On the 24th of June, at around 4:45 a.m., some 400 uniformed personnel, allegedly belonging to Railway Police (yes, such an institution exists!) stormed the gates of Royal Palm Golf & Country Club, to assume its possession and control. Reportedly, at the directions of Railways Minister, Mr. Saad Rafique, the club premises were sealed, its previous management thrown out, and an its members were stopped from accessing club premises and facilities.

In the aftermath of these explosive developments, our print, electronic and social media waves have been abuzz with differing versions of facts concerning the tussle between Royal Palm and Pakistan Railways. While legality of the Royal Palm project shall be determined by the courts of competent jurisdiction (the matter is already sub judice), these events shed a revealing light onto the administrative philosophy of our incumbent government, and in particular its hawkish Ministers such as Mr. Saad Rafique.

By way of background, as part of admitted record, the Royal Palm Golf & Country Club was granted a lease on Railways land, in 2001, as part of Public-Private Partnership projects, through open advertisement and competitive bidding process. The issue as to whether the terms of this lease, and its implementation over the past fifteen years, reflects the spirit of our laws, is a question for the courts. What is impossible to deny, however, is that prior to the inception of Royal Palm project, the Railways ran a dilapidated facility at this location, which earned no real revenue at all (reportedly, only a Rs. 1/month rent was paid to the Railways). It was, for all intents and purposes, a dead asset for Pakistan Railways, much like countless other Railway properties all across Pakistan.

At the very inception of the Royal Palm project, the same was challenged before the honourable Lahore High Court, which upheld its legality and award. Thereafter, while the PML-Q years were relatively quiet in terms of litigation against Royal Palm, all that changed when ‘true democracy’ returned to our land; especially in the shape of a PML-N government in Punjab. To this end, after successfully defending numerous inquiries and investigations before NAB authorities, Senate committees, and even the Public Committee (under the auspices of Mr. Ayyaz Sadiq), the management of Royal Palm finally found themselves before the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2011, where the matter still awaits a final order. Importantly, none of these investigative and judicial forums have rendered any final judgment condemning the Royal Palm, its award, or its operations.

Still, apprehending drastic actions by a frustrated Railways Minister, the Royal Palm management approached the civil court, in March of 2016, which granted a stay order against Pakistan Railways taking possession of Royal Palm, or sealing the property. And this judicial order still holds field.

Nonetheless, how could a meager civil court order stand in the path of Mr. Saad Rafique after all? How could a civil judge have the audacity to pass directions to the worthy Minister? When can a butterfly challenge the hurricane?

And so, in flagrant disregard of this stay order, and without paying any heed to the matter being sub judice before the honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan, the worthy Minister ordered that the club be seized, and its tenants be thrown out. The small inconvenience of ‘law’, could be dealt with later!

In the days and weeks to come, our courts of law will make their determination about the fate of Royal Palm and (il)legality of Railway’s administrative actions. Without prejudice, however, a number of issues necessitate an answer in the political and social space.

Are the high-handed actions of Mr. Saad Rafique reflective of PML-N’s governing philosophy? Or is it just the whimsical behaviour of a Minister who could not have his way in the courts of law? Is this not a blatant example of State’s abrogation of individual rights, without recourse to the due process of law? Even if Royal Palm’s very existence is illegal, or there have been violations of the lease contract, should the same not be decided by the courts of law, especially when they are already seized of the matter? Can executive institutions (such as Pakistan Railways), on their own, assume the role of judge, jury and executioner?

And if the worthy Railways Minister believe that mere allegations, not yet proven in court, are sufficient basis for taking such actions, would he be kind enough to ask State institutions to apply the same standards in Panama Leaks? In the Model Town Massacre? In controversies concerning electoral rigging?

And what about the restraining order issued by civil court? Does the Minister, or his department, believe that they are above jurisdiction of the lower courts? Can the PML-N government make tall claims about the rule of law, if their own Ministers do not abide by it? And why just Royal Palm? Why has there been no such action in regards to other Railways properties that are rotting away in losses? If maximising Railway revenue is the core motivation of the worthy Minister, why is there such zeal to shut down the only money-making project of Railways?

Sadly, the seizure of Royal Palm seems to have little to do with the law or its implementation. It seems to not be about the specifics of the lease contract, or the revenue received from it. The seizure of Royal Palm, even against orders of the court, seems to be about a simple, yet unnerving, reality underlying PML-N’s governance philosophy: if you want to live in Lahore and be successful, you better tow the PML-N line.

The management of Royal Palm is being condemned for two separate, yet connected crimes: 1) they run a very successful venture in Lahore, and 2) they do so without the involvement of PML-N personalities.

And this political simple reality – reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “either you are with us, or you are against us” – is at the heart of the Royal Palm saga.

Neither did the PML-Q government, nor the PPP government, nor have the courts of law (yet), found damning illegalities in the Royal Palm project, despite a multitude of investigations. Still, it was the one-man army of Mr. Ayyaz Sadiq (Royal Palm exists within his constituency), during his years in the PAC, who seemed bent upon shutting down the project and putting its management behind bars. And now, Mr. Saad Rafique, a loyalist of the neighbouring constituency, seems to have taken over this mantle, and decorated it seizure orders.

The eventual fate of Royal Palm shall be decided by the honourable Court. Maybe the club will survive this battle, or maybe it will not. All that, for now, is irrelevant.

An important lesson, however, has already been learnt by those observing. If you wish to carry out any (significant) commercial activity in Punjab, and especially in Lahore – whether it is through private sources, Public-Private partnership, or even international funding – you better kneel first and kiss the PML-N ring. Otherwise, be prepared for the wrath of the mighty.

And all of us must thank Mr. Saad Rafique for teaching us this invaluable lesson. Prior to the inception of Royal Palm project, the Railways ran a dilapidated facility at this location, which earned no real revenue at all.