The events of the last two weeks have shaken Pakistan to the core. Imran Khan’s arrest on May 9, 2023 by the Rangers from the premises of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) set off a firestorm (literally) of protests by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) workers and sympathisers. However, the choice of venues and targets has rebounded severely against the PTI.
It is a matter of debate still whether the violent attacks against civilian and military targets stemmed from purely spontaneous rage, a pre-planned contingency reaction by PTI in the event of Imran Khan’s arrest, or, as the PTI has claimed post facto, the work of infiltrated provocateurs. It is also a matter of conjecture and hypotheses so far whether sensitive military installations were deliberately left unguarded as an entrapment tactic, or a decision not to resist the charged mobs to avoid bloodshed was considered the wiser course.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the PTI had reportedly been making plans for the possibility of Imran Khan’s arrest, which had been made difficult because of his refusal to respond to judicial notices or appear before the courts in the (myriad) cases against him.
Even a botched raid on his Zaman Park, Lahore residence had failed to nab him. The manner in which the protest against his arrest was carried out, however, has ensured the military establishment has chosen now to doff its veneer of ‘neutrality’ and decided to deal with Imran Khan and the PTI in a singularly harsh manner.
Imran Khan says the entire PTI leadership is under arrest, along with 10,000 party workers and sympathisers throughout the country.
Media reports have quoted 4,000 arrests. It is difficult to ascertain the exact number accurately since the crackdown against the PTI is so widespread, the dragnet is not sparing even some innocents, the families of suspects are being harassed, etc., in the inimitable style of our police. The arrests have, for perhaps the first time in our history, reached deep into the social elite, causing consternation, apprehension and deep seated fear.
The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government headed by Prime Minister (PM) Shehbaz Sharif appears to be treating this turn of events as a heaven-sent opportunity to ‘sort out’ the PTI. It has flip-flopped from a wholesale acceptance of trials in military courts for every rioter to now proclaiming that the Army Act (and trials in military courts) would only apply to those involved in attacks on military targets, while civilian target rioters would be tried in the anti-terrorism courts.
Reportedly, this is the government’s damage control response to criticisms of wholesale trials in military courts by Pakistani and international human rights platforms.
Whether the actions of the rioters who attacked civilian targets falls within the purview of ‘terrorism’ is a moot point, but anti-terrorist provisions have become almost the automatic choice of governments for serious crimes over the last few years.
What this does of course is blur the line between real terrorism and serious crimes and breaches of the law. As far as trials of civilians in military courts are concerned, the law brought in to this effect in response to the serious challenge from terrorism, especially since 2014, lapsed in 2019. Expect therefore, another judicial conflict over such trials per se, and their verdicts.
Imran Khan has put the chances of his arrest again while appearing in the IHC on May 23, 2023 at “80 percent”. What would be the reaction by his followers to any such eventuality this time round? It would be unreasonable to assume it would be the same as after the May 9 arrest.
The simple fact is that the arrests of thousands of PTI workers, their leaders and sympathisers appear to be a strategy of cutting the ground from under Imran Khan’s feet.
It is perhaps thought that would leave him dangling in the air, a leader without street power. There is plenty of talk and rumour doing the rounds of ‘minus one’ formulas (i.e. the ‘removal’, here or abroad) of Imran Khan from the political scene. If Imran Khan’s cult following is no longer able to respond to his wishes, especially to react against his arrest or other actions against him, this may be considered bad enough by the PTI.
But if Imran Khan is ‘minused’ from the scene, the PTI will dwindle, if not die. On the other hand, another well known phenomenon in Pakistani politics is now playing itself out. The usual ‘rats’ are deserting the sinking PTI ship. They are seeking safer (perhaps greener) pastures in the embrace of other parties, or some may be considering strengthening the dissidents inside PTI (such as Jahangir Tareen) to fill the void of Imran Khan’s ‘absence’.
However, those who know Imran Khan’s character feel he will not go quietly into the sunset. The danger is that this may trigger even harsher measures against his person and party. There are rumours of him being advised to give it a rest, go abroad and be safe. Let us see what he decides in the face of a seemingly impossible cul de sac into which the PTI has driven itself. In any case, anyone familiar with the political history of Pakistan, especially the see-saw fate of the establishment’s hand-picked ‘candidates’, would be inclined to accept that Imran Khan and the PTI’s day is over. He will never be allowed to return to power, whatever it takes to keep him out. Therein, dear readers, lies perhaps another tale.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023