RED ZONE FILES: Resorting to Rangers

Published October 28, 2021
A file photo of Pakistan Rangers personnel. — AP/File
A file photo of Pakistan Rangers personnel. — AP/File

Dread is in the air. When Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid anno­unced on Wednesday evening he had authorised the Punjab government to deploy Rangers in the province for the next 60 days, he acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, that the Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) threat had amplified to a level beyond the control of the Punjab police. His decision came in the wake of the federal cabinet’s meeting in which Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly said he would not allow TLP to challenge the writ of the state.

The deployment of Rangers is a hugely consequential decision, and the cabinet would have debated this with great care. The experienced politicians in this meeting would have known that bringing in the Rangers to control — and if necessary to battle — thousands of violent protesters injects an inflammable element into an already tense situation. It adds another factor to a complex political landscape that is littered with tension points from multiple sides.

Matters appear to be escalating even though there may be no definitive pattern to these seemingly unrelated potential crises facing the PTI government.

Read more: Govt decides to treat TLP as militant outfit

The TLP protesters have been engaged in violent clashes with the Punjab police since they embarked on a march from Lahore to Islamabad earlier this week. At least three policemen have been martyred with dozens more seriously injured. There is no official confirmation about any fatalities from the TLP side. The protesters are camped near Gujranwala and their leaders are insistent they will keep marching despite all odds. A determined and violent crowd in a face-off with a well-trained Rangers force not shy of using deadly force — this makes for a dangerous combination.

Which is why dread is in the air.

For good reason, perhaps. Inside the Red Zone, some fear the walls are gradually closing in. The opposition alliance PDM is on the march again, this time to the drumbeat of back-breaking inflation. It is warming the streets and threatening to set them ablaze with protests. The alliance smells blood. It also smells an opportunity.

Editorial: Opposition eyes opportunity amid perceived rupture between PM, establishment

The notification on the new ISI DG’s appointment may have concluded the ‘event’ that marked this particular controversy, but the ‘process’ of redefining the perceptional powers of the key stakeholders is far from over. A delicate point this, but keen observers of the Red Zone know full well that the controversy has spawned trust issues between the government and the establishment and there’s no shrink in town for such therapy. Which means everyone is inadvertently looking over his shoulder.

Editorial: Notification lessons

Which is why dread is in the air.

Not that this is the first time for it. Every time the TLP crowds have descended on the federal capital, they have lugged with them far more political baggage than they could carry. Each time, the government of the day has surrendered after putting up meek resistance, and every time the TLP has gone back after being emboldened by the state’s meekness. And complicity? Has there been some element of complicity from some quarters that has amplified the outfit’s embolden-ness?

The TLP has successfully used the lightning rod of its ideology to beat down the official narrative, and build up its own. If the 2018 elections results are anything to go by, TLP has muscled up into a political force across much of Punjab, urban Sindh and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If the PTI government believes it can swat the TLP down as a militant organisation, it may be under-appreciating the deepening and widening political roots of the party and how this will factor into a response in the face of strong-arm tactics.

The TLP’s birth and nourishment can be attributed to many fathers. While apportioning blame would be a useful exercise at some point, that point is not this point when thousands of its workers are fighting their way across to the federal capital. At this point, a law and order situation is threatening to turn into an incendiary political crisis if the Rangers utilise every and all means to halt the march of the crowd. The Rangers will work along with the police, and if the Punjab government puts them in charge of dealing with the TLP protesters, the chain of command will need to be made crystal clear in terms of at least one aspect: who makes the decision to use deadly force? The officer of the police commanding his force, or the officer of the military commanding the Rangers? What if, in this charged environment, blood is spilt? The consequences can be far-reaching.

Which is why dread is in the air.

The creeping chaos of the next few days could expose the fragility of power inside the Red Zone. Every time in the past when the TLP generated a crisis, the establishment had to step in to defuse it.

Read more: The government's policy of appeasement has created a dangerous situation

Each time, the police could not handle the law and order situation and the government could not manage the politics of it. If the Punjab government hands over the law and order aspect fully to the Rangers, it would be breaking new and dangerous ground in deploying the paramilitary force on a mass event involving thousands of violent men.

However, equally important would be who is given the responsibility of managing the politics of the situation. With the interior minister and his colleagues having failed to strike a deal, and now increasingly resorting to strong words, will someone from the establishment be asked to dissuade the TLP leaders from carrying on their march? Watch closely if you want to get a measure of power dynamics unfolding inside the Red Zone in more ways than one.

There is plenty of signalling being done since the last few tense days. The delay in the notification of the ISI DG was a signal; the content, wording and tone of the press release announcing the notification was a signal; and the date of the new DG taking charge three weeks from now is also a signal. What these signals mean can be open to interpretation, but what is fairly clear is that these signals portend an element of competition that has replaced previously pervasive cooperation. The undercurrents are hard to miss if one peers hard into the zone.

Read more: Will the government survive?

But we won’t need to peer too hard to see how the TLP crisis unfolds once the Punjab government resorts to the Rangers. Is the TLP once again lugging more political baggage than it can carry? The answer may present itself very soon.

Which is why dread is in the air.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2021

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