Yesterday, Oct. 2, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal was stopped at the entrance to the accountability court by paramilitary Rangers, who refused to allow the minister to enter the court’s premises. But let’s rewind.
The SSP (Operations) Islamabad had earlier written a letter to the Capital Territory’s deputy commissioner, copied to others concerned, suggesting deployment of Rangers at the court only as a reserve force without any public dealing role. The D.C., in consultation with the Inspector-General Police, Islamabad, and the interior ministry, assessed that no such deployment was needed and, therefore, there was no need to requisition the Rangers. The matter should have ended there but it did not.
On the morning of Oct. 2, Minister Iqbal was informed by the Commissioner and the D.C. that the court premises had been taken over by Rangers and they were not allowing anyone to enter, including senior administration officials, media and lawyers whose entry had been agreed with Registrar of the court. The minister decided to go to the court himself to see what was going on. As reported, the venue was under the control of Rangers and the troops stationed at the entrance barred the minister from entering the premises.
The minister demanded to see the officer in charge of the troops but he could, conveniently, not be found. A few other officers also kept away. The minister’s calls to the DG Rangers went unanswered. It was at this point that the minister decided to make public the fact that a force that reports to his ministry had the gumption to bar his entry and had, in fact, appeared at the court without being requisitioned for that job.
The minister hit hard, stating the facts and promising an inquiry into the entire episode. Just as promptly, journalists and analysts known to be anti-PMLN took to the airwaves and social media with their whataboutery. Why should the ministers go to the court, some asked. Others alleged, without an iota of evidence, that Rangers got information that PMLN cadres were planning a ’97-style attack on the court. Still others began talking about Nawaz Sharif’s corruption, even though the very fact that references are to be investigated means Sharif has not been convicted and, therefore, is not a convict. In the same vein others deliberately mixed up ‘disqualification’ with ‘conviction’ with reference to the bill passed by the National Assembly that allows Sharif to hold the top party office.
Nothing surprising about any of this. Straw men arguments and whataboutery is now standard and, unfortunately, accepted practice, even among the educated. Partisan attitudes mean losing nuances and kicking the players instead of the ball. Among some of the ‘anchors’ there’s now not even the pretense of analysis or fairness. Like Mrs. Varden in Barnaby Rudge, who was seldom very Protestant at meals, their spirits too rise considerably at every opportunity they find to attack Sharif and the PMLN.
But while there’s a lot for which one can be critical of Sharif and the PMLN, as one can be of Imran Khan and the PTI, the issue here is different. And it’s rather plain and simple: did the Rangers, who report to the Interior Ministry, defy their own ministry and the Interior Minister? Who ordered their deployment when the civil administration made no such requisition, an imperative for the legal deployment of Rangers? And since neither the court nor the civil administration made any such request, a fact that we have corroborated with both, the Rangers were in clear violation of the laws and their presence in the court amounted to and amounts to illegal occupation.
Let me make it clear for the challenged and also those with agenda: the Oct. 2 episode is not about Sharif, it’s not about the references against him, it’s not about Mars, Sudoko, artificial intelligence, Charlie’s angels, Lady Gaga, and everything else that has been thrown into this. It’s about the Rangers’ un-requisitioned presence at the court. No more, no less. And, extrapolating from that, their defiance of their own chain of command.
Yes, and this is the twist in the tail. While civil armed forces, Rangers as well as Frontier Corps, are technically under the control of the Ministry of Interior and hence the Interior Minister, de facto, given that they are officered by Army officers, they can willfully defy the civilians because there are no consequences of such defiance. Further, this links up with the broader problem of civil-military imbalance that has been the bane of this country.
When Minister Iqbal finally managed to get through to the DG, he made clear that Rangers should either get placed under the Ministry of Defense (read: GHQ) or they have to obey him.
I have known Ahsan Iqbal for years. I have attended international seminars and conferences with him and I have seen him defend this country. I have had differences with him and the party he belongs to. I have been, and I am, deeply critical of the Sharif style of governance, even as I have praised the current P.M. for his institutional approach. But I stand with Ahsan Iqbal clearly, categorically and unequivocally on the stand he has taken. It is important to call out the uniformed, just like we call out governments and the uninformed. The civilian authority has often been disrespected in this country. Let it be said that that hasn’t taken us forward.
Given the many challenges that this country faces, this is a time for closing ranks, respecting the rules of the game and the Constitution, not playing games that have been played in the past and found wanting and destructive.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider