The Punjab government has called the Rangers at last, years after resisting demands to seek the army’s help to purge the province of terrorists, their facilitators and hardened criminals. The decision, taken reluctantly after a deadly attack in Lahore last month, may harm some lawmakers of the ruling party, who are accused of patronizing criminals to maintain their power base.
The Rangers’ “combing” operation in the Punjab comes on the heels of the army-led Radd-ul-Fasaad (elimination of mischief) operation in the country, which aims at eliminating the "residual and latent threat of terrorism, consolidating the gains made in other military operations, and further ensuring the security of Pakistan's borders.” The military has launched many operations in all provinces of the country, including the tribal areas, but it is the first time the Rangers have been called in the Punjab province, considered the power base of the establishment and the ruling party. Critics believe many ruling party ministers and lawmakers will be arrested for links with terrorists and criminals, if the Rangers were given a free hand to operate in the province. According to political rivals, the ruling party has been following in the footsteps of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and it has created militant wings to crush opponents. They cite the last local government elections in the Punjab last year, in which dozens of rival candidates were threatened, abducted and even killed.
The Punjab government has insisted for years that the situation in the province is normal and it did not need the help of the army to eliminate terrorists, facilitators and hardened criminals. However, the intelligence agencies had gathered complete information of terrorists, facilitators and no-go areas in the Punjab, months before the launch of the Rangers operation. In June 2016, the intelligence agencies reported the presence of hundreds of terrorists and their facilitators in no-go areas of the Punjab. The areas where terrorists have set up their cells include Sarai Alamgir, Kharian, Muzaffargarh, Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Sialkot, Sheikhupura, Lahore and dozens of other areas of the province bordering India. According to the reports, a 45km long and 4km wide area of Sarai Alamgir and Kharian, spread from Azad Kashir to Mandi Bahauddin, is a safe haven for hundreds of fugitives belonging to banned organisations. Many terrorists are also hiding there.
Many areas of Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Narowal and Lahore districts have dens of criminals and hitmen. Hundreds of proclaimed offenders have also taken shelter in the riverine areas of Sialkot and Gujrat. Some of them also attacked a military convoy a few years ago. Criminals also live in Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Katch areas of the Indus River and adjoining areas of Balochistan. It is believed they are armed with rocket launchers, hand-grenades and other sophisticated weapons. The Chhutu gang was arrested in the riverine area of Rajanpur last year after a military operation. Many more gangs are still believed to be operating in the area. Many no-go areas also exist in Lahore, where people fear to go at night. The areas include Gujjarpura, Shahdara Town, Manga Mandi, Satukatla, Hadiara and many peripheral areas. Local politicians shelter and back the criminals.
Lists of criminal gangs and groups, being run and protected by political personalities, have already been made. At least 32 gangs and groups of Lahore, 41 of Gujranwala, 36 of Sheikhupura, 62 of Faisalabad, 41 of Multan, 16 of Bahawalpur and 21 of Ranjanpur and Dera Ghazi Khan have been identified. Fourteen gangs operate in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Action will be taken against the gangsters under the National Action Plan (NAP), after a report that all big gangs of the Punjab enjoy the backing of politicians. The gang leaders have hired people from Waziristan and other tribal areas as their guards. There are 15 gangs in Lahore, Faisalabad and other cities of the province which are headed by activists of banned organisations. Eight big gangs of Lahore are being sheltered by PML-N, PPP and PML-Q leaders.
The Punjab government has remained in a state of denial about the presence of terrorists for years. In a meeting of the Punjab Apex Committee on November 26, 2015, the intelligence agencies had pointed out a large number of no-go areas, safe havens of activists of banned organisations, networks of foreign agents and terrorists in the Punjab. The report said the Punjab police lacked the capacity and resources to deal with terrorists and suggested the Punjab government call the Rangers. In September 2016, the State Bank of Pakistan froze 2,100 accounts of terrorists and their financers and 1,443 accounts belonged to the Punjab alone. However, the Punjab government ignored the report and resisted demands for a Rangers-led operation until a suicide bomber hit a rally on The Mall in Lahore last month, which killed at least 20 and injured over 80 people.
The Punjab Rangers have conducted over 200 search operations in various areas so far, in which four terrorists were killed over 600 suspects arrested. All political parties and the general public have welcomed the operation in the province. According to experts, the Rangers’ operation could land some ministers and legislator of the ruling party in trouble, who have links with terrorists and criminals. However, it is not a bad bargain as it will not only purge the province of militants and their facilitators, but also improve the image of the ruling party. It is believed gangs in the province have stockpiled sophisticated arms and ammunition and the Rangers will seize more weapons in the Punjab than the army has recovered in the tribal areas in an operation against the Taliban.