Enter the Rangers

February 24, 2017


THE Rangers are coming with a mission to Lahore and other parts of Punjab, just as they had arrived with an objective in Karachi. The occasion may bring some relief generally. But this does not mean that we have cause to celebrate. It is obvious that those in charge of affairs here were also unable to take sufficient and efficient steps to control the situation to prevent it from deteriorating to a point where the reluctant resort to Article 245 became inevitable.

Then again it will serve little purpose if we choose to go over all the occurrences and non-happenings which led to the ultimate call to the Rangers ‘in aid’ in the context of the high ideal of supremacy of civilian authority. There has to be a more relevant reason for a comparison of the respective circumstances in Punjab and Karachi at a time when it was decided to press the Rangers into the job of establishing peace and order in these areas. What could justify that comparison? Perhaps, the differences may help us to better understand the nature of assignment for the Rangers and the Punjab-specific approach they may be required to adopt.

At the risk of being corrected by naturally keener and physically closer and emotionally more attached observers of Karachi, the grand city offered a less complicated case for the Rangers. It had long been established that the provincial government in charge of the city had lost all sense of direction. The government’s failure was personified by the chief minister whose constant misdoings made everyone frequently transcend the limits of decent criticism. The PPP, complete with its usual blunders, was debunked every second of the day by the media. The party apparently had no idea about how to govern Karachi which, for the convenience of a law-enforcement entity that claimed political neutrality and avowedly pursued a non-political solution, was neatly divided into various parts held by political parties or ethnic groups.

There are no ethnically divided zones in Lahore, ie there are no ready suspects unlike in Karachi.

The zones in Karachi — some of them more difficult to tread than others — signified just how enormous the challenge was. On the other hand, the black and white of it all also must have simplified it for an organisation trained to look at the problem with the certainty of a soldier who is committed to the truth of his mission and objective.

How does one even begin to compare that chaos with a monolithic Lahore and Punjab as they exist today? The province has been governed by a single hand for long. There’s no decentralisation of power and hence no easy local administrators to blame. There are no ethnically divided zones in Lahore, meaning there are no ready suspects unlike those available to the raiders in Karachi.

There are some stereotypical suspects outside of Lahore, the much-talked-about militancy havens in southern Punjab that have been endlessly debated but yet to be truly unveiled. That is an extremely sensitive area.

No one knows how intense a reaction it would bring for Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif if a particular part of the province is targeted in isolation of other areas. Say that part is in southern Punjab, there will definitely be elements who would want to exploit any ‘discriminatory’ action in Multan and its surroundings in their long-drawn struggle against ‘imperialist’ Lahore. It will be tough for anyone to quickly balance this feeling of discrimination with an example provided from some other part of Punjab.

Since the divisions in the present case are less pronounced, it will be that much tougher for the law-enforcers to identify the elements that are to be uprooted in the cleansing drive. Some of these elements may be linked to the very system that has been evolved in the province. It will not be easy for the strong PML-N government to look the other way when that happens and that could have consequences for the party a year or so before a scheduled general election. Under the most powerful and self-assured Shahbaz Sharif, the PML-N government in Punjab will not appear helpless enough to convince its allies of its inability to protect them at a trying moment.

The people of Punjab are preparing for impending action amid stories from other areas where the Rangers have previously gone about establishing order. These stories, however, do very little to foretell what kind of measures will be tried to see the province through this critical phase. These steps are hard to predict since those who are to be operated against are so immersed in the population.

There have to be suspects who stand apart from the harmless crowd at the outset for clear and focused action. The PML-N for its part appears a little unsure as to how it wants to go about this definitive new phase in its life. It has been diligently applying fresh polish to ready suspects for the emergency law enforcers to consider going after. There has been, in recent times, greater emphasis on labelling the militants as outsiders, as some variation of aliens who do not have accomplices but facilitators, as if they are a lesser problem than a full-blown partner in crime.

Apart from this identification of the usual suspects, the PML-N has been forced to distance itself from some old friends and that will most certainly earn the government intensified criticism from the right wing. In time, the operation could necessitate uncharacteristic gestures on the part of a chief minister who is used to taking action rather than explaining the steps of others operating outside his command. That will be new for a man known for issuing orders.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2017