Last Wednesday, Punjab director general of Pakistan Rangers — country’s paramilitary force primarily meant to secure borders — made a public appearance in Lahore. The well-guarded DG Rangers, Major General Azhar Naveed Hayat Khan, visited many areas in the city to observe the security situation. The visit was highlighted by tv channels. The DG was shown encouraging the police cops on duty.
This was the first public appearance of the paramilitary force’s regional head after the Interior Ministry Islamabad formally approved the deployment of Rangers in Punjab — 2,000 personnel for a period of two months — to reinforce the sense of security and conduct “intelligence based operations” independently or along with Counterterrorism Department (CTD) of the Punjab Police.
The step is said to have been taken with the mutual understanding of the civil-military leadership, following a series of militant attacks and suicide blasts in the country including one in Lahore on Feb 13 at the Charing Cross right outside the Punjab Assembly.
On Feb 22, following another suicide blast in Sehwan on Feb 16 killing nearly 90 people, the army chief in a high level meeting held in Lahore announced another military operation ‘Operation Raddul Fasaad’. The same evening, the Interior Ministry approved deployment of Rangers in Punjab.
The paramilitary force is deployed under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 1997 and is given temporary policing powers in the province. Section 5 of the Act addresses the use of armed forces and civil armed forces to prevent terrorism. It reads: “Any police officer or member of the armed forces, or civil armed forces (Rangers) who is present or deployed in any area may, after giving sufficient warning, use the necessary force to prevent the commission of terrorist acts or scheduled offences.” Section 5(1) of the ATA reads, “In the case of an officer of the armed forces or civil armed forces, shall exercise all the powers of a police officer under the Code (Criminal Procedure Code 1898)”.
The law also allows such forces to “arrest, without warrant, any person who has committed an act of terrorism or a scheduled offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed, or is about to commit, any such act or offence; and enter and search, without warrant, any premises to make any arrest or to take possession of any property, fire-arm, weapon or article used, or likely to be used, in the commission of any terrorist act or scheduled offence.”
“Deploying paramilitary forces for security reasons is not a good idea,” says Mujahid Barelvi, senior journalist and political commentator. “Also, we have to see how successful has been the experience with Rangers in Karachi. The Rangers came in Karachi two decades back but were given policing power only a couple of years ago. Were they able to provide evidence against the detained suspect-militants and their facilitators within the timeframe? There are many examples to show they have not.
“There is need for making the police resourceful, apolitical, and independent in functioning rather than calling paramilitary forces to deal with security issues on ground. Ideally, there is no need of such paramilitary force.”
Since the launch of National Action Plan two years back, there has been alleged pressure from the military to deploy the paramilitary force in Punjab which the ruling PML-N has been resisting, both at the federal level and in Punjab. According to PML-N insiders, with the recent wave of attacks in Pakistan and the change of army’s top command, the federal government has agreed on deploying Rangers “with mutual understanding and along with CTD”.
Security analyst Imtiaz Gul says, “There was for a long time a need of this kind of force in Punjab to counter terror. The political setup has had to agree on it after feeling the heat in the current circumstances. It was needed because the police allegedly keep appeasing the criminal and religious groups in order to avoid any conflict. They play games and compromise with these groups locally to avoid repercussions.”
Yet, Gul believes, “such measures are only for patchwork and fire-fighting. The long-term solution to eliminate terrorism lies in the post fire-fighting role — of the civilian setup, police and agencies. Without empowering local forces and civilian institutions we cannot come out of this crisis.”
The paramilitary force, practically working under the command of Pakistan Army chief, has less experience than police in anti-terror operations and is supposed to act on the information tips received from intelligence agencies, army and the CTD.
In 2016, Punjab government had sought the help of Pakistan Rangers in dealing with the criminal Chotu-gang operating in Rajanpur, an under-developed district in southern Punjab. The Rangers and army have also been called in the past during the Muharram processions.
Following the Rangers’ deployment, after a blast in Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority commercial market on February 23, people witnessed paramilitary forces quickly jumping in, sidelining the police force from the spot and taking charge. Police, a local says, were only rescuing the victims.
A few days ago, the Rangers also announced its helpline, urging the people to share information about terrorism and suspect militants. The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) is the official media handler of the acts of the force against militancy in Punjab. According to statements issued by ISPR in the past few days, the Rangers have detained more than 700 suspects and conducted above 200 Intelligence based Operations in various areas of the Punjab, especially, in districts of south Punjab.
“Calling the paramilitary force means reinforcing the police. Constitutionally, the first responder force in any law and order situation is police. While the paramilitary and military troops are second and third responders, respectively,” says defence analyst Major-General (r) Ijaz Awan.
“The Rangers’ requisition is a late realisation forced by circumstances after the recent terror attacks leading to many police casualties. Unfortunately, it is assumed that the police force in Punjab and Sindh are politicised and their professional reputation is under question. In the present security situation, the role of security forces other than the police would remain vital,” says Awan.