On April 20, the infamous Chhotu Gang of the Rajanpur district surrendered to the security forces in the successful culmination of Operation Zarb-e-Ahan. Seven police personnel lost their lives in this operation. The surrender also resulted in the release of 24 policemen held hostage by the gang.
What is Chhotu Gang?
They are a gang of bandits operating along a stretch of Indus river in the remote south of Punjab province. Led by Ghulam Rasool, nicknamed Chhotu, they have been active in the Katcha Jamal region, which is a 10 kilometre-long strip at the confluence of Punjnad and Indus rivers, near Rahimyar Khan and the area where the boundaries of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan meet. The Chhotu gang had ruled the region for more than a decade. The gang’s members run into hundreds — more than 300, according to one account. It is one of the most prominent gangs among dozens operating along a 150km (95 mile) stretch between Dera Ghazi Khan in Punjab and Kashmore in neighbouring Sindh province. These gangs are linked and conduct a range of activities including smuggling, gun-running, kidnapping for ransom and highway robberies.
Where do the gang live?
Chhotu and the rest of the core of the gang come from a branch of the Mazari tribe which dominates the Rojhan sub-district of Rajanpur. Remote and poor, the area is marked by feuds over land and family honour. It is dominated by politically – influential landowners who are accused of paying off both the police and the bandits to protect their own interests.
The Chhotu gang controls some key river islands along Rajanpur district, which are deeply forested. These islands lie between the Punjab regions of Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan, and Kashmore district in Sindh. This riverine belt lies at the confluence of southern Punjab, Balochistan, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It has served as a hideout of choice for bandits and freedom fighters/militants since the colonial era because it provides easy access into different jurisdictional zones that often lack a coordinated response.
Why did troops go on the offensive?
Due to the remoteness of the region, banditry has traditionally attracted little attention. Besides, the Mazari tribal leaders have often been able to prevail on the bandits to reverse actions that might embarrass the government. So in 2005, the Chhotu gang found themselves under considerable pressure after they kidnapped 12 Chinese engineers from nearby Indus Highway. They ended up releasing them without a ransom.
Many believe army’s current move against the bandits is part of its plans to reassure the Chinese and secure the Indus Highway, which passes through the area and is the main route for the $46bn (£32bn) CPEC.
The area is also understood to have served as a sanctuary for sectarian militants and Baloch insurgents, with whom the bandits are believed to share economic interests.
Who is Ghulam Rasool Chhotu?
Ghulam Rasool alias Chhotu, the ringleader of the Chhotu gang, belongs to Bakrani clan of Mazari tribe of Rojhan area.
The son of a small farmer, he served as a table boy at a truckers’ tea stall in Kashmore in 1988, when he was 13.
He had worked as a security guard for MPA Atif Mazari for 3-5 years.
He worked for the Punjab police as an informer till 2007 and used to inform police about gangs involved in robberies and kidnapping for ransom. After developing differences with police, Chhotu established his own gang to carry out criminal activities.
Chhotu is known for helping the locals and he had never carried out any criminal activity in the area.