Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has assaulted a federating unit and undermined the principles of federalism as enshrined in the constitution by rejecting the summary of the Sindh government regarding the ‘conditional’ operational powers of the Rangers under Article 147 of the constitution and granting them unbridled powers under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). Where are we heading, if not towards a breakdown of the constitutional order – with far-reaching consequences for the federation?
The Sindh government and all other stakeholders had agreed to the ‘Operation Clean-up’ and the Rangers were empowered to assist and strengthen the provincial law-enforcement authorities to restore peace and apprehend terrorists, target killers, extortionists and their abettors. Since everybody was on board, both the Rangers and the police did a remarkable job and brought down terrorism by 80 percent, almost eliminated the bhata (extortion) mafias in Karachi. Among all provincial governments, it was only the Sindh government that delivered against the nexus of terrorists-cum-killers and extortion mafias; and the Rangers and the police were rightly praised for their success.
Soon the Rangers started to use their unbridled powers quite ‘freely’, and beyond their mandate. That started to hurt the provincial authority and the two major political stakeholders, the MQM and the PPP, who had fully endorsed the operation. Although the PPP took it in relatively good stride when the Lyari criminal gangs and activists of Aman Committee were targeted, the MQM vehemently reacted against the disappearances and extra-judicial killings of its workers. However, both parties were quick to express satisfaction when the Rangers’ guns were on the other side. That only encouraged the Rangers even more.
In the meanwhile, as the media ran a visibly sponsored campaign against corruption not only in Sindh but also in other provinces, the Rangers – with other federal agencies, such as NAB and the FIA – started raiding various provincial departments on suspicion of some alleged connection between departmental corruption and terrorism.
Soon the so-called ‘captain of the operation’, the CM Sindh, who was assured of the subordination of federal agencies, including the Rangers, saw provincial authority slipping away from him. Chaos and fear almost paralysed the whole provincial setup. PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari lambasted the powerful security establishment for the resulting dire consequences for the federation and for civil-military relations.
However, after the initial hard talk, the PPP tried to capitulate with the powers that be, which encouraged the federal law-enforcement agencies to extend their writ. With relative calm returning to Karachi, people felt a sense of relief after a long time and supported an extension in the stay of the Rangers.
With a bad reputation regarding governance, the Sindh government was left with little legitimacy to stand up to the increasing pressure of the Rangers who are under the resolute leadership of the corps commander of Karachi. The Rangers then assumed the role of a reformer. And so they further extended the operation by catching ‘big fish’, ostensibly on charges yet to be proven.
Finally, the arrest of Dr Asim on the charges of financing and abetting terrorism made the PPP furious. The party took up the legitimate banner of provincial autonomy against excessive use of federal agencies, which were accused of selective victimisation. Forgetting its own complaints, a post LB polls victorious MQM joined hands with those political carpetbaggers who are always eager to get their share of the cake with the demise of a democratic dispensation. The MQM did after seeing differences on the Rangers’ powers brewing into a big fight between the PPP and the establishment. The combined opposition opposed the treasury resolution in the Sindh Assembly that somehow restrained the mandate of the Rangers while asserting provincial authority/autonomy.
The chief minister of Sindh used his constitutional prerogative under Article 147 to “Entrust (certain) functions to the federation”, and it is his prerogative to grant such powers “either conditionally or unconditionally”. In his advice/summary, the CM had sought the extension of the Rangers stay/assistance in dealing with target killing, extortion, kidnapping for ransom and sectarian killings, and also included terrorism, while making it obligatory for the Rangers to seek permission of the chief secretary for investigating any provincial department, and the CM’s permission for the arrest of a person allegedly financing or abetting terrorism. Article 148 also stresses that: “in the exercise of the executive authority of the federation in any province regard shall be had to the interests of that province”.
The federal government’s rejection of the conditional extension of the Rangers stay in Karachi and certain precautionary limitations on their powers, which they did misuse in some instances, and the restoration of the previously agreed powers of the Rangers on the basis of the Anti-Terrorism Act is in flagrant violation of Articles 147 and 148.
Given the overall federalist spirit of the constitution, the 18th Amendment deleted sub-clause-2 of Article 149, which pertained to any federal direction regarding “execution of any federal law which relates to a matter specified in the concurrent legislative list”. The federal security forces are always called in aid of civilian authorities, not to subvert the authority of those who had requisitioned their assistance for the restoration of law and order.
By doing so, Interior Minister Nisar has dangerously pitched a paramilitary force, led by the corps commander Karachi, against the Sindh government and its law-enforcement agencies who are already at loggerheads – as witnessed in the Dr Asim case. Suppose the CM or the chief secretary or IG Police give certain directions or orders to their subordinate departments and the DG Rangers orders his own people to move in the opposite direction, what would happen then? It would certainly lead to the breakdown of the constitutional machinery which would, in turn, create the conditions for the imposition of Governor Rule or Emergency.
The blanket powers to arrest and coerce anybody on accusations of abetment are so open-ended that the Rangers can arrest the whole cabinet and the provincial assembly members. In all fairness, demands to extend Rangers’ powers to unearth corruption and hang the corrupt are really pushing the Rangers in the wrong direction – when there already have been reports of excesses and politicisation.
The irony of the Karachi operation is that after having achieved remarkable successes against extortionists, target-killers and terrorists, it is now increasingly becoming controversial. The political forces who were the real allies in the war on terror are now on the hit-list, as if the principal fight against terrorism is over.
The operation has lost the support of the two major political stakeholders and is now being used for partisan purposes. There have to be some checks and balances. To keep the Karachi operation on the path there is an urgent need for an unambiguous mandate – strictly in accordance with the National Action Plan – to eradicate terrorism and religious extremism, with a clear timeline and milestones mutually set by the federal and provincial governments. Thanks to meddling by an intrusive establishment, and the authoritarian and manipulative tendencies of the federal government, yet another federal unit is being pushed to the wall.
Once you derail one part of the democratic edifice, you pave the way for the unravelling of the whole democratic dispensation. We have a long history of an authoritarian centre that caused the breakup of the country, as well as repeated insurgencies in Balochistan. Given our pre-occupation with the war on terror, we can least afford to alienate yet another federating unit.
The writer is a political analyst.