LAHORE - About 1600 clerics of different religious schools of thought from all over Punjab are under surveillance and it is mandatory for them to register their attendance with area police regularly.

As part of the National Action Plan (NAP), the government last year had decided to fit these 1600 hard-line clerics with microchip bracelets. But the authorities have deferred the plan secretly after the religious leaders denounce the rulers for introducing what they called “liberal laws” in a conservative society.

“The idea to fit firebrand clerics with electronic microchip bracelets has been deferred because of strong criticism,” an official said, seeking anonymity.

Religious circles staged countrywide protests to condemn the execution of Mumtaz Qadri early this month. They are also criticising the Punjab rulers for introducing new laws to protect women against violence.

As many as 1585 clerics are put on the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terror Act in the Punjab province. The fourth schedule is a section of the Anti-Terror Act (ATA) under which someone suspected of involvement in terrorism is kept under observation; it is mandatory for him to register his attendance with the local police regularly.

According to official list available with The Nation, most of the religious leaders placed on the Fourth Schedule in the province belonged to Deoband sect followed by Shias.

At least 1250 clerics of Deoband sect, 268 of Ahle-Tashi, 33 of Ahle-Hadith, and 24 of Brailvi sects are put on the 4th Schedule.

The Bahawalpur region tops the list with 294 clerics placed on the Fourth Schedule of the anti-terrorism laws. At least 254 clerics in Rawalpindi, 250 in Faisalabad, and 204 in Sargodha police regions are placed on the list.

Police sources say the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) has failed to provide “suitable bracelets” to the police department so far. However, a Punjab government official said the plan was deferred by the rulers because of strong backlash.

A police officer said the PITB sent two samples to the police department in this regard. “The first (sample) failed during the technical testing while the other was available with “Made in Israel” stamp on it,” the officer said. “Both the samples were rejected by the police department, last year. And the issue has been put on the backburner since then,” added the official who is familiar with the development.

The government’s plan to fit hardline clerics with microchip bracelets for tracking their location had sparked concern among religious circles because the technology could have privacy implications.

A member of the ruling PML-N said: “The government first wanted to introduce legislations before fitting the hardline clerics with bracelets. The government decided to introduce laws because the policy could be challenged in the court,” the MPA said. “I cannot give the timeframe about the legislation in this regard.”

A senior police officer told The Nation that the attendance of the clerics who are put on the watch-list was checked on daily basis. “The police department is regularly monitoring the activities of the fourth schedulers and the police are in touch with all these clerics,” the officer said.

Many religious activists straightforwardly rejected the proposal while some of them went underground or fled to other provinces as they came to know about the new policy.

“Consultation with religious community was essential before introducing new technology that could have privacy implications,” said a Lahore-based cleric who is put on the Fourth Schedule while seeking anonymity. “If it’s just for monitoring of some suspects then why the government is investing so much money in it,” he questioned.

A religious leader said he did not want clerics “treated like grocery items or criminals.” He said the religious leaders had not been consulted. “I don’t like the idea of being scanned,” he added.

The human microchip technology to track someone might be new equipment for Pakistanis but it is being used to regularly track criminals, prisoners, and even schoolchildren in many developed countries. Various solutions are being presented to address the problem of home-grown insurgency.

Last year, a microchip device had been designed by the Punjab Information Technology Board at the rate of Rs 25,000 per piece. But the sample was rejected by the police. “The authorities wanted to use silicon bracelets as part of the scheme to ensure round-the-clock monitoring of the movement and behaviours of fourth schedulers,” an official said.

This method of tracking individuals is also in response to the call for increased security in the country, which has been battling militancy since years.