July issue 2016
Interview: Sohail Zafar Chattha, Former DPO, Sheikhupura
Sohail Zafar Chattha is that unique paradox: a thinking cop. He joined the navy as a junior cadet in ’93, but left it soon thereafter to pursue his passion for philosophy. Graduating from the Government College University (GCU) Lahore, he enrolled in the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, for a Masters in History — a subject he subsequently went back to teach at the GCU.
By all accounts, Chattha was a good teacher, who inspired his students to think outside the box, and analyse historical events in their true spirit. Testifying about the life-changing effect he had on him and his classmates, one of his students, Ashraf Kakar, now a teacher himself, talked about how Chattha’s influence had converted him from an ideologically retrogressive Islamist to a thinking progressive.
After his teaching stint, Chattha moved on to what was the defining phase of his career. He appeared in the CSS exams, securing the 8th position countrywide, and decided to join the police department.
As ASP (Assistant Superintendent of Police) in Karachi, he proved to be a thorough professional, a no-nonsense, vigilant officer who was recognised for his services, winning two President’s Police Medals and one Quaid-e-Azam Police Medal. While Karachi was a difficult proposition, the most important phase of his policing career perhaps, was his posting to Rahim Yar Khan, considered the most notorious district of South Punjab. Home to the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi chief, Malik Ishaq, the challenge was clear: eliminate criminal elements. Chattha rose to the challenge.
Chattha has been described as a man who is “popular for taking unpopular decisions to ensure the rule of law.” During his tenure as DPO (District Police Officer) Rajan Pur and Rahim Yar Khan, following his stint in Karachi, he took bold steps to ensure strict punishment for honour killings — a commonplace practice in South Punjab. A brother would kill his sister in the name of honour; his father would become the plaintiff in the case, and after a few days, forgive him for the murder. The murdered girl’s brother would be released, and go unpunished. As DPO, Chattha made sure the police was the complainant in such cases, so no murderer was allowed to go scot-free.
Next he was posted as DPO Sheikhupura and just weeks after his appointment there, he intervened on behalf of an illiterate Christian couple who were being beaten by a mob on account of false charges of blasphemy. Chattha saved the couple from near-certain death and registered a case against the local clerics for incitement to murder instead. Going by his record, he clearly genuinely believes in going that extra mile to ensure the safety of the vulnerable sections of society, including women, children, the aged and minorities.
In his recent post on Facebook, Sohail Zafar Chattha explained what his credo is and the rules he has tried to implement in his district based on that. From promising strict punishment for drug dealers to treating addicts as victims, he has a very straightforward definition of right and wrong. He orders his men not to break into houses or ask couples for nikahnamas, as he believes morality is a personal matter. And having a deep interest in history, he campaigns actively for a secular, democratic Pakistan — both on social media and in the real world. One of his speeches presenting the case for a secular Pakistan went viral on the internet, garnering him praise from the progressive circles of the country.
As he awaits his next posting, SSP Chattha speaks to Newsline about the challenges and victories of policing in this, the worst of times…
Tell us about your time as ASP in Karachi.
North Nazimabad is right below Katti Pahari in Karachi. It is a sophisticated, relatively posh area populated largely by educated people, the majority of whom are of Mohajir ethnicity. Katti Pahari, on the other hand, comprises mostly Pashtuns. When I was serving there, the government viewed Pashtuns with suspicion.
Back then, the MQM raised the point that terrorists were coming into Karachi along with the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the tribal areas due to the ongoing military operations. We considered their concerns were mere allegations as we believed they were anxious because they felt politically threatened by the growing Pashtun population. We were proven wrong.
The MQM’s concerns regarding the Talibanisation of Karachi had solid grounds. TTP terrorists, disguised as locals, came to Karachi to find fertile ground to spread their ideology and enlarge their network in the city’s Pashtun-dominated areas. At that time, the dynamics in Karachi were different from what they are now. Pashtuns invariably belonged to the ANP and dominated the peripheral areas of Karachi. But the Pashtun localities were largely under-developed, due to the policies of the MQM government, which deliberately ignored the Pashtun-dominated areas in relation to development projects.
Since the Pashtun-dominated areas were not properly documented, they proved difficult to govern. The police could not go there easily due to the scattered settlements and the lack of systems. And because they were a conservative, closely-knit society, covert police movement was not possible — the news of any police intervention would have spread like wildfire and been resisted. Additionally, every police action was given an ethnic color and usually resulted in city-wide protests. But Pashtun criminal elements were able to integrate, disperse or go underground.
Can you narrate any specific incident you encountered?
When I was DPO Korangi, I received intel that amid some dhabas, near the National Oil Refinery — a predominantly Pashtun area — there was a brothel, run by a Sindhi family. It was the only two-storey house in the area and many of the local residents were looking to occupy it. One day a Pashtun man went inside to avail of the services offered, and emerged telling his friends that there was a Pashtun girl inside.
This infuriated the men. In a matter of a few minutes, a huge mob, with murder in their eyes, gathered outside the house and surrounded it. Meanwhile, I reached the area. I promised the protestors I would close the brothel and take strict action against the police officers who were said to be patronising it, if that was true. Once we went in and cased the house, we found no Pashtun girl present. So we assured the outraged mob that no Pashtun girl had been found inside — and that all the women working there belonged to the same family, and they were not Pashtun.
I thought they would accept what I said. But they did not. In mob psychology you learn, reasonable and rational voices are suppressed — and so it was. The men demanded the house be burnt, which I refused to do. Suddenly, they put the front door on fire. I called my DIG, Mushtaq Shah, and briefed him about the situation, asking him what I should do. He told me that if the Sindhis were made victims by the Pashtuns, the repercussions would be immediate and could spread across the whole country.
I had no option then, but to act. I started with anti-riot tools, which didn’t deter Pashtun rioters. Then we started aerial firing, to which they responded by firing directly at us. After half-an-hour of this fighting, we were able to rescue the family and managed to avert what could have been a huge tragedy. The second highest police award, the President’s Police Medal, was conferred on me for the action I had taken.
Extremist elements are said to be entrenching themselves in the country’s urban areas. How do you think this is going to shape the war on terror?
I tell my friends that the last battle in the war on terror will not be fought in the mountains of Waziristan, but in the streets of big cities like Karachi. There are many reasons for this. The army has swept the tribal areas clean of terrorists, and they have now taken refuge in the cities.
These elements cannot survive in the rural areas because they can be spotted easily. That information is passed on, and action is taken by the police. But the dynamics of urban areas are different. People don’t seem to even know their neighbors. No one knows what people around them do, so that gives these terrorists a chance to hide.
Assorted extremist organisations are ideologically aligned with the TTP. How do these organisations logistically band together to conduct operations?
These organisations have many faces — a few of them even seem to be very reasonable. Some claim to be just sympathisers of the TTP’s cause; in fact their ‘sympathisers’ are everywhere. They are in our streets, markets, academic institutions, government departments, everywhere.
But what you see is not always what you get. In one avatar they are the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) or the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Pakistan, who under Maulana Ludhianvi rebranded themselves by staying away from violence. They also have a second avatar: the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which is purely sectarian, like the ASWJ, but whose members use violence as a tool to terrorise people. Apart from that, there are many splinter groups, like Jundallah, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkat-ul-Ansar, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, etc. On the basis of my policing experience in Karachi, I can safely say that every single one of these groups has a Karachi chapter. These organisations have consolidated their presence in the city over the years and I’m certain the strength of these cadres has increased.
You became famous for raising anti-Taliban banners in Rahim Yar Khan after the December 16 APS Peshawar attack. What prompted you to come out and do that?
We displayed those banners in the entire district. It was the anger that erupted. The act of killing women and children and then associating that atrocious action with Islam was outrageous; it was nauseating. They did the biggest disservice to Islam by justifying their barbarism, saying it was inspired by the Quran. The responsibility of this act lies entirely with them. They cannot justify it by saying it was part of their vendetta against those responsible for the drone attacks, or anything else. So, it was my anger, frustration and helplessness that came out with those banners.
You take active part in discussions on social media asking for a secular, democratic Pakistan. Being a teacher of history yourself, how do you think the state could move forward to achieve such a nation?
I believe that this nation has not been educated in the true spirit of historical events. Jinnah’s speech of August 11, 1947 — which he delivered to the members of the first Constituent Assembly in its first session — was a policy speech in which the father of this nation determined the way forward. That was completely ignored. Secondly, the composition of Jinnah’s first cabinet also reflected what type of Pakistan he wanted. The law minister in that cabinet, the man who was responsible for legislation in the new country, was a Hindu. This was the spirit with which Pakistan came into being, but unfortunately, this spirit was lost along the way. It is about time we unearth Jinnah’s speech, revisit history, rewrite the fallacious history text books that have emerged, and translate the Quaid’s vision in its true spirit. The violence, sectarianism, extremism and terrorism we face today is the direct consequence of deviating from his vision.
We should be done using the post ’80 narrative as our national rhetoric and stop implementing it too. The results of that are evident. Also, I think we should desist from blaming individuals, or institutions. We must rise above this blame game, focus on bringing back the true spirit of nation-making in the light of the Quaid’s vision — and present that as a counter-narrative.