The military establishment is in no mood to give any quarter to the MQM and PPP in Sindh. It kicked off its anti-terrorist operations earlier in the year by targeting MQM activists, provoking howls of protest from Altaf Hussain and his lieutenants. Then it lodged a case against all top MQM leaders in an anti-terrorist court. The PMLN federal government weighed in by including the name of Altaf Hussain in the Imran Farooq murder case. The PPP was next in line for allegedly harbouring, aiding and abetting terrorist funding, provoking Asif Zardari to explode against the generals. But the military remained undeterred. When the federal government refused to stop NAB from reopening graft cases against him, Mr Zardari thought discretion to be the better part of valour and fled the country. Matters came to a head four months ago when the military arrested Dr Asim Hussain, the minister-right hand man of both Asif Zardari and Altaf Hussain, and leaned on him to implicate both leaders in terrorism related activities.
The military is operating in the province through the Sindh Rangers on the basis of Constitutional Article 147 that requires the federal government to seek the permission of the Sindh government before enabling such anti-terror military operations under the Anti-Terrorism federal law. Owing to such tensions, the PPP government has become increasingly reluctant to sanction carte blanche rights to the Rangers, especially when such powers may be used against the government’s top dog administrators, politicians and allies in the province. A way out was seemingly found in the establishment of an “Apex Committee” to vet all actions by the Rangers. But this hasn’t worked because the military is not prepared to dilute its operations on the basis of any “political” considerations. Unfortunately, however, its foray into the domain of “corruption” has not earned it any laurels because it doesn’t have the legal expertise to prosecute such crimes and prove its charges. A tug of war has ensued: the military wants to keep Dr Asim Hussain in custody and proceed against him in an anti-terror court but the PPP government wants to set him free. Inevitably, the political battle has spilled over into the courts. When the provincial government refuses to act on the advice of the Rangers, the military establishment takes recourse to the judges of the anti-terror court and high court of Sindh. Now the stage is set for high noon.
Piqued, the Sindh government has extended the application of Constitutional Provision 147 to the Rangers writ in the province on two conditions: it is only for two months, and it bars the Rangers specifically from targeting the government’s political assets and allies. But the military establishment has refused to accept any restrictions on the Rangers’ course of action and the federal government has rejected the conditional summary while notifying the two months extension. Its argument is that the provincial government cannot interfere into the application and provisions of the federal anti-terror law.
So the ball is back in the PPP’s court. It can either petition the judges to strike down the federal government’s action in rejecting its conditional summary; or it can altogether revoke its permission under Article 147 that is enabling the Rangers to act; or it can huff and puff and threaten to pull the House down by joining hands with the MQM and PTI to destabilize the PMLN government in Islamabad.
The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, is seemingly unbending. He claims that if the Sindh government doesn’t play ball he will recourse to other options. One such is to invoke Article 149 of the constitution that doesn’t require provincial approval for any federal action or order in the national interest. A more naked federal intervention is allowed by Article 245 that expressly protects all actions of the military in any area from the normal application of the writ jurisdiction of the high courts, a sort of martial law under a civilian umbrella. Governor’s Rule is a third option. But all these are beset with serious political problems and constitutional hurdles. All also imply a rupture in the current difficult political equilibrium among the political parties and between the civilians and the military. None of the stakeholders can afford this. So what is the way forward?
The Rangers should focus on purely anti-terrorist operations and refrain from attacking the core interests and assets of mainstream political parties which have been reinforced by the recent local body election results. The Sindh government should not get into a tangle with the military and federal government, nor unreasonably obstruct the anti-terrorist operation. The federal government must step in and restrain both sides from digging their heels in and massaging their egos.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has a very important role to play in charting the way forward. If he doesn’t engineer a compromise between the military and Sindh parties, he will be the biggest loser of all in the constitutional and political crisis that will inevitably follow.