he said. “I suspected that there was something wrong.”
The men sped up but he jumped off. Backup arrived in the shape of four more armed men on two motorcycles. “Two of them were carrying SMGs and two of them had G3 rifles,” he recalled. Shah started running into the forest and jumped into the water. The men pointed their guns at him. “I requested them to let me go as I am a Syed,” he said. But when they cocked their chambers, he panicked. He was wearing a jacket and shoes and started to try to peel them off to swim better but the men waded in. Luckily, they were carrying their weapons and couldn’t cope. A police patrol appeared in the distance and scared them off.
These two men were the lucky ones who didn’t have to pay any ransom. Others, such as Ghulam Nabi’s son were not so lucky. This Shikarpur farmer had to sell everything he owned to get his son back. “He was kidnapped from Ghauspur,” says Ghulam Nabi. “I got my son back in one month after paying one million rupees, which I had to borrow. I sold my tractor.” After his son was recovered, Ghulam Nabi did the next best thing to keep him safe: sent him to Madina. “Now I have nothing,” he says. “Not a single penny.”
The 35km wide and 230km long katcha area has been a
no-go area for the police for a long time because men from many tribes have
been active. According to the police, these dacoits are heavily armed with
12.7mm anti-air craft guns and fire at approaching law enforcement from the
thick bushes. The snipers are hard to get to in the dense forest and river
belt, which is actually the job of a specialised riverine force. The police
would need bullet-proof boats to negotiate the terrain. One area is surrounded
by water on three sides and others have up to ten kilometres of forest.
While many tribes are involved, the big names that stand out for district Kashmore are the Teghanis, Sabzois and Jagiranis. Shikarpur has the Qadrani Jatois, Misranis and Bhattas. I have come to meet one of them, Baila Teghani, whose reputation precedes him.
As his men prepare a meal, he answers my questions about the romantic kidnappings. For starters, he doesn’t consider them proper kidnappings for ransom. “These men come here because they’re involved in relationships with women,” he says. “I don’t think that is kidnapping. That’s their personal matter.” For Teghani, it doesn’t make sense to kidnap some small fry from Larkana or Sukkur.
“Kidnapping is when a big minister, influential judge gets picked up,” he says. “If you kidnap a person it needs to be a millionaire.” All of this is a ruse by his rivals, the Bijaranis, to defame him. It isn’t his voice on the phone calls, and if there is any evidence, then the police should present it.
The Teghanis have a long-running beef with the Bijaranis. On October 8, 2012 armed Teghanis are accused of attacking the Bijaranis in Garhi Tegho to steal 80 buffalos. This clash left sixty people dead over the next six years. One of the big names is Baila Teghani, who was shot as well, and did jail time. Teghani gripes that the police side with the Bijraanis. Things are so bad that the Teghanis can’t even go into town if their men are wounded in a skirmish.
The police note that the dacoits are often backed by elected representatives, MPAs and MNAs, or at least influential landowners. The authorities then press upon these notables to settles disputes or feuds to end the bloodshed or help with arrests. In the Teghani-Bijarani case a jirga was held in 2019 with sardars to decide on a mutual way to end the fight. The deal fell through when the promised money was not exchanged. The dacoits retain their turf and hence their power.
The police have recommended some simple changes to make policing this rough terrain easier. They want bridges built across the katcha and better roads into the area. It is also crucial that the Sindh government think of the area’s economic stability in the long run. Otherwise, the only source of income will continue to be kidnappings.