The month of May has been an extremely tumultuous one for Pakistani politics; and it all happened so quickly that many a political observer was left surprised. It all began on May 9 when the former prime minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chairman, Imran Khan, was arrested by Rangers’ personnel from the Islamabad High Court where he had gone to seek bail in multiple first information report cases registered against him. He was arrested by the Rangers at the behest of the National Accountability Bureau in the Al-Qadir Trust case, which pertains to a settlement between the PTI government when Khan was prime minister and the property tycoon, Malik Riaz. The settlement allegedly caused a loss of £190 million to the national exchequer.
What happened in the aftermath of Imran Khan’s arrest on May 9 led to a chain of events that has left the political landscape in the country in disarray. Protests by PTI leaders and supporters started in several cities of the country, and these protests soon became violent. From setting fire to the Corps Commander House in Lahore to an attack on the General Headquarters, the day saw public and private property being vandalised, including the historic Radio Pakistan building in Peshawar. Imran Khan was released by the Supreme Court on May 11, with the top court declaring his arrest ‘illegal’. But when he was asked to condemn the May 9 attacks, Khan said he was not responsible for them and had no knowledge of them as he was under arrest. Khan and his party disassociated themselves from the violent protesters and said that their workers and supporters believe in peaceful protests. However, a crackdown soon began against the PTI. Many PTI leaders as well as thousands of PTI workers and supporters were arrested. Many are still in hiding.
In a statement, the Inter-Services Public Relations said that May 9 would go down in history as a “dark chapter” and added that a “power-hungry group, clad in political cloak” had done to the country what the country’s enemies had failed to do since its inception. Many observers had pointed out back then that this statement does not bode well for the PTI. It was later decided to try the protesters and their abettors under relevant laws, including the Pakistan Army Act and the Official Secrets Act. Legal experts had pointed out that the scope of these military laws is limited for civilians, but the State has decided to go ahead with them. Although many politicians are wary of military laws being used against civilians and have reportedly raised the issue in private, political observers say that not many in the government will share their thoughts in public. Over the last few weeks, we have seen PTI leaders being arrested, then getting bail in court, but getting re-arrested. It has also been observed that until these leaders hold a ‘press conference’ saying that they condemn the May 9 violence unequivocally and quit the PTI, they are not being released. Even the courts have now started asking — somewhat jokingly — PTI leaders to “hold a press conference” so that they can be released. Such is the irony of the situation at the moment. Many senior leaders of the PTI, including the former information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, the former human rights minister, Shireen Mazari, the former governor of Sindh, Imran Ismail, and several of Khan’s close aides have left the party. Some have quit politics altogether while others have decided to ‘take a break’. Experts say that the ‘purge’ or ‘dismantling’ of Project Imran has officially begun but the speed with which it has happened has been shocking. Imran Khan says there is pressure on people to leave his party and he understands what is happening. However, some are of the opinion that one of the reasons that his party crumbled so quickly is because the party’s leader, Imran Khan, does not want to go to jail himself but expects others to do so. In the past, we saw the Sharifs and Asif Ali Zardari going to jail; other leaders of their parties also remained in prison for months, if not years. There are also rumours of a new political party or parties coming up, which could be a new home for the PTI defectors.
Human rights organisations and journalists have consistently condemned the disproportionate crackdown on PTI workers and leaders. Many of these human rights defenders and media personnel were victims of the PTI’s harassment and abuse during its time in power. Yet when it comes to fundamental freedoms and human rights, they have been the first ones to condemn political crackdowns regardless of the victims’ party affiliations.
The chaos in our political landscape seems to be spiralling. Many have asked for sanity to prevail and a dialogue to be initiated between all stakeholders. Imran Khan has now agreed to a dialogue. (The last one didn’t succeed because he did not agree to the election dates given by the Pakistan Democratic Movement government.) But the government has now refused to hold a dialogue. The prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, has said that while dialogue is deeply embedded in the political process and helps a democracy mature and evolve, “the anarchists & arsonists who wear the garb of politicians and attack the symbols of the State do not qualify for a dialogue.” He wants them to be held accountable for their “militant actions”.
The hard line taken by the PDM government is worrying. It is true that for an entire year, Imran Khan had said that he would rather talk to terrorists than the “thieves and looters” in the PDM government. It is because of his rigidity that things have come to such a pass. But if there is to be a way forward and democratic principles and processes preserved, then dialogue is the only option. It would be prudent for the government and the State to pause and then hold those who were involved in the violence to account but, at the same time, not let any innocents suffer because of the crackdown. The coming days look dark and grim not only for the PTI but also for the entire system.
Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore; email@example.com