The Sohrab Goth Massacre

The Sohrab Goth Massacre began on the twelfth of December 1987, two days before the Aligarh Colony killings. It was not a massacre of human life. It was a massacre of homes, of economic activity and community organisations, of education and health institutions, and of the hopes and aspirations of the Akakhel people who had lived there since 1972. It was a massacre of their sixteen-year struggle to improve their physical and social environment, a struggle in which they invested over 70 million rupees. This massacre, unlike the one at Aligarh Colony, was not carried out by mafia gangs, but by the government of Pakistan, in violation of its promises to the residents of katchi abadis, and in complete disregard of constitutional rights and existing laws. Of the 2000 odd Pakistani families affected by this massacre, about 1200 are Akakhel. They have been shifted to three camps on the super highway, twenty to thirty miles away from Karachi. Here they live as destitutes, without shelter, without livelihood and, for the time being, without hope.

The Akakhel are also known as Koochis or Pavindas. Historically, they have been nomads, moving in autumn from the central Asian steppes to the plains of India, and back again to the steppes in late spring. In the 1920s the Bolshevik government restricted their movement beyond the Oxus, and in 1947 the creation of Pakistan made it impossible for them to cross the Jhelum into India. In 1960, restrictions were imposed on their movements across the Durand line by the government of Pakistan, so a large number of them settled in the NWFP and became Pakistani citizens.

Like all nomadic communities the Koochis have never owned immovable property such as land or houses, and have always been viewed with suspicion by the settled people through whose areas they moved while migrating. Certain sub-clans among them have carried wool from Central Asia to the plains of India and cotton cloth on their return journey, from time immemorial. These sub-clans evolved to become vendors of fabrics and household goods and to this day, throughout Pakistan, many of them go from house to house selling their wares.

In 1971, about 800 Akakhel families moved from Koochi Bazar in Peshawar to Karachi. The reasons for this migration were that in Karachi there was less prejudice against the nomads than in the NWFP, and there were better economic opportunities available here. In the beginning, they established a camp at Ibrahim Hyderi, but in early 1972 they moved, their tents close to Sohrab Goth, a small Baluchi settlement on the super highway. Haji Fateh Khan, one of the clan elders, gives the reason for choosing this location: “The Koochis always lived away from the cities and in those days this place was a wilderness. There was no Gulshan, no plazas. At the same time it was on the road and so we could move easily into the city to sell our goods.”

Slowly, the tents were replaced by mud walls and chatai roofs, which in turn gave way to concrete blocks and tin sheets. For the first few years water for the settlement was purchased from the Water Pump on the Shahrah-i-Pakistan, and transported to the basti by donkey cart. However, in 1978, a Koochi elder, Haji Hasan, applied to the authorities on behalf of the residents for a water connection. A year later local body elections were held, and Ghaza Khan, a Koochi from the settlement, was elected as councillor. After considerable lobbying by him, the district council in 1980 laid a water main to Sohrab Goth, or Haji Hasan Colony as the Koochis prefer to call it. Connections from the main to the lanes and, to individual houses were made by the people at their own expense, and a committee was formed to maintain the system. Simultaneously, pressure was applied on the authorities for the sanction of electric connections, and when the massacre took place last month, more than half the houses had electric meters and were regularly paying their bills to the KESC.

As the city expanded towards the super highway, the Koochis transformed their settlement into a market. By 1978, people from all over Karachi. had started going there to buy “foreign” cloth and crockery, and the Akakhel became shopkeepers instead of wandering salesmen. Pakistani cloth was purchased by them wholesale from the Allahwala and Motandas markets, and foreign cloth from customs and excise officials. Zaman Khan, who constructed the first shop in the colony, reflects: “Most of our sales were made to begums from Defence and Clifton. They did not come to us because our goods were cheap, but because coming to our market was an outing for them.” As a result of this connection with the affluent areas of the city, the Akakhel people’s prosperity increased considerably, and a number of them purchased TVs and motor bikes. A few were able to afford VCRs, Suzuki pickups, and even cars.

A number of schools and clinics also, arose in the basti. The first school was established by Zeb Khan in 1976. It had six classrooms and seven teachers, non-Pathans who lived outside Haji Hasan Colony. Over 150 Akakhel children studied here at the time of the massacre. In addition to paying tuition fee, the Akakhel had financed the transformation of the katcha building of the school into a pucca one, and contributed fans for the classrooms. There were six other schools in the locality, and over seventy Akakhel girls were studying in a school in neighbouring Asif Square.

The Akakhel elders who moved to Karachi in 1971 were all illiterate, but due to these schools almost all their male children under the age of eighteen and a large number of girls can read and write fluently. Unlike their elders, these children speak Urdu without a trace of a Pushto accent. These schools, however, have now been reduced to rubble, and the thirty-two students who were due to take their board examinations this year are living in a camp in the wilderness twenty-seven kilometres from Karachi. Except for a dispensary established by the district council, all these education and health institutions were established through private enterprise or community effort and finance.

A struggle against the possibility of eviction was also waged by the community. In 1978 notice was served on them under the Sind Public Property (Removal of Encroachments) Act 1975. There was no follow-up to the notice as, according to community elders, an “arrangement” was made with the authorities. In February 1983, during the Shia-Sunni riots in Karachi, there was an exchange of fire between Shia Ancholi and Sunni Sohrab Goth, and the super highway was blocked for some time. As a result, notice for eviction was again served on the community, and they were forced to appeal to a Court of law. However, negotiations with the government ended in an assurance by Governor Abbasi that the Akakhel would not be removed from Sohrab Goth. According to the community elders, the commissioner of Karachi, Sardar Ahmed, gave them a letter which reflected the governor’s assurances. This letter is now in the possession of councillor Ghaza Khan, who was arrested when Operation Clean-Up began, and is still under detention.

In 1981, Afghan refugees moved into the vicinity of the Akakhel settlement. Almost all of them were Farsi speaking. The vast majority were poor and worked as construction and industrial labour. A handful operated hotels and small businesses. They lived in katcha homes and carted their own water from the Water Pump. At about the same time Pathans from Dir, Bajaur, Mardan and Swat also settled in the vicinity. They were not Akakhels but Mahsuds, Peshawaris and Muhmands. Most of them were transporters or labourers related to the transport business. In this later settlement, a few affluent transporters also moved in and established their business. With their arrival the more recent Pathan settlements became a centre of the narcotics and arms trade, and the poor of the area became its clients and employees. Because of this activity in one section of the extended abadi, Sohrab Goth became notorious, and all its people were tarred with the same brush.

On 7 April 1986, Prime Minister Junejo spelt out his katchi abadi policy at an enormous rally in Lahore. He told the gathering that all abadis on state land would be regularised provided they had been settled before 23 March 1983 and contained more than forty houses. The Akakhel were overjoyed. They thought that their years of struggle for security of tenure were over, and at a special gathering they prayed for the prosperity of the prime minister.

With the Junejo announcement of 7 April 1986, and subsequent announcements by the mayor of Karachi, hectic building activity began in the Akakhel area. The tin roofs were torn off and replaced with reinforced concrete construction; walls were plastered; mud floors were replaced by mosaic flooring and concrete jalis by steel and glass windows. The shops acquired steel shutters, and a programme for sewerage disposal and the paving of lanes was undertaken by the residents. People who were without electricity applied to the KESC for a connection, and many have paid the fee for meter installations. The money accumulated by the people over the years was now used in a big way to improve their housing stock and physical environment. Gulrang Khan had just spent over one hundred and fifty thousand rupees on his house before it was bulldozed. Ninety thousand of this he had borrowed on interest from a “soothkhor.” This he will have to return, with interest. Isa Khan had invested sixty thousand rupees on his roof and floors, and Sher Aga Khan had sold his valuables to finance improvements in his house and shop. All this, along with the emotional links established with the abadi through a prolonged struggle for recognition, were converted into rubble in the third week of December by army-protected KDA bulldozers.

On 12 December 1986, the people of Sohrab Coth woke up to discover that their settlements had been surrounded by the army, and guns pointing towards them had been placed on the roofs of the neighbouring plazas. Announcements from the mosques informed them that they were under curfew. Shortly afterwards a search of their houses was undertaken by the police. No search warrants were served on the people as required under the Criminal Procedure Code. The description given by the people of the search operation is similar to the descriptions given by the villages in Sind which were recently subjected to the government’s anti-dacoit crusade. According to the people, the police carried off jewellery, cash and all other valuables they could lay their hands on. Licensed guns were taken away (understandably) along with their licences, but no receipts were issued for them. Identity cards, and in many cases papers pertaining to electric connections and motorcycle and Suzuki registrations were also taken away, and so were the vehicles. Some of these vehicles are said to be in the Gulzar-i-Hijri thana. A small part of the valuables, salvaged by the officers from their men, are also said to be in the thana. The people claim that their women were beaten by the police when they protested against the loot. However, since the army had surrounded the area, and as guns were pointing towards them, the people could not fight back.

The search operation in the Akakhel area lasted for 72 hours, during which the people starved under curfew. Then the bulldozing began. It was announced from the mosque that only those houses which bordered the road would be cleared, and that people should move their possessions from them within an hour. After the area near the highway had been thus cleared, the bulldozing of the other areas was undertaken. With just one hour, people had little opportunity to salvage their possessions, and consequently doors, windows, metal sheets on roofs, rafters, taps and water pipes – all removable items – were destroyed along with the walls and roofs. Casualties also occurred during the operation. Inayat, son of Tohrab Khan, could not be evacuated in time and was crushed to death under a falling wall. Anzar Gul Khan had his leg broken trying to get his belongings out of his crumbling house. 70-year-old Aeen Khan shivered to death, waiting to be transported to a transit camp.

It had been decided to shift the Akakhel and other Pakistani Pathans to Maymar Complex on the super highway before packing them off to their final destination, the location of which the victims had no idea about. The non-Akakhel element of the population had relations and clansmen in other abadis of Karachi and homes in the NWFP. They opted not to go to the Maymar Complex transit camp. Mohammad Gul, an Akakhel elder, says “Most of them have gone home. Others who had no families have gone to their clans-people in Karachi. We can do neither, as we all have families with us and no clans-people in Karachi or homes in the NWFP.”

On December 22, ten days after the commencement of Operation Clean-up, the Akakhel were shifted to three camps near the toll plaza on the super highway. They were given tents for shelter, which they had to pitch themselves. These were insufficient in number so at one of the camps over a hundred families are still living in the open. For the first three days they had to beg for water from the neighbouring farms. On the fourth day the government started supplying twelve water tankers a day to each camp. Mohammed Ilyas, operator of one of the water tankers, says “The water is sufficient. However, they have no storage vessels so I take most of the water back. “What they need are large tanks like the ones that the UN has given to the Afghans.” The water that they can store is barely enough for drinking and cooking purposes.

The government has offered the Akakhel 60-yard plots in the vicinity of their camps, for which they have to pay Rs 9000 per plot in three instalments. For the foreseeable future, services such as water, transport and electricity will not be available in this wilderness. Moreover, the camps are far from the super highway and there is no metalled road connecting them to it. In addition, no commercial plots are being offered. For these reasons, they will not be able to continue their trade in these locations. 73-year-old Zeb Khan says, “There is no livelihood here. We will starve to death. As it is we are using up our savings, although we eat only radishes which we buy from the nearby farms.”

No aid has been given to the people of these camps except for a few hundred bags of flour from the Edhi Trust in the initial period of their stay. There is an acute shortage of stoves for cooking, and almost no fuel.

“Nobody is concerned about us. We have been lumped with the heroin and gun smugglers. We have been insulted, destroyed and forgotten. We should leave Pakistan. We should go to India or Russia,” says Haji Fateh Khan. “We have been punished for crimes we did not commit,” says Banaras Khan, who has moved to a friend’s house in Pathan Colony. “The government knew who the smugglers were. Government officials did ayashi in their deras, had parties, collected bhatha. All these dallals of the government left Sohrab Goth like thieves the night before the operation began. It was Defence Society and Clifton that gave them protection, and still does – not us.”

Sohrab Goth has been successfully demolished and the chief minister has promised that it will be turned into a beautiful park which will presumably symbolise the victory of ‘good’ over ‘evil.’ However, the procedure adopted for the demolition of this katchi abadi raises serious legal and moral questions, the overlooking of which amounts to aiding and abetting, inter alia, the violation of the constitution – article 14 of which states that the dignity of man and, subject to law, the privacy of home, shall be inviolable – and the law.

The powers of entry of the police onto any property are clearly set out in the Criminal Procedure Code. “Generally speaking, no search can be conducted without the issuance of a search warrant,” says a leading Karachi barrister. “In addition, the search has to be made in the presence of two or more respectable inhabitants of the locality.” Even if a search is to be carried out under the Customs Act, 1969, the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code have to be followed.

In defending the search of Koochi houses without search warrants, certain high-ranking police officials have argued that if the search is for arms, narcotics and smuggled goods the requirement of a search warrant can be dispensed with. However, the Punjab high court, in the case of Shaukat Hussain versus Zulfiqar Ali in 1981, held that, “The law does not recognise any general right of the police of entry into private property for the purpose of obtaining evidence of smuggled goods.” The Prohibition (Enforcement of Hadd) Order was promulgated by the martial law government in February 1979. Section 22 of the order states, “If any collector, prohibition officer or magistrate, upon information obtained and after such enquiry as he thinks necessary, has reason to believe that an offence has been committed, he may issue a warrant for the search of any intoxicant material, still utensil, implement or apparatus in respect of which the alleged offence has been committed.” In addition to section 22, section 27 of the order provides that the Criminal Procedure Code shall apply even in this case. According to the Koochi elders, the residents of Sohrab Goth were not served with any search warrants and the, search was not conducted in the presence of two or more respectable inhabitants of the locality. If this is true, then the search operation was illegal.

Again, the demolition of a katchi abadi can only take place in Sind under the Sind Public Property (Removal of Encroachments) Act, 1975. Section 3 of the act requires that at least three days notice has to be served on the encroacher, asking him to remove his encroachment himself. According to section 4 of the act, the affected person has a right to petition the relevant authority within seven days for a review of the order served on him. Eviction by force can only be undertaken by the government seven days after the order under section 3 has been served on the encroacher, or seven days after his review petition is dismissed. According to the residents of Sohrab Goth, no such orders were served on them prior to their eviction and bulldozing.

Under article 4 of the constitution of Pakistan, all individuals have the right to be dealt with in accordance with the law. Sub-article 2(a) of article 4 states, “No action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law.” Nowhere does it say in the constitution that people accused of being drug or heroin smugglers, or those living in the vicinity of the accused, can be dealt with in violation of the laws of Pakistan. Nor did the prime minister, in his April 7, 1986 address, mention that abadis in which some accused persons lived would not be regularised.

How, then, was it possible for the government of Sind to carry Out Operation Clean-up in violation of all legal provisions and get away with it? “It is true that there were smugglers and bad people in Sohrab Goth, but the newspapers made it sound as if only bad people lived here, so as to take away all sympathy from us,” says Fateh Khan. “We are also sure that the incidents of violence were arranged here so as to make it easy for the authorities to remove us. We are commercial people and our livelihood depends on good relations with all communities, especially our neighbours.” But why did the government wish to remove Sohrab Goth? “The reason is very simple. The land adjacent to Sohrab Goth belongs to big people, influential people. It is very valuable,” says Mir Ahmed Khan. “If a colony of poor people is removed from near such land its value increases a hundred-fold.”

Between Sohrab Goth and the toll plaza on the super highway the KDA has, as part of its Scheme 33, allotted 26,000 acres of land to over 150 housing societies. About 70,000 plots have been created as a result. Most of these societies and the plots in them are said to be directly or indirectly controlled by the Karachi developers. Estate agents say that since Operation Cleanup ended a large number of people have started showing an interest in these plots and their price is bound to increase by over 25 percent in the next few months. Even if a 15 percent increase takes place, the net increase in property values will be well over 40 crore rupees!

In addition, KDA’s prestigious Gulzar-i-Hijri scheme also lies on the super highway. Its 1400 acres will contain, among other structures, enormous multi-storey commercial and residential complexes. Local authorities, who in many cases are the clients of powerful interest groups, are allergic to having low income areas on approach roads to posh residential areas or to prestigious schemes. In Karachi, attempts have often been made in the past to remove such abadis. Seen in these two contexts, the removal of Sohrab Goth makes sense: one can say with confidence that if the abadi had been located elsewhere, no Operation Clean-up would have taken place.

Estate agents feel that if the Koochis had been resettled further away from the highway, the price of land would have increased even more. If that is true, it is possible that things will be made so difficult for them that they will be forced to move again, or alternatively the government considers their present settlement as provisional and plans for resettling them elsewhere are now being prepared. But whatever their final destination, it is clear that the government has done a grave injustice to the Koochi people and other residents of Sohrab Goth.

One Comment

  1. Salaam, thankyou for that clear and thorough explanation of the Sohrab Goth incident and Karachi.

    Posted January 31, 2021 at 12:06 pm | PermalinkReply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

site design by iMedia
Mobile Menu
Responsive Menu Image Responsive Menu Clicked Image