As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif landed in Karachi on December 28, it was expected that both federal and Sindh governments would hold a meeting on the controversy regarding powers of the paramilitary Rangers. The issue had made relations between Islamabad and Karachi tense since early December when the Pakistan People’s Party’s provincial government decided not to extend the Rangers’ powers.
In a gathering organised by the industrialists’ body, PM Sharif praised the National Action Plan (NAP) and gave Sindh Rangers and Police a pat on the back for curbing terrorism and restoring peace in Karachi, in the absence of Chief Minister Sindh Syed Qaim Ali Shah, the ongoing operation’s captain. The prime minister did not acknowledge him or the Sindh government in his speech. Also, in a brief meeting at airport, Sharif asked the chief minister to come to Islamabad to hammer out the differences on the issue of Rangers’ powers in the presence of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar.
The PPP leaders say its central leadership has noticed Sharif’s attitude in his recent Karachi visit, how he ignored the Sindh government and the chief minister, and claimed the success of operation as a success of the PML-N policy. “The federal government is challenging Qaim Ali Shah’s authority on the operation and relations between the two have been deteriorating since after Dr Asim Hussain’s arrest,” says an advisor of the chief minister Sindh on condition of anonymity.
However, on December 30, the chief minister did meet Sharif in Islamabad and discussed the special powers of Rangers. The meeting concluded with the PM directing the interior minister to visit Sindh to sort out the issues regarding the Rangers’ powers. Some voices in the media think it amounts to failure of the meeting.
Since 1989 when the then PPP government at the centre first called the Rangers and the Frontier Constabulary to curb rising political violence in Karachi, the Rangers have been assisting the police. Ever since, consecutive provincial governments have kept extending their stay from three to six months, every time the deadline approached.
However, the federal cabinet empowered the Rangers in September 2013 to lead a targeted operation in Karachi with the support of police against criminal syndicates, Taliban and sectarian groups and groups involved in target killings, extortion and kidnapping for ransom. In the beginning, all political parties, especially the PPP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) were satisfied with the Rangers’ targeted operation that claimed to have dismantled the networks of Taliban groups and criminal syndicates in the city.
But both parties started levelling allegations of political victimisation and accusing the Rangers of overstepping their mandate, when the Operation’s dragnet was thrown wider. This happened especially when activists of the MQM were arrested and Dr Asim Hussain, former president Asif Ali Zaradari’s close aide was arrested by Rangers in August, on charges of funding terrorists. Several key leaders of the PPP left the country, fearing arrest over charges of corruption.
Officials in the Home Department say the Rangers want extension of their jurisdiction beyond Karachi in the light of intelligence reports about the presence of several militant networks in rural Sindh. However, the Sindh government wants to limit their role only to Karachi and cases of targeted killings, extortions and kidnapping for ransom.
In mid-December, the Sindh Assembly adopted a resolution to limit the Rangers’ powers and sent a summary to the centre. However, the latter has turned down the request and notified a 60-day extension in the Rangers’ authority as per the previous arrangement.
Waqar Mehdi, special assistant to CM Sindh, says the federal government should respect Sindh Assembly’s resolution and avoid encroaching upon the provincial administration’s powers. “Rangers should focus on their basic sphere of action — cases of targeted killings, extortion, kidnappings for ransom and sectarian killings. Dealing with the corruption cases is a provincial matter and there is an anti-corruption department,” Mehdi tells TNS.
Interestingly, the MQM, which has won the city’s local government polls in an overwhelming way following the Operation, is also not supporting the PPP in its tussle with the Rangers.
A senator from the PML-N, requesting anonymity, said that the city’s key stakeholders, especially traders and all political parties, except the PPP and the MQM, are satisfied with the Rangers’ operation. “The PML-N will not come under pressure of any political party to halt the operation in the city,” he tells TNS. “The federal government will relax on the Rangers’ issue after a few weeks when there will be severe tussle between the PPP and the MQM over powers of mayors of Karachi and Hyderabad,” he maintains.
Political analysts opine that PM Sharif has no reason to accept the Sindh government’s demands for cutting the Rangers’ powers. Manzoor Isran, a political analyst who teaches at SZABIST says the Karachi operation, better economic performance and full support of army has made the PML-N a popular party. “Now, at a time when operation in Karachi is at its peak, the PML-N is unlikely to trim the powers of Rangers as it will undermine their performance and morale,” says Isran. “Sharif cannot afford to annoy Rangers at this point in time”.