After Sunday’s gruesome terrorist attack in Lahore, the army moved against the militant elements in the Punjab so fast and in such a fashion that it made the political authorities of the Punjab nervous. That is what many people surmise from the events that have followed since.
While Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters in Lahore on Wednesday that the large scale arrests being made in the province were part of larger national plan, the military spokesman Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa stated at a press conference the same day that “Rangers, army and military intelligence agencies are conducting raids against terrorists inside Punjab.”
Both sides took pains to give the impression that they were in the lead. According to Mr Sanaullah, the provincial Counter Terrorism Department was at the forefront.
However, neither would answer the basic question – do the army and Rangers sent into Punjab have the same special powers that they enjoy in their ongoing operations in Sindh? Instead, both took the cover of the National Action Plan to explain the military’s intervention in Punjab.
Political and defence analysts, however, hold the view across the board that the top brass took the initiative on its own because the PML-N has been resisting the move for quite some time. Indeed, it has been a hot issue since the PPP started demanding sending Rangers to clean up Punjab, armed with the same powers that the paramilitary force enjoys in Sindh which it rules.
Now that the unwanted has happened, what the PML-N leadership, or more precisely the brothers Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, are thinking? The GHQ has made known that it has begun a full-fledged operation throughout the province.
A number of well-connected PML-N lawmakers and officials the Dawn talked to conceded that if the Rangers had been “formally called”, it would put the Punjab government at par with PPP-led Sindh government. “And that we cannot afford at this point of time.”
A party lawmaker, who was among the senior PML-N leaders the prime minister called to a meeting on Monday to take stock of the emerging situation, said “the decision to deploy Rangers carries huge risk for the party.”
With the next general elections just two years away, deploying the Rangers in the party’s stronghold was tantamount to “cutting our both hands”, he said, explaining that the military discovering any alleged misdemeanor by PML-N leader would demolish the clean image of the party.
“No doubt the Rangers have brought back peace to Karachi, but look what is happening to PPP,” he added, pointing to the cases filed against a number of PPP leaders in Sindh. Although none of them has been convicted, he noted that the mere media coverage of the charges framed against them has tarnished the image of the PPP.
“We cannot let that happen in Punjab,” asserted the PML-N lawmaker.
A Punjab PML-N official corroborated the assertion and said the party leadership “will resist formal deployment of Rangers in the Punjab.”
Though a final decision on the issue is awaited, he said “none in the party’s federal and Punjab cabinets was for allowing Rangers in.”
Inquired about the legal status of the ongoing Rangers and military activities in the province, he echoed Law Minister Sanaullah that it could be considered part of the national counter-terrorism plan.
“But the subsequent investigation and prosecution of those arrested by the military will remain the responsibility of the police – unless the same is formally transferred to the Rangers as done in Sindh.”
A senior Punjab police officer confirmed that those arrested in the aftermath of the Lahore tragedy have been handed over to the police.
“Police are now thinking what to do with them. It’s easy to haul someone but very difficult to prove what he is accused of,” he said. “They will all be back on streets in a couple of days.”
Minister Rana Sanaullah has indeed announced that some 5,000 arrested persons have been released for want of evidence.
“There is nothing in Punjab that its police cannot handle,” insisted a Punjab PML-N official. “Pakistan Rangers should be sent to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since PTI leadership has asked for them on occasions.”
Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2016