Pakistan plunges into deeper political turmoil as former PM Imran Khan faces terrorism charges
Shortly after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif spoke vociferously of the imperative of achieving “permanent peace” with India, the political turmoil that descended upon and engulfed the Pakistani political space this past week has yet again served to demonstrate just how tenuous the prospect of realizing such peace actually is. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s strident and persistent attacks against the country’s powerful military establishment ever since he was ousted by a successful no-trust vote in parliament in April has rattled both the armed forces and the government, with both believing that the former cricketer had crossed the limits of acceptability in his criticism and fearing that his spiraling popularity would threaten their positions. The establishment, therefore, has embarked upon a mission to defang and neutralize Khan, and as it had done in the case of Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif and several others, has opted for the legal route to achieve this. The results and consequences of such a course of action are moot, and will only be known once this whole drama has run its course, but in the interim it would certainly detract from the already paper-thin prospects of peace with neighbouring India, which will be suspicious of committing to concrete peace talks while political instability that could soon snowball into mayhem prevails in Pakistan.
At an interaction with a delegation of students from Harvard University, Shehbaz Sharif said on 20 August that sustainable peace in the region was linked to the resolution of the Kashmir issue and that Pakistan wanted to have “permanent peace” with India through dialogue as war was not an option for either country. Claiming that Pakistan was not an aggressor and that its trained Army and its nuclear assets were meant to be deterrents, he added that Islamabad spends on its military to protect the country’s frontiers and not for launching aggressive actions. Sharif averred that Islamabad and New Delhi should cooperate in trade, economy and improving the conditions of their people. As positive as Sharif’s words were, their soothing essence was largely blown away when the Indian media reported the very next day that a Pakistani terrorist had been shot and injured by Indian troops in Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) Rajouri district while he, along with other terrorists, was preparing to attack an Indian Army post there. Identified as Tabarak Hussain, the terrorist revealed during questioning that he had been paid and sent by Pakistani intelligence officer Colonel Yunus Chaudhry.
As potent a dampener to any prospect of peace talks as this incident was, it came at a juncture when a real battle for supremacy has broken out within Pakistan, the uncertain and still in-the-air outcome of which would cause India, even if it were otherwise keen on pursuing peace talks, to wait until a fully empowered clear winner has emerged. The arrest and alleged torture, in police custody, of Khan’s chief of staff Shahbaz Gill earlier this month for making “anti-military” statements on a television talk show had increased the already intense friction between Khan and the Pakistani establishment and government. Gill’s remarks calling for officers to disobey disagreeable orders were interpreted by the Army as a thinly-disguised call to mutiny.
Reacting to Gill’s arrest and alleged torture, Imran Khan at a rally in Islamabad on 20 August cautioned the judiciary and senior police officials against acting against members of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party. He warned Islamabad’s Inspector General of Police and Deputy Inspector General of Police by saying “We won’t spare you”, and added, “You also get ready for it, we will also take action against you. All of you must be ashamed”. Khan also took exception to Additional District and Sessions Judge Zeba Chaudhry who had approved Gill’s two-day physical remand at the request of the Islamabad police, and said that she too should be prepared for the action that would be taken against her. He lashed out at the judiciary, terming it “biased”. Khan did not even spare the powerful Army, mockingly calling it “neutrals”, and in a veiled reference to the coalition government urged his supporters to stand with the nation rather than the “gang of thieves”.
The Pakistan government saw Khan’s remarks as an attempt to intimidate police officials and the judiciary and to prevent them from carrying out their duties. The First Information Report (FIR) registered against Khan at Islamabad’s Margalla police station claimed that “Terrorism has been spread, the country’s peace has been harmed”, and that Khan’s speech had spread fear and uncertainty among the police, judges and the nation. It demanded that legal action be pursued against Imran and an “exemplary punishment” be meted out to him. Khan was subsequently booked under Section 7 of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act (punishment for acts of terrorism). Given the serious accusations of threatening police officers and the judiciary, if convicted, Khan could face several years in prison. For the moment though, Khan has been granted protection from arrest till 1 September by the anti-terrorism court hearing his case.
Khan has, aided by the shortsightedness of the government, regained much of his popularity since he was unceremoniously ousted in April. Not only is he criticizing the military and the corruption at the heart of Pakistan’s Army-led economy, he is doing so in a 21st-century manner making heavy use of social media and livestreaming. His appeal to female voters and the youth is notable. He has, therefore, been addressing massive rallies of tens of thousands of people in recent months. After he was slapped with the terrorism charge and news spread on 22 August that he could be arrested anytime, Islamabad was on the edge with thousands of Khan’s supporters assembling outside his residence chanting slogans and waving placards in favour of their leader. Ali Amin Gandapur, a former minister in Khan’s cabinet and one of the many PTI leaders who had reached Khan’s residence, tweeted, “If Imran Khan is arrested ... we will take over Islamabad”.
As Najam Sethi, the well-known and highly-regarded editor of Pakistan’s widely-read Friday Times pointed out in an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, if elections had been announced by the Shehbaz Sharif-led government within 15 days of assuming power in April, this government, which was as popular then as Imran Khan is today, would have comfortably defeated Khan’s PTI. With the stringent International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditions causing the government to raise prices of fuel considerably and put in place austerity measures, the economic hardships that the people are facing has caused them to forget the four years of misrule by Imran Khan, who is now so popular that if the elections are held today he is likely to win easily.
Offering an eloquent and experienced analysis of the present situation, Sethi said, “Over the past few weeks Imran Khan and his party leaders have been repeatedly targeting the Army Chief and other Generals in the Army. This has created a lot of resentment in the armed forces. They (Khan and his supporters) have been basically saying that you can’t be neutral, you are supporting a government or you are propping up a government ‘of thieves’, whereas I am the good guy and you need to support me. The position of the armed forces is that we are neutral, there was a vote of no confidence against you, there is a new government in place, we are not interfering in the process. But Imran Khan has been going hammer and tongs. And the recent deterioration in the situation arose out of two things – first there was a massive social media campaign by Imran Khan’s supporters when a helicopter crash led to the death of a General. Instead of condoning it and sympathizing with the families of those who had fallen in the helicopter crash, Imran Khan’s supporters went on a massive media campaign to suggest that perhaps hanky-panky was involved. That really hurt the sentiments of the armed forces. And they were generally leveling all sorts of allegations against General Bajwa and some other Generals in the high command right now. That went down very badly and there was a blowback from the armed forces. But, then on top of that Imran Khan’s chief of staff went on air on a television channel that has been anti-government and anti-Army to basically say some very provocative things, the gist of which was that if the Army high command is issuing you orders to support evil, then you should disobey those orders as they are illegal orders. The armed forces, at least the high command, reacted to that and have decided that it is time to shut up Imran Khan because this is leading to disquiet. But then, in the latest incident Imran Khan went to a public rally where he said much the same sort of thing so this time he attacked a magistrate and the Inspector General of Police and told them that they were following illegal orders and that he would sort them out. Basically hurling threats at them, and by name to one of the magistrates. And so, therefore, I think that the military establishment has decided that enough is enough. This is going into explosive dimensions and we need to put a stop to this”.
The New York Times in a 23 August article titled ‘Pakistan’s Imran Khan Is Now the Target of Forces He Once Wielded’ pointed to the precarious situation that the political showdown between the ruling establishment and Khan, which has been going on for weeks, has led to. It said, “The drama has laid bare the perilous state of Pakistani politics — a winner-take-all game in which the security forces and the justice system are wielded as weapons to sideline those who have fallen out of favor with the country’s powerful military establishment or political elite. That playbook has been decades in the making, and it has turned the country’s political sphere into a brutal playground in which only a few elite leaders dare play. It has also rendered the Pakistani public deeply disillusioned with the political system and the handful of family dynasties that have been at the top of it for decades. Mr. Khan’s own meteoric rise from the fringes of politics to the prime minister’s office in 2018 was a showcase for how hard-bitten Pakistan’s politics have become: His competitors were winnowed from the electoral field by criminal charges, and by threat and intimidation from the security forces. Once in office, he and his supporters employed those same tools to harass and silence journalists and political opponents who criticized him”.
Several Pakistani commentators, Najam Sethi among them, are convinced that Imran Khan is stoking fascist populism. They believe that Khan is trying to exert control over the armed forces, which have been an autonomous, independent, and very powerful, stakeholder thus far. As Sethi put it, “So he is challenging that, but the weapon he is using to challenge that is not the weapon of democracy, but a lot of us think it is the weapon for fascism”. Others, such as Islamabad-based political analyst and a columnist for the Dawn, Zahid Hussain, believe that the showdown could erupt into violence. Hussain averred, “The former prime minister has been accused of threatening government officials — they are serious allegations bringing the confrontation between him and the federal government to a head. Any move to arrest him (Khan) could ignite an already volatile political situation”.
As for the real purpose of launching legal action against Khan at this juncture, most Pakistanis believe that the aim seems to be to disqualify him from contesting future elections. The other charges leveled against him of not being of good character and the questioning of his integrity in the ‘Toshakhana’ (government treasury where officially-received gifts are stored for safe-keeping), corruption and foreign funding cases, are similar to those used earlier by the establishment against Nawaz Sharif. Sethi noted that the “Charges against Imran of embezzlement and not declaring his income and assets are pretty serious, and there seems to be ample evidence to substantiate these. The likelihood is that Imran, like Nawaz was, will be disqualified from contesting elections. Imran is worried at this juncture”.
The Sharif government, meanwhile, in pursuing legal action against Khan will be hoping that by the time the next general elections come about in a year’s time, the hardships as a consequence of the IMF conditionalities would have eased and Khan’s popularity waned. On the flip side, though, if Khan can absorb and overcome the intense pressure that is today upon him and thereby increase his popularity, that may pave the way for a decisive victory for him in the elections next year. What impact such a victory will have on civil – military relations in Pakistan would then be very interesting to observe.
As for his articulated aspiration for peace with India, Shehbaz Sharif, as also Imran Khan and Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, would do well to recognize that as desirable as such peace may be, and as beneficial as it is likely to prove for the entire region, Pakistan will first need to put its own house in order and also stop exporting terrorists to neighbouring countries.