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The badlanders of Sindh

Imdad Sahito’s riveting narrative unveils the history, complexities, and enduring legacy of Sindh's infamous dacoits

By Khalid Kumbhar |
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PUBLISHED December 24, 2023

The term 'dacoit,' synonymous with 'highwayman,' carries an immediate sense of dread. Typically, individuals adorned with lengthy hair, prominent moustaches, and beards are often remarked upon as resembling a 'dakoo.'

The dacoits of Sindh have gained notoriety for their audacious raids, displaying the ability to loot, plunder, commit acts of violence, including murder and kidnapping, and swiftly vanish into the dense forest hideouts. In the decade spanning from 1984 to 1994, the dacoits in Sindh achieved an almost uncontested dominance, particularly in towns and rural areas of the province, evading control from law enforcement, including the police and even the army.

For three decades, from Hyderabad to Sukkur, Sindh served as a hideout for bandits. Due to the fear and terror elicited by them, markets in this region would close by sunset, and highways would become deserted. However, after the 90s, the situation in Sindh began to change.

Presently, the hideouts of bandits have become confined to Sukkur and Larkana regions, while law enforcement agencies have managed to free Hyderabad, Dadu, and the southern part of Sindh of this menace. But even today, terms such as dacoits, banditry, kidnapping, and honey-trapping are still used in Sindh.

Despite the heyday of dacoits being over, the people of Sindh are still familiar with terms such as banditry, kidnapping, and honey-trapping (a technique used by bandits where women's voices are used through mobile phones for kidnapping), especially in the Upper Sindh region. Imdad Ali Sahito’s book, "Decade of the Dacoits," provides a glimpse of how bandits operate.

According to Sahito, a former professor at Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur who has a PhD in criminology, the decade of dacoits started from 1984 to 1994. The content of the book is drawn from field research and is validated through references to police records and newspaper reports. In his interviews and meetings with bandits, police officers, people who were kidnapped, feudals, journalists, villagers, and relatives of bandits and kidnapped people, Sahito digs deep to find out what they are like as humans. Linking elements involved in the banditry business, he also includes some profiles of the notorious dacoits of that decade in his book, telling the stories of why they became dacoits, and how they never operated as individuals or gangs, but in a chain linking all of them.

A part of history

Sahito divides his book into six chapters, which are further divided into sections. In the first chapter on dacoity and related crimes with special reference to Sindh, he defines kidnapping, plundering, piracy. In the following chapter, “Dacoits through the centuries in Sindh,” the author discusses how dacoits operated in different historical periods beginning with the Arab period right up to the British Raj.

Learned bandits

The third chapter divided into 41 sections is about the rise of dacoits in Sindh from 1984-1994. Here, Sahito’s comprehensive research reveals that the majority of dacoits are between 26-30 years of age and out of 412 dacoits studied, 291 were educated at some level. Many of them have done their BA, BE, MA, BSc, and even LLB. In addition, some university students were also involved in dacoity.

Piety and violence

During the discussion with kidnapped people, Sahito was told that most of the dacoits were Muslims, hence many of them offered prayers and recited the holy Quran regularly. They allowed people in their captivity to pray as well. Some dacoits not only gave regular charity but were also followers of Sufi saints and paid their respects at various shrines regularly. Apparently, they also offered fateha on the death of their fellow dacoits. Several dacoits such as Haji Akkan Pirzado and Haji Abbas Khaskheli performed Haj.

On the other hand, some dacoits had a negative attitude towards religion. One kidnapped person recalled that when he went into sajdah, he was beaten by the dacoit with his shoes and the butt of his gun.

Excessive and extravagant

Based on his findings after talking to the dacoits’ families and those of kidnapped people, Sahito describes the excessive and extravagant lifestyles. He writes about how some of them enjoyed spending money on expensive shoes and clothes. They entertained themselves with women and were obsessed with buying gold jewelry such as chains, bracelets, and rings to wear themselves. They also liked wearing colourful, traditional Sindhi caps over long tresses. Donning long, thick, and twirly moustaches, they enjoyed listening to music and songs by Jalal Chandio, Fouzia Soomro, and several other Sindhi singers. Musical evenings were regularly arranged for their entertainment along with a supply of explicit foreign films. While some dacoits had their wives visiting them in their hideouts, others spent time with sex workers.

According to Sahito, some feudals arranged sex workers for the dacoits, while kidnapping peasant’s daughters or random women at gunpoint was not uncommon.

Despite detailed and in-depth descriptions of nearly all aspects of the lives of dacoits, Sahito could not pinpoint where the dacoits get their arm supply from which fuels their lifestyle and livelihood. It remains a mystery whether the arms supply comes from politicians, feudals, or law-enforcement agencies.

He quotes a notorious dacoit as follows: “Arms and ammunition were regularly supplied to us from law-enforcement agencies in KP [then NWFP] and Balochistan. Other than that, the Afghans who travelled on camel back and sometimes Pathan wood traders also supplied arms and ammunition on their tractor-trolleys.”

In the past, the main business of dacoits was to kidnap the wealthy for ransom, but nowadays they also kidnap less-wealthy people by employing honey trapping.

Sahito also writes about the kidnapping of foreigners such as the three Japanese students who were picked up from Guddu Barrage in 1991, followed by the kidnapping of three Chinese engineers in the same year.

A train robbery event in Sindh is related so beautifully and eloquently that as one reads it, it feels as though one is watching it like a perfectly executed scene in a film. “Fire was ablaze and rockets flew as they attacked the Tezgam Express near Allahdino Sand railway station close to Hyderabad. They targeted the moving train with rockets but could not stop it despite chasing it on horseback and by jeep, constantly and relentlessly firing at the speeding train for no less than half an hour. They eventually succeeded in making the train stop in a jungle where they looted and plundered it with the greatest of ease.”

In another chapter, the author discusses operations against the dacoits with graphs and numbers of kidnapped people and ransom worth billions of pounds received from their families. District-wise and year-wise number ratios are provided. According to Sahito, 914 persons were kidnapped in 1991, 900 were kidnapped in 1992, and 831 in 1990. In these three years, the kidnapped person ratio was higher compared to other years in the decade from 1984 to 1994. The total number of people kidnapped for ransom was 4,803.

In the same decade, 1,655 people were kidnapped for ransom from Dadu district, 794 were kidnapped from Larkana, and 497 people from Hyderabad.

Hence Dadu had 3,940 people kidnapped during the decade, Larkana 1,890 and Hyderabad 1,183 while the total number of kidnapped people during the decade was 11,436.

Several operations were conducted and many police officers, rangers, and army officers were killed and injured, whereas many notorious dacoits were also killed and injured. Several dacoits escaped to other parts of the country as well as Iran and other countries with the help of fake national identity cards.

On 28 May 1992, operation Blue Fox was approved by the government. “The result of this army operation was remarkably positive. During the operation which ran till 2 January 1993, 875 police officers were discharged due to their involvement with criminals.”

The number of kidnappings in Sindh had been extremely high. From 1990 to 1994, 1,521 people were kidnapped in Sindh, 109 in Punjab, 4 in Balochistan, and 17 from what is now KP. The numbers started to drop when the army operation began. Twenty-four army officers were killed and forty-six injured until the army withdrew on 30 November 1994.

The history of Sindh is not complete without the notorious tales of dacoits, and this book delves into the historical narrative of the dacoits of Sindh, investigating the origins of this phenomenon. It explores the forces that propelled the issue and examines the factors that not only fuelled the problem but also provided support to the dacoits, enabling them to terrorise the local population with impunity.

Khalid Kumbhar is a field researcher based in Mithi Tharparkar, Sindh. He tweets @Jogekhalid

All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer