August Issue 2011

By | News & Politics | Published 13 years ago

000_Del439298The cold-blooded murder of Sarfaraz Shah by Sindh Rangers personnel in June elicited an unprecedented public outcry. The gruesome act was caught on camera by the mere coincidence of a TV crew shooting nearby. Subsequently, the nation repeatedly witnessed the murder on their television screens in the days that followed. They watched Rangers personnel egging on a trigger-happy colleague and heard the groans and pleas of the young man slowly bleeding to death.

Leaders from every political party were quick to condemn the killing of an unarmed man. The Rangers, in their defence, purported that Shah was trying to rob someone in the park (in which he ultimately met his death). Countless talk shows focused on the issue and the online community in Pakistan was abuzz with rage and condemnation. The Rangers’ role came into question more than ever before.

After a round of public statements, demands for resignations and even a cat-and-mouse chase, court proceedings have finally been carried out and the soldiers involved have been held responsible.

[See Newsline‘s coverage of the sentencing of the Rangers involved in the Shah murder in the following three articles: Of Life and Death Sentences; Has Justice been Done?; A Tale of Two Murders]

Primarily a patrol force trained and employed to protect the country’s borders, the Rangers were first deployed in the city at the University of Karachi in December 1989, to control frequent clashes between the Peoples Student Federation (PSF) and the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) after the police proved unable to do so. The soldiers’ rigid faces and heavy boots managed to instill fear, doing the needful. Soon after, they were used in an armed operation against the MQM, then known as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (now the Muttahida Qaumi Movement). The operation resulted in the deaths of thousands of party activists. Since then, successive governments have granted the Rangers extensions to remain in the city, and now these soldiers have now become a permanent fixture in Karachi.

Karachi houses 7,000 of the 11,000 Rangers deployed in Sindh. From the historical Jinnah courts to colleges in Lyari, several buildings across the city are occupied by them. Walls of buildings where troops are stationed have been raised, barbed wires are increasingly common, and traffic routes have been diverted to ensure their security.

These measures have made the Rangers extremely unpopular with the populace, with many citizens complaining that they have become unnecessarily intrusive, case in point: white-collar workers employed in banks, brokerage houses and television channels located on I.I.Chundrigar Road, who come across military high-handedness every day due to their proximity to the Rangers’ Headquarters. “We all need protection, but not at the cost of brutality and humiliation,” says Nabeel Feroz, a mid-level banker. “A man was killed without a trial because we as the public failed to raise our voice. We should have protested whenever our cars were stopped to make way for senior officials and when the soldiers looked at us menacingly.”

Rangers are deployed in the city upon the request of the provincial administration, and public tax money is used to bear their expenses — the costs of which run into hundreds of millions of rupees. Meant to operate under the Sindh government, the paramilitary force has formed its own modus operandi. Rangers are known to go beyond their primary task of keeping watch: they sometimes carry out their own investigations, make arrests and interrogate suspects.

Says former Inspector General of Sindh Police Jehangir Mirza, a paramilitary force can never understand the nature of civilian law and order. “I used to call the DG Rangers for his help whenever we needed it because the junior officers never listened to us.” The Rangers have a superiority complex, he adds. “It’s natural for the armed forces (to have this attitude) as (they) see themselves as more disciplined than other institutions. But in cities, their only role is to assist the police.”

This attitude is visible at public education institutes, where students complain that Rangers personnel don’t budge until the high command orders them to and that it is standard practice for them to stand and watch as political activists clash at the University of Karachi. On the streets too, the performance of the Rangers is questionable. Street crime has not reduced despite shoot-at-sight powers granted to them every now and then, and politically motivated murders are on the rise. Some are of the view that Pakistan’s armed forces and paramilitary forces, such as the Rangers, are not trained to make assaults in cities, fight short battles with criminals in narrow lanes and sneak into hideouts to catch but not kill them. Their training is limited to fighting state armies; thus, it seems counter-productive to install a border patrol force in the city.

However, there are others, such as MQM MNA Haider Abbas Rizvi, who believe that Rangers are necessary for maintaining law and order in Karachi. “While the first resort is always the police to effectively deal with any law and order situation, their performance has never been satisfactory.” Rizvi points to the exceptional ground realities in Karachi, a city with a population of millions divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. According to him, the ill-equipped police are not fit enough to carry out sweeping operations in areas that are infested with criminals. “The strength of the police force, at only 35,000 men and women, is not enough,” he says. And so, it is the Rangers that are sought every time ethnic clashes erupt in the city.

The view that Rangers are essential for Karachi is also supported by defence and security analyst, Ikram Sehgal. “You take away Rangers from Karachi and the city will plunge into anarchy like never before,” he states. Sehgal believes that the night Benazir Bhutto was assassinated was a mere preview of what a Ranger-less Karachi would be like. He argues that the Rangers have never been used properly. “It may seem that they have a lot of powers but that’s not true. Give them policing powers and you will see a marked change in the law and order situation,” he claims. This view is tied to the belief that the police has been politicised to the extent that even the most competent officers have their hands tied when it comes to enforcing the rule of law, and those who stand in the way of the overlords are bumped off.

“None of the political parties, be it the PPP, MQM, ANP or the Baloch, want the police to be completely independent,” maintains Sehgal. In this context, the Rangers are more reliable simply by virtue of them being more independent — but are they really?

Being paramilitary troops, the federal government has more say in its affairs than the provincial administration — clearly something the force is cognisant of. Earlier, when the provincial government tried to reel in their expenditure, Rangers took the matter up directly with the federal government. According to former DG Rangers, Sindh, Abdul Qadir Baloch, the federal government often uses Rangers for its own ends, causing resentment among politicians from Karachi. “This has (also) kept the Rangers aloof from the real problems of the city,” he says. “Rangers are not a fighting force and their primary job is to keep watch. These are soldiers who have been called to the cities to assist the police. Politicians must sit together and decide what sort of policing they want from them in the next few years.”

Despite the many complaints against them, the Rangers presence does seem to calm the nerves of worried citizens whenever the situation in the city deteriorates. For citizens like 26-year-old Farooq Saeed, who has been robbed three times and come up against a wall trying to seek police help, shoot-to-kill orders against street criminals are welcome. With little or no faith in the police, the Rangers seem to be the best bet for maintaining peace and order in the city. Only last month, four days of mayhem and murder in various areas of Karachi, such as Qasba Colony, Orangi and Katti Pahari, ended only when the Rangers were asked to move in. In fact, their arrival was greeted with loud cheers from the community in the area. But at the end of the day, how their services are to be utilised, under what rules and to what end, is something that needs to be decided urgently, for one does not want a reccurence of the Sarfaraz Shah spectacle.

A version of this article was originally published in the August 2011 issue of Newsline under the headline “Problem or Solution?”