Politics, police and patronage

Aroosa Masroor May 05, 2010

SHIKARPUR: Shikarpur is relatively peaceful these days.

The two most dangerous tribes – the Mahers and the Jatois struck a peace deal a few months ago, which is still holding. But with the local government elections around the corner, many fear the peace will be shortlived. Clashes between various tribes have killed over 400 people in the area in the last few years, according to official statistics. The Mahers fight the Jatois, the Marfanis fight the Jaffranis, the Kamranis and the Brohis. The Bhayas take on the Jakhranis, the Jaihas battle the Shars.

And then there are the Kakaipota- Brohi, Bhutta-Maher and the Soomra-Jatoi feuds. The bloodiest battles have featured Maher and Jatoi tribes: officials say some 150 have died in their feud alone. Even the current ceasefire between the two battle-hardened tribes isn’t expected to make much of a dent: other tribes continue to settle ages-old disputes over lands or cattle. The feuds are said to mostly spring from differences between the Sindhi and Baloch tribes.

“Despite the fact that the Baloch migrated to Sindh centuries ago and speak Sindhi, the Sindhis and the Baloch remain deeply suspicious of each other and look for excuses to pick fights,” says Iqbal Detho, a human rights activist in Shikarpur and former secretary-general of Amnesty International Pakistan. Cattle and land are the ostensible reasons, argues Detho, and the most popular excuse is to even out the ‘score’. Hundreds of innocent people have lost their lives to this brinksmanship.

“A poor person can’t do much, other than wait,” says Sakina, whose son Mohammad Yasir was gunned down in 2006. She was to be awarded Rs0.2 million as compensation and the local jirga had set a six-month deadline for payment. Four years later, she is still waiting. “We know our lives are worth nothing before them,” says the dry-eyed Sakina,

Where are the law enforcers?

Nobody has much faith in the police. The peculiar criminal justice system operational in Shikarpur and surrounding areas mandates that both parties to a dispute are brought before the jirga. Trouble is, this rule applies even if the ‘fight’ is an encounter between the police and criminals. As a result, many police officers have been hit with stiff fines by the jirga. And if the fear of fines weren’t enough, most tribes have firearms equal – if not better – than those owned by the police.

Current DPO Shikarpur Muhammad Younis Chandio has been in the area for just 10 months and claims his team has seized over 500 unlicensed weapons so far. Even so, he doesn’t see the supply lines from the border areas of Balochistan, NWFP and Afghanistan drying up any time soon. And this weaponisation has, in turn, led to an increase in crime, including rape, abduction and robberies, especially on the highway bordering the districts of Sukkur, Larkana, Jacobabad and Khairpur.

And then there is the nexus between criminals and politicos. “Every time a new District Police Officer (DPO) is given charge, his first challenge is to reduce street crime,” explains Naseem Bukhari, a local writer who works closely with the Shikarpur police. “But if the DPO challenges and arrests local criminals, the rate of other crime and abduction increases at an unmanageable rate. Since this reflects badly on the police official, he ends up surrendering to the demands of the tribal chiefs or sardars who patronise these criminals.

And the sardars, in turn, enjoy the support of the political parties. Manipulating the law enforcers for political ends thus becomes very easy.” The district has had its share of officials who challenged the system but paid for it with their tenure. Former DPO Shikarpur Khadim Hussain Rind was one such officer. “During my tenure, Rangers provided us with an auxiliary patrolling force and we managed to curb crime to an extent. But I could not arrest certain influential people because of political pressure and after 13 months, I asked for a transfer,” he confides.

Another former DPO Abdul Khaliq Sheikh says that there are certain no-go areas where normal policing is not possible and law enforcement agencies have to be extra vigilant. “When the police crack down on criminals or even try and diffuse the situation between warring tribes, these criminals implicate the police in false cases. For example, when the police kill a gang member and arrest armed accomplices, other gang members immediately kill an old woman or child of their own tribe and claim they died during the crossfire.”

Blaming the LG system

But human rights activists in the area are more worried about the ‘criminalisation of politics’. Tribal disputes, they argue, serve the interest of tribal chieftains. “The power of the sardars and jirgas was on the decline until General Musharraf’s LG system provided them with much-needed oxygen,” comments local activist Naveed Abro. The hunger for more money and power led many sardars to abandon their seats in the national and provincial legislatures and contest local elections.

This particular district of Shikarpur has produced several politicians. Former federal minister Ghous Bux Maher and his son Arif Khan Maher, who was a former district nazim; MNA Ibrahim Jatoi and his brother MPA Abid Jatoi, who is also the Sindh Minister for Livestock; as well as the Sindh minister for local government Agha Siraj Durrani are all from this area. And tribal warfare is said to have become key to political survival. “The tribes are still backed by certain ministers in the parliament, even during the present civilian rule, because they’re useful in securing votes,” argues Detho. There’s also another angle to this.

“If the tribes keep fighting, the police will be forced to stay away from the no-go areas, fearing the tribes’ sophisticated weapons, and won’t interfere during the polls,” explains Khaliq Sheikh. Abro predicts that with the next elections round the corner, it is quite likely that tribal clashes will increase. And the fact of increasing weaponisation in the area is proof of this, he says. “Tribal chiefs don’t want these clashes to end because they help landlords retain power,” explains Sheikh. Detho agrees.

“The devolution system also provided legal cover to the sardar’s parallel justice system through the constitution of Musalihat Anjuman that encouraged amicable settlement of disputes at the local level in the presence of a neutral judge,” he adds. Commanding fear, respect and the justice system – what more could anyone want?

Jirga (in)justice

But former district nazim Arif Khan Maher is quick to reject such charges. Instead, he launches into an impassioned defence of the jirga system. “In case of tribal clashes, the accused is often unidentified and if an FIR is registered there are usually over 30 people accused in the case. Comparatively, the jirga offers quick justice and a better system of compensation,” he insists. Courts, he contends, are also bogged down with pending cases and the endless trials and costs of commuting serve as disincentives for most people of his area.

But others scoff at such notions. “What about cases where innocent people are killed only to ‘equal’ the score, so neither party has to pay compensation?” demands Bukhari. “What about the sardars against whom no one can register an FIR and who are never tried by a jirga either? What of the fact that the viewpoint of a woman is never accommodated by jirgas? This is not warfare, it’s tribal terrorism and the state needs to put an end to this.”