THE Corona Relief Tiger Force has steadily had the scope of its ‘responsibilities’ widened to well beyond what its name suggests it was set up for, which was in itself a controversial move. On Sunday, Prime Minister Imran Khan tasked the million-member force of volunteers with checking the prices of food items and posting them on its portal, adding that he would discuss the matter further in a forthcoming meeting.
The CRTF was established by Mr Khan in late March, a month after the first coronavirus case was reported in Pakistan, to help the government in providing relief to the people in the midst of the pandemic lockdowns and ensure that the public was adhering to SOPs to prevent the contagion from spreading. A large number of doctors, engineers, lawyers and retired army personnel registered themselves as CRTF volunteers.
According to the government, the force also includes over 300,000 students, 133,000 social workers, 40,000 teachers and 17,000 health workers. With Sindh refusing to allow it to work in the province, the force eventually became operational only in the provinces ruled by PTI and its allies. Soon enough, however, the premier declared he wanted the volunteers to also supervise the workings of the utility stores during the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic, check hoarding, involve themselves in the PTI’s tree plantation drive, and assist in the government’s efforts to combat climate change and locusts.
Escalating food prices is an extremely serious issue and must be tackled in a responsible and credible manner. As the government itself apprehends, the opposition is likely to exploit it for political gain during its campaign to dislodge the current dispensation. To employ the services of a volunteer force operating without any legal cover is an oddly casual and inappropriate approach by the prime minister. Even in the provinces where CRTF is operating, there are district administrations, which include price control magistrates, mandated to carry out the latest task assigned to the volunteer force.
Certainly, there may be officers who are incompetent: the DC Lahore removed 17 price control magistrates in January for not doing their job properly. But having volunteers prowling around haranguing shopkeepers — or, in worse case scenarios, using their ‘Tiger certification’ for illegal financial gains — is surely not the answer.
Opposition politicians from the outset have criticised the CRTF as a political gimmick; increasingly it is being seen as a private political force that answers to the prime minister. It does appear to be an idea rolled out without much spadework, which is why the volunteers are being entrusted with a variety of tasks that have nothing to do with the pandemic, so that they do not appear completely redundant. However, while these paper tigers do not have the legal authority to enforce government directives, one wonders how far this experiment will go.
PROTESTERS in Gilgit-Baltistan, demanding the release of political prisoners imprisoned since 2011, called off their agitation on Saturday after the region’s caretaker government assured them that the held individuals would be released. The protest, in Hunza’s Aliabad area, lasted for six days and most of the region’s political and religious parties, along with families of the incarcerated individuals, participated in large numbers. At the heart of the matter is a protest held in 2011, in the aftermath of the Attabad Lake incident, when locals started demonstrating against the administration for what they said were insufficient relief efforts. As a scuffle broke out between protesters and police in Aliabad, hundreds of activists, including Baba Jan, were rounded up by the authorities for ‘rioting’ and later given lengthy prison terms under the antiterrorism law. It is for the release of these men that the large, peaceful protests have been held in the northern region over the past few days. Along with Aliabad, activists held protests in other GB cities and towns in solidarity.
With an election in the region due next month, the authorities need to handle the situation with care. Demonstrations have up till now been peaceful, but discontent is brewing, mainly due to the harsh penalties imposed on people exercising their democratic right to organise. The GB administration has said it will release the 14 political prisoners in a month and a half; this process needs to be expedited and those incarcerated simply for expressing their opinions must be given maximum relief under the law. But beyond the Aliabad incident, the leaders in Islamabad must ensure that an atmosphere of political freedom and a democratic culture are allowed to flourish in GB. Muzzling the people’s opinions simply because they differ from the official line will have counterproductive results, and will add to discontent in a geopolitically sensitive region. We have seen the failure of this approach before — particularly in Balochistan. In that province, due to the mistakes of the establishment, alienation from the national mainstream grew; this was exploited by forces internal and external. The same mistake must not be made in GB. The educated, politically aware populace must be allowed to make informed decisions at the ballot box, while more needs to be done to give the region the same rights the rest of Pakistan enjoys. Heavy-handed tactics must be abandoned in favour of a democratic, inclusive approach.
IN the present politically charged atmosphere, the assassination of a prominent Deobandi scholar threatens to exacerbate communal tensions. Saturday’s attack on Maulana Adil Khan, chief of Jamia Farooqi, and his driver, in Karachi has elicited strong condemnation from several quarters including Prime Minister Imran Khan and COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa; they have held “Pakistan’s enemies” responsible for trying to foment sectarian violence here. Messages from other religious leaders and bodies, including Mufti Taqi Usmani who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt last year, also termed the incident an attack on national security. In the light of recent events in the country, such statements are warnings of the grimmer tragedy that lies ahead if sectarian sentiment is allowed to gain ground. There are several reasons — but primarily stemming from within our borders — behind this deepening sectarian divide. For instance, in Muharram, on account of debatable remarks made from the pulpit, blasphemy cases were registered against some 40 members of the Shia community. A few weeks later, three back-to-back Azmat-i-Sahaba rallies were held in Karachi by Deobandi, Barelvi and Ahle Hadith groups, in which members of banned sectarian groups also participated. Another rally was held in Islamabad after which a leader of the banned ASWJ was booked by the police for hate speech.
Meanwhile, Sindh Education Minister Saeed Ghani asserted that an old Supreme Court order of former chief justice Saqib Nisar had prevented the provincial government from providing security to the slain cleric. Such a lame excuse cannot be accepted; it is the province’s responsibility to ensure security for its inhabitants, including those in high-profile positions that can leave them vulnerable to attack. However, the challenge extends far beyond the provision of guards and bulletproof vehicles. For years, extremist groups have been used by the state as ‘strategic assets’. These ‘assets’ have turned into liabilities for the country. Unless the government takes bold and decisive action against all militant groups, intolerance and tit-for-tat killings will continue to take innocent lives.