Pakistan is no stranger to political turbulence. Since its birth in British India, in the mid of twentieth century, it has repeatedly seen waves of violence: Anti-Ahmedia movements of 1950s and 1970s; Anti-West Pakistan movements of Bengali nationalists, Bhutto’s student movement of 1960s, PNA agitation of 1977, and then scores of sectarian conflicts that manifested with increasing ferocity from 1980s onwards. Yet over the last few decades conventions of political coexistence had started to take hold. March 2023 thus marks the breakdown of this consensus of almost half a century. And many wonder what went wrong.
The immediate trigger was an unwise, unnecessary attempt, on 14th March, by Islamabad Police to arrest former PM, Imran Khan from his residence in Zaman Park Lahore. If media sources are to be believed then almost five thousand police and paramilitaries were sent by PDM government to surround Khan’s family residence, intimidate his supporters, and arrest Khan for bringing him to Islamabad for a court hearing – which he was evading. But the uniformed men, carrying all the power trappings of the state, met with an unprecedented resistance by hundreds of PTI supporters who had vowed that “Khan is our Red line”. Their ranks kept swelling up from the neighbourhood of Dharampura and other adjacent areas. And they refused to surrender despite their injuries. Never since the 1977 PNA movement when the trained cadres of Islami Jamiat-e-Tulba challenged Bhutto’s police had such defiance seen on the streets of Lahore. Something has changed that has broken the inertia of the past 50 years – yet the decision makers in Islamabad are in denial.
Read more: Zaman Park operation: Police enter Imran Khan’s residence after breaking front doors
Anger that erupted in Lahore on 14th March was long in making. It had much to do with the way, PDM government dominated by Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN has dealt with Imran Khan. Sharif who took refuge in London, from his jail sentence blames Khan for his predicament. He was removed from power by the Supreme Court in July 2017 in a corruption case brought by Khan and his party and supported by the country’s military establishment. Now in a change of fortunes – almost reminiscent of a Bollywood blockbuster – Nawaz remote controls the country’s’ civil-military bureaucracy and his daughter, though never elected to office, dictates the cabinets in Islamabad and Lahore. Both want Khan to be incarcerated and suffer the way they believe they had suffered. But the unexpected “do and die” standoff by Khan’s supporters in Lahore reveals that while Sharifs may be controlling powerful civil-military bureaucracies they have lost the battle of narratives. In the public imagination, they are not the innocent victims of courts and military as they want the world to believe but Machiavellian partners of an establishment – that is increasingly been seen as the problem rather than a savior.
Courts have become the last arbiters. Police operation at Zaman Park was ultimately suspended by the order of Lahore High Court. But Govt has many cases against Imran Khan; he still had to present himself before the Islamabad Court on 18th March. He sought relief from Islamabad High Court, but he was instructed to approach the court hearing his case. After assuring the court and signing a ‘surety bond’ guaranteeing his presence at the next hearing, Imran Khan’s arrest warrant was suspended.
As agreed, on 18th March, strewn with petals, Khan travelled to Islamabad to mark his attendance before the court where thousands of his supporters, suspecting another attempt of the police to arrest their leader, poured out onto the roads fashioning a human shield around their ‘Messiah’. When the rally reached Islamabad Judicial Complex it was met with brutal police force denying it entry into the premises. The situation escalated fast, and inevitably another clash erupted between PTI supporters and the police. This time the police fired tear gas shells directly at Imran Khan’s vehicle, which further infuriated the PTI supporters who then forced the police to retreat from the Judicial Complex. Amid all the chaos, Imran Khan’s lawyers requested the court to mark Imran Khan’s attendance from his vehicle. The request was granted and once again the ex-cricketer turned politician emerged victorious from an alleged arrest attempt and returned to his residence in Lahore. The former Prime Minister later revealed that the actual plot was to kill him amidst all the chaos that was created intentionally by the police. Despite how irrational this may sound, the reality is that people are hypnotized by his messages and willingly take the streets even if their lives are at stake.
Read more: Hundreds of PTI workers gather at Zaman Park to resist Imran Khan’s arrest bid
Sharifs and their government have to take blame for Khan’s popularity. Since his ousting from office last year in April, Khan has been slapped with almost 140 cases and the list is still growing. Charges range from corruption to murder, attempted murder, fornication, terrorism, treason against the state, blasphemy, foreign funding and so on. He had been warning that regime plans to kill him and blame it on religious fanatics. In the first week of November, when he was leading his second long march towards Islamabad, he was attacked in what looked like a coordinated gun attack. He survived but landed into surgical theatre severely injured and still walks like an invalid. He blamed Sharifs and their supporters who in turn blocked all possibilities of a transparent investigation.
These chains of events have turned Khan into Pakistan’s David against PDM’s Goliath supported by the establishment. Even otherwise, the manner of his ouster where a 13-party alliance was cobbled together under the aegis of ex-Army Chief, suspicions of foreign meddling, West’s over reaction on his Russia visit all helped his nationalist narrative that manifested in more than 70 large public rallies he held across the country. This provides the background in which his unarmed supporters are willing to die defending him from the shenanigans of his powerful opponents. Pakistan today is a chaotic system where government and state agencies have lost all their traditional respect and trust. Government ministers try to talk tough – but it’s not difficult to see that they have lost the plot and don’t know what to do.
But PDM and their allied bureaucracies in the system continue to do things that add to Khan’s popularity – and the determination of his supporters to defend him. During Khan’s court appearance, in Islamabad government sent hundreds of police officers to Zaman Park who broke into Mr. Khan’s residence after bulldozing the gate and boundary wall of his house. In an attempt to reclaim their lost sense of power, the police destroyed the camps of PTI workers outside the residence, baton-charged people and rounded up scores of PTI supporters. This raid was clearly in violation of Lahore High Court’s order that demanded that the police halt all its operations and retreat from Imran Khan’s residence. The incident has set a new dangerous precedent for Pakistan. Never before the sanctity of an ex-premier’s personal house was violated in this grotesque fashion. If this was an attempt by the government to exert their authority, it certainly backfired. Zaman Park was once again inundated by an influx of PTI workers and supporters to receive their ‘good Samaritan’ and their only hope.
Read more: Watch: Heavy police force arrive at Zaman Park to arrest Imran Khan
The PDM government continues to evade elections, meanwhile, PTI is building up pressure on the government through legal actions and public rallies to uphold the constitution. As Pakistan heads towards its next general elections in 2023, it remains to be seen how the political landscape will evolve and whether the country will be able to overcome its current challenges and build a stronger, more stable democracy – or will move into unchartered waters!