Labour and Manpower Minister Khurshid Ahmad Shah -APP File Photo
ISLAMABAD Fingers were pointed at the Punjab government across party lines in the National Assembly on Monday over alleged patronage of religious extremists in some areas, drawing assurances from two ministers that the centre would approach the province on an issue which one member feared could put the province in “flames”.

Both PPP chief whip and Labour and Manpower Minister Khurshid Ahmad Shah and Minister of State for Interior Tasnim Ahmed Qureshi said the federal government would seek a report from the Punjab government after an opposition member voiced concern over official protocol given to members of a banned religious group during a visit to his home district of Jhang on Sunday by a Punjab minister of the provincially ruling PML-N in connection with a by-election campaign for a provincial assembly seat.

“This is tyranny with my district and if it were not stopped, the whole Punjab will be in flames,” said PML-Q member Sheikh Waqas Akram, whose version of Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah's visit to Jhang was endorsed as “correct” by Qureshi, who said “We will talk to the Punjab government about it and (then) ... appropriate action will be taken.”

Akram said though his party was not concerned with the by-election that it was not contesting, the situation “suddenly” became a matter of concern after the Punjab law minister visited the madressah of a twice-banned group active with a third name, had food and tea with its members and took the head of the group in his car for a drive with police escort to give what he called a message to the local population that “these people are worth respect” instead of moderates they had elected (in the previous election).

Akram's point received an unlikely support from PML-N member Rashid Akbar Niwani who said “these people” were moving freely and visiting police stations with arms in his nearby home district of Bhakkar and remarked “This is 'Azaab-i-Elahi' (divine torment) we are nurturing.”

Niwani, who himself was injured in a suicide attack at his home last year, said his district's police chief had told him after he complained about the activities of terrorists that unspecified intelligence agencies had asked police not to arrest these terrorists and that they themselves would get hold of them, if needed.

PML-Q member Riaz Hussain Pirzada from southern Punjab said the situation in Jhang should not be taken lightly and called for a halt to “official patronage” of terrorists, which a PPP member from Punjab, Nadeem Afzal Chan, said would compromise Pakistan's struggle against terrorism and would be unjust to the country and the armed forces fighting these terrorists.

Minister of State Qureshi, taking the floor for a second time on the issue, called the Punjab law minister's conduct at Jhang “unreasonable” and said “We should not put the country's interests at stake for the sake of votes.”

Khurshid Shah, avoiding a direct blame on the Punjab government, said while members could voice their concern in the house, it was the “responsibility of our government” to take up the matter with the province. “We will contact them in writing and will inform you about their reply.”

In further remarks later, the minister said the Punjab chief minister should take notice of Jhang, which he recalled had been a flashpoint since 15 years.

“If they (terrorists) get encouragement, it will be very dangerous,” he said about people who Akram earlier alleged sought to make Muslims fight among themselves.

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