Chaos reigns in Pakistan as the army kidnaps a provincial police chief amidst opposition protests
Over the past week, the Pakistani military establishment has been put under considerable stress by the alliance of the opposition parties, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the result of which was the bizarre development that occurred in the port city of Karachi where the chief of the police force of the Sindh province was kidnapped in the middle of the night by elements of the Pakistani military and forced to sign an order for the arrest of a political leader. The incident is illustrative of the near collapse of the rule of law in Pakistan, and has raised the apprehension among political observers that if the onslaught against the military establishment and the Imran Khan government propped up by it continues in the same vein and with the same escalating intensity as was witnessed in recent weeks, another complete takeover of the country by the military may once again be in the offing.
The formation of the PDM, its goals, and the protest actions proposed to be undertaken by it had been outlined in the EFSAS Commentary of 02-10-2020. That the military establishment was the primary target of the PDM, and that this was quite uncharacteristic for the Pakistani political class, had also been underlined. The first mass protest rally organized by the 11 constituent parties of the PDM in Gujranwala near the eastern city of Lahore on 16 October confirmed this. As was the case at the time of the formation of the PDM on 20 September, Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former Prime Minister of Pakistan, took the lead. In a no-holds-barred virtual speech via video link from London, Sharif accused Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa of toppling his government and rigging the political discourse. He also accused Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, the Director General of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), of manipulating court proceedings and rigging the ballot. Sharif said, “Should I blame Imran Khan for this catastrophe, unemployment and inflation or people who brought him into power? Who stole your vote and rigged your election? Who selected this government? General Qamar Javed Bajwa, you packed up our government, which was working well, and put the nation at the altar of your wishes. You rejected the people's choice in the elections and installed an inefficient and incapable group of people, leading to an economic catastrophe. General Bajwa, you will have to answer for inflated electricity bills, shortage of medicines and poor people suffering”. While calling for “one Pakistan for all”, Sharif lamented that “They have barred me from speaking so that my voice gets stifled and does not reach you and your voice does not reach me ... they have failed. I am being labeled as traitor right now because I talk of constitution and democracy”. Pakistani TV channels had been barred from airing Sharif’s speech by the establishment, and none of them did so. The impact, however, was perceptible on social media.
Others that addressed the gathering included Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam - Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and Sharif’s daughter and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Maryam Nawaz. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who is also the leader of the PDM, did not spare the military establishment either. He said, “This is an illegal government. It’s been imposed upon us by the establishment. We reject this illegal rule”. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was equally sharp in his criticism, asserting that “This incapable and clueless Prime Minister will have to go home. History has proved that the biggest dictators could not survive, and what standing does this puppet have? This is not a new fight but this will be a decisive fight”. Maryam Nawaz highlighted the excesses of the military establishment in overthrowing elected governments and reiterated the importance of democracy. She said, “Governments should come from your votes and go from your votes as well. And no one should have the power to take those chosen by you and throw them out of office. And if they do this, then you should have the power to throw them out of office”.
The establishment had been expecting the tirade against it that came at the Gujranwala protests. The night before the rally the government embarked on mass detentions and arrested about 500 opposition figures and activists, mainly from the opposition PML-N. The Guardian, which put the number of participants at the Gujranwala rally at a massive 50,000, quoted PML-N secretary general Ahsan Iqbal as saying that on the eve of the rally “police jumped over the walls of our workers’ home in Gujranwala and Punjab. They have arrested hundreds of our workers and booked hundreds of fake cases. Over three decades of political experience, I have seen martial law imposed but I have never witnessed this kind of brutality. The raids against our workers are still ongoing. They have put containers in our way, arrested workers and torn banners, but we won’t stop. It’s the beginning of the end for Khan”. He added, “We don’t need the involvement of military establishment in politics. It must stop. That’s why all opposition will gather today. There is only one way forward for Pakistan – democracy without military involvement”. In a convoluted misuse of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government even threatened to shut down parts of the country citing rising COVID-19 cases.
The massive turnout and the fiery speeches at the rally seem to have unnerved both PM Imran Khan and his benefactor, the military establishment. This was not only the first instance in Pakistan of all opposition political parties coming together to challenge the military’s dominance of politics, but also the first of many protests and public meetings that the PDM has planned over the coming weeks. The string of events is slated to culminate in a “long march” to the capital Islamabad in January 2021 to demand PM Khan’s resignation. Given that the Imran Khan-led government has made a mess of the country’s economy, with unemployment and inflation taking a toll on the population, and with the military increasingly being questioned over corruption in its ranks, the anxiety in both is not without basis.
The PDM bandwagon rolled on from Gujranwala to the port city of Karachi, the venue of its second rally on 18 October. At this rally, a stepping-up of the criticism of the Imran Khan government was discernible, as was the toning down of the attacks against the military establishment. Maryam Nawaz, for example, addressed Khan while saying, “When you are pressed for answers, you hide behind the armed forces. You coward! You bring the army into disrepute. You use them (the army) to hide your own failures. Who gave you this right?” Adding that the PDM was not against the army but only some of its generals, she said, “Those soldiers who sacrificed their lives, Nawaz salutes them, Maryam Nawaz salutes them, we all salute them. Remember this, one or two personalities are not the entire institution, but one or two people can defame the entire institution. And when they take cover of that institution, they cause heavy losses to that institution. We cannot respect those who violate their oaths. Is Nawaz Sharif wrong in saying that the army should not interfere in politics?” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, similarly, asserted that “This incapable and clueless Prime Minister will have to go home”, adding that the main demand of the PDM was “real democracy”.
Mohsin Dawar, the leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), who was a guest speaker at the rally, did not mince words though. He highlighted the human rights violations in North Waziristan and other parts of the tribal areas, and lamented that over time people had gone missing not just in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), but all over the country. He added, “I consider this government to be worse than a dictatorship because they have placed a Prime Minister as a punching bag. In reality, the decision makers are the Pakistan Army and its agencies”.
It was noteworthy that while major protests are being held for the last three weeks in the Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) amidst reports of Pakistan’s plans to make the region its fifth province despite it not having any legal title to the region, the J&K issue figured prominently at the Karachi rally. The residents of Gilgit Baltistan are demanding the release of political prisoners such as Baba Jan, who have been incarcerated on trumped up charges by the Pakistani government, and protesting against the flagrant violation of human rights in the region. Sit-ins and protest marches are taking place across the region, and even the Karakoram Highway that connects Pakistan to China had been blocked by the protesters. Hence, it came as no surprise that at the Karachi rally Bilawal Bhutto asserted that the rise of “fascism” in Pakistan had weakened the country’s position on Kashmir. Maryam Nawaz, in turn, accused Imran Khan of giving Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “Kashmir on a plate”.
The success of the Karachi rally, which was also reportedly attended by tens of thousands of people, was overtaken by the bizarreness of the events that surrounded the arrest of Captain (Retired) Mohammad Safdar, the husband of Maryam Nawaz, from his hotel room in Karachi at 4 AM on 19 October. The province of Sindh is a stronghold of the PPP, which helms the provincial government there. In Pakistan, law and order is a provincial subject and hence the police force comes under the direct control of the provincial government. The wise brains in the military establishment that concocted a plan to arrest Captain Safdar for venturing, along with hordes of other leaders that had participated in the rally, into the precincts of the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and shouting slogans in support of democracy there, found this to be an inconvenience. They decided that the gravity of Captain Safdar’s offense was so profound that it warranted an immediate arrest. Since the orders of the Sindh police were required to make the arrest, the wise men conjured up the ingenious plan to circumvent the inconvenience, the police chief, by kidnapping him at midnight and forcing him to sign the required order. As Maryam Nawaz later described it to the media, “The police chief’s phones were seized. He was taken to the sector commander’s office and asked to sign the arrest orders”. Captain Safdar’s hotel room door was broken open at 4 AM and the room intruded into, despite his protestations that his wife was asleep inside. He was whisked away, only to be released on bail later the same day.
The methods adopted to affect this brief, and apparently pointless, arrest led to quite a storm. On the morning of 19 October Pakistanis woke up to the news that Mushtaq Mahar, the Inspector General (IG) of the Sindh police, had been kidnapped in the night, and that in protest the IG, seven Deputy Inspector Generals, six Senior Superintendents and three Station House Officers of the Sindh police had submitted identical applications for two-months of protest leave on the ground that the police leadership had been ridiculed and all ranks of the Sindh Police had, therefore, been demoralized. PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari expressed shock over the incident and spoke to both Army Chief General Bajwa and ISI DG Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, and asked them to probe the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Captain Safdar, and to “investigate your institution [and] how it is operating in this province”. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s propaganda arm, responded by issuing a statement that General Bajwa had taken notice of the “Karachi incident” and had ordered an immediate inquiry. Through all this, PM Imran Khan remained totally silent, indicating that he probably was not even fully informed of what exactly had transpired.
The kidnapping of the IG revealed, more than anything else, the disquiet that had been cooking up over the past month in the military establishment. The long list of scheduled rallies yet to be addressed by PDM leaders, and the scathing remarks being directed at the establishment at each of them, threatens to take a considerable amount of sheen off the image of the armed forces in the eyes of the common Pakistani. In addition to sheer intimidation, it is this image that the military establishment leans on heavily to maintain its supremacy. Sarfraz Khan, a professor at the University of Peshawar who attended the rally in Gujranwala, explained the current mood aptly when he told The Washington Post that “The army was always seen as more organized and resourceful than weak political parties, and people in Punjab joined it to bolster its forces. But what I am seeing now is totally different. The middle class is widening and playing a bigger role in development. They want the army to be confined to its institutional role so they can conduct business. They want democracy, peace and rule of law”.
From the establishment’s point of view, therefore, such military-bashing by the political leadership cannot be allowed to continue. The establishment is, at the same time, awake to the distinct advantages and benefits that operating off the shoulders of an obliging, subservient, and unquestioning Prime Minister provides, and may be disinclined to rock that boat as of now.
However, if the decision is left to the same wise brains, a military takeover of Pakistan could well be in the offing if the PDM continues to escalate its attacks against the military establishment.