Business takes a massive hit in Kabari Bazaar, Rawalpindi as terrorists turn to used military uniforms for cover. The business venture that was conceived to provide secondhand and tailored uniforms at lower rates to police and army personnel now finds itself in the line of fire after being accused of selling wares to potential terrorists.
The city that has mourned the lives of many is now caught in a moral dilemma — to sustain the business that is a source of livelihood for many or to padlock the shops that are inadvertently providing a supporting crutch to terrorists. And while the shopkeepers and authorities are gripped in this heated argument, a lull prevails over the market that was ironically established in 1959 by a group of army men to cater to the needs of the defence forces.
A worker embroidering a badge at his shop. PHOTO: MUHAMMAD JAVAID
The bazaar has always been a one-stop-shop for uniforms, from the Pakistan Army to the Air Force and Navy to the police, inductees sold their old supplies or torn jackets in the market that were bought by those looking for cheaper joggers and sweaters for the harsh winter. Established by and for the military, the shops are also run by retired military tailors who had to obtain a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) from the army headquarters to start their business.
“We [shopkeepers] have been directed to stop this business at all cost,” says a tailor, Jamal Ahmed, 37, bundled in an army jacket, waiting for customers on a Sunday morning. Displayed at his shop is a notice issued by the police, directing shopkeepers to gather complete identification details, such as a valid computerised National Identity Card, from customers before selling uniforms to them. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to Rs5o,000. Although Ahmed terms the concerns of the law-enforcement agencies “valid”, he worries about the long-term survival of his business.
Making new army beret caps at Kabari Bazaar. PHOTO: MUHAMMAD JAVAID
“I have been tailoring uniforms for [the] police and army personnel since 1988 and never found any civilian who wanted the uniform,” says Umar Afghan, 71, while ironing black police caps. Afghan stitches uniforms between the range of Rs1,700 and Rs3,500 and buys old uniforms between Rs500 and Rs1,100 to sell to soldiers who cannot afford to buy a new one. Troubled by the prospect of finding himself jobless, he informs how shopkeepers are constantly being harassed by the police who serve notices almost every week.
Resentful shopkeepers believe that this was a deliberate attempt by the intelligence agencies to discourage sales. Niaz for one, who refers to himself as a stitch master, believes that the rumour that terrorists frequent these shops for uniforms was spread by the intelligence agencies themselves. And while fearing the worst, Harris Aziz, 29, who now runs the shop his father opened in 1963, says, “Starvation is upon us.” He now stitches uniforms for security companies who supply guards to private companies. Others like Amir Hussain, at the Khalil Walaity Army and Police store in Kabari Bazar have given up all hope after rounds of inconclusive negotiations with the police who fail to suggest any alternative to selling uniforms.
Although successful in driving business away, the authorities have failed to completely uproot the sale of uniforms in the market. Rawalpindi teems with markets that have sprawling displays of old military and police uniforms, including boots, joggers, gloves, mittens, badges and even firearms, used by soldiers. Mobee Plaza, Haider Road, Saddar, Barkat Plaza, Bank Road, Saddar Bazar, Chowk Kabari Bazar and Saddar Chotta Bazar are just some more names where this trade takes place. Along with wearable items, the markets also stock household provisions, kitchen appliances, sports equipment, computers and toiletries for retired and active military personnel.
And while the city is a booming market for local military supplies, it is not uncommon to stumble upon supplies used by foreign troops. The shops tucked deep inside the market are pouring with supplies smuggled from Afghanistan or stolen from Nato troops. From backpacks to sleeping bags, belts to boots and leather pistol covers to hunting kits, the shops are brimming with wares that could easily draw attention from terrorists.
A notice by the SHO of Cantt Police Station displayed at a shop, saying shopkeepers must gather complete identification details from customers before selling uniforms to them. PHOTO: MUHAMMAD JAVAID
“One can obtain the used stuff despite [strict vigilance from the authorities]. We must [keep a] check on it as terrorists can easily buy the stuff from this bazaar,” said Asim Ali, a student at Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi, who regularly visits Kabari Bazaar where his uncle runs a shop. He states the potential threat of the flourishing business by citing numerous examples of attacks that were conducted by terrorists, such as the one on the Pakistan Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi, disguised as police or army personnel.
In a bid to deter crime, some shopkeepers, allegedly selling uniforms to civilians, were also arrested last year, reports Amir Gill, a resident of Saddar, Rawalpindi. Crackdowns were ordered against the illegal sale of military uniforms, badges, boots and jackets only after the attacks, confirms a senior officer at the military headquarters. Since shops could not be shut down immediately, shopkeepers were strictly advised to keep a record of all their customers and to submit them to the GHQ.
Similar crackdowns were also launched in Peshawar, Lahore and various cities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has said, “[The] local police is dealing with it.”
To prevent duplication, the army made changes in the printed design on the jackets and opened its own stores for soldiers to buy readymade and tailor-made uniforms. The Canteen Stores Department (CSD), a chain of retail stores run by the Pakistani Ministry of Defence, facilitates all military personnel. It not only supplies in bulk but also at concessional and subsidised rates in all major cities across Pakistan.
The CSD Army Store has bound all army personnel to purchase their uniforms from their outlet. Regardless of rank, all of them have been advised to strictly observe this new rule or face disciplinary action. Muhammad Maqbool, a Rawalpindi-based senior police superintendent, says shopkeepers are warned not to sell used uniforms or purchase them from the armed forces. “We served notices to shopkeepers selling or purchasing uniforms. If they continue, action will be taken in [the] future.” According to Maqbool, negotiations with shopkeepers to entirely put an end to this security hazard are also underway.
Despite the ban on the sale of military uniforms in the open market following a 2009 attack on a series of sensitive installments, 60 shops are still operational. But, according to Major (retd) Sarfraz Ahmed, one president of the Kabari Bazar Shopkeepers Association, many of these shops, whose businesses are at a decline, will soon be forced to shut down. The business that was allegedly assisting terrorists now needs assistance.
Zahid Gishkori is a correspondent for The Express Tribune in Islamabad. He tweets @ZahidGishkori
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 12th, 2014.