For at least two years now, we have seen a simmering conflict between the Sindh government and the Sindh Rangers about the legal extent of the latter’s powers and authority. Despite much debate and discussion on the subject, some very basic questions remain unanswered.
Can the rangers operate in Karachi without the provincial government’s sanction? What about the other areas of Sindh? Who exercises legal control over them? Is it the army, the federal government or the provincial government? What kind of law enforcement functions can they perform?
Our Constitution defines two separate types of armed forces: the regular armed forces (the army, the navy and the air force) and what are known as the ‘civil armed forces’. The rangers are an example of the latter. They do not fall within the line of command of the regular armed forces.
The rangers were initially constituted through a West Pakistan Ordinance in 1959 as a force to patrol the Sindh and Punjab borders with India and prevent the smuggling of people and goods across the border. While operational control over the rangers was originally vested in the provincial governments, eventually – through an amendment initiated by Bhutto in 1972 – operational control was transferred to the federal government. Rangers’ officers and men may be directly recruited or taken on deputation from the regular armed forces or any other government department. Technically, therefore, the Pakistan Rangers are a federal agency no different from other federal agencies such as the Federal Investigation Agency or the National Accountability Bureau. Practically, however, since the top command of the rangers usually comprises regular army officers on deputation, they are more inclined to take their orders from the army chief rather than directly from the federal government.
Their current presence in Karachi, however, is pursuant to section four of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997. This allows the federal government to order the presence of civil armed forces in any area for the prevention and punishment of terrorist acts and scheduled offences under the ATA. The federal government can make this order on its own accord or on the request of a provincial government.
The present attitude of the rangers and the federal government seems to be that they do not need the Sindh government and can carry on operations without the latter’s consent. That perception is incorrect.
So far, the rangers’ presence in Karachi has been secured by the Sindh government making periodic requests to the federal government, which have been duly granted by the latter. According to the Sindh government, however, since they have only requested for such presence in Karachi, the rangers cannot operate beyond the port city. This assertion appears to be correct. It would, nevertheless, be open for the federal government to directly order the rangers to operate in Karachi (or indeed in any other part of Sindh).
However, if the federal government exercises the direct option under section four of the ATA, it will run into another obstacle. Under the act, the rangers are authorised to use force to prevent terrorist acts, make arrests and exercise search and seizure powers. However, the investigation of cases and submission of challan to the anti-terrorism court is to be led by the police. Without this, the rangers would eventually have to release all the persons it arrested. Needless to say, the police force falls within the control of the Sindh government. As such, it is not possible to enforce the ATA without the consent of the Sindh government.
Unfortunately, the present attitude of the rangers and the federal government seems to be that they do not need the Sindh government and can carry on operations without the latter’s consent. That perception is incorrect. There is an urgent need for the rangers to be more respectful of the legal regime under which it operates and resist the tendency to carry out operations patently beyond its legal mandate. At the same time, the Sindh government needs to be more responsible about the continuing need for the rangers to back up its law enforcement functions – especially in Karachi – and not use the extension of the rangers’ mandate as a bargaining tool. The people of Sindh have a right to demand better sense and coordination from all of them.
This was originally published in the Herald's August 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a lawyer based in Karachi.