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ISLAMABAD: The question as to why did the centre not seek Punjab’s help to deal with the Faizabad sit-in and ended up in a botched operation has much to do with the serious divide in the ruling camp’s central and provincial leaderships, The Express Tribune has learnt.
Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif was kept out of the loop as far as the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and its federal government’s strategy was concerned. According to reliable sources, the government functionaries at the centre were reluctant to seek Punjab’s input to handle the situation.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal is stated to be not in favour of seeking Punjab’s help and suggested to the top party leadership, including Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and party chief Nawaz Sharif that the Islamabad police ‘alone’ would disperse “a handful of protestors within no time,” the source said.
The minister had also publicly shared his stance that dealing with the protestors from the Tehreek-e-Labbaik on Faizabad intersection was “no big deal”.
A senior government official said the PML-N chief had been under the impression that ending the sit-in was an easy task. But the unexpected failure of the operation infuriated Sharif and reportedly came down hard on the interior minister during a party meeting at the Punjab House on Tuesday.
Sharif is said to have asked the minister why there was no backup plan when operation failed in the first attempt and who was funding the sit-in? He also asked why all the relevant options were not exhausted and resources were not utilised? Iqbal could only reply that he would share these details in private.
A PML-N source privy to the related developments said the federal government had had a convenient option to seek assistance from the Punjab Police and the Elite Force but it did not. “From negotiations to military action, so much happened but at no stage did the Punjab government’s help was sought,” the source said.
“Instead, the centre relied on Frontier Constabulary from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which has little experience, compared to Punjab Police, in dealing with the mobs, besides relying on the Islamabad police,” he said.
“This may sound strange that our central leadership did not seek Punjab police’s help in a situation like this. Regardless of its notorious reputation, the Punjab police are sufficiently experienced to handle mobs.”
Unlike former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who had close ties with the Punjab government, his successor is said to be not on very good terms with the provincial setup. “There is a feeling among the loyalists of Mian Sahib [Nawaz Sharif] that interacting closely with the provincial government or the party chapter would earn them the label of members of ‘Shehbaz group’ — something they want to avoid,” said the source.
Some other circles believe that Punjab’s help was not sought because the provincial government was not willing to provide any. It is learnt that initially the Punjab government was willing to extend a helping hand to the centre and provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah held a meeting at the Punjab House to chalk out modalities for an operation.
Senior police and district administration officers from Rawalpindi and Islamabad attended the meeting but this did not go well with the federal functionaries who conveyed to the Punjab government that their services were no more required and that the centre was capable of tackling any challenge in the federal capital, according to insiders.
Therefore, neither the Punjab chief minister nor the provincial law minister extended any offer for sending police contingents when the Islamabad police and the Frontier Constabulary were on the retreat during the operation on Saturday.
When asked for comment, Rana Sanaullah denied the lack of cooperation on part of the Punjab government. “Protests and sit-ins were also going on in Punjab. So, it was decided that provincial government would handle the situation in its territory and the federal government would take action in Islamabad. Had the centre sought our help, we would have offered assistance for sure. We were in contact with the centre.”
The Punjab law minister confirmed that he chaired a meeting of police and district officials from the twin cities but said it was part of the “backup plan”, adding however that “that plan was not executed since our help was not sought in dispersing the protestors at Faizabad”.
The serious differences between both Nawaz and Shehbaz camps can be judged from the fact that Chaudhry Nisar, who is regarded as a close aide to the Punjab chief minister, minced no words in attacking his successor Ahsan Iqbal when the latter said that some protestors were killed during clashes outside the former’s house in Faizabad.
Nisar strongly denied it. “Let alone killings, no one even got injured outside my house. The interior minister should take the blame of the failed operation instead of passing the buck on the Islamabad High Court (on whose order operation was launched). This is the same man who claimed that Faizabad would be cleared (of protestors) in three hours,” he said in a statement.
Speaking to the media after the PML-N meeting at the Punjab House, Minister of State for Information Marriyum Aurganzeb said that Sharif was increasingly concerned about the situation arising from the sit-in. “Naturally, Nawaz Sharif is extremely concerned about the recent developments,” she added.
The minister, however, did not say if the former prime minister made any comments on the role played by the Army in brokering the deal with the protesting religious group.