Where is Pakistan headed after Imran Khan’s arrest, violent protests: Towards coup or civil war?

In Pakistan’s 75 years of existence, a sentence on state broadcaster Pakistan TV or PTV has remained a near-constant to orally draft country’s profound moments of reckoning: “Pakistan at this point of time is going through a critical phase in its history (Pakistan iss waqt ek nazuk daur se guzar raha hai).”

Hours after former prime minister Imran Khan was arrested inside Islamabad High Court on May 9, a mass of protesters pushed through the gates of the national army headquarters in Rawalpindi, whose stamp of governance continues to thump over capital Islamabad’s corridors of power almost since Pakistan came into being in 1947. 

The state broadcaster then repeated the aforementioned standard phrase of crisis before tuning to the popular Turkish drama Ertuğrul.

Protesters, mostly Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters, made it a point to attack the symbols of Pakistani army’s assertiveness on their country of over 230 million.

ALSO WATCH | Pakistan: Protests erupt after Imran Khan’s arrest

The military has directly ruled Pakistan for over 30 years in the last 75 years. Even under the civilian governments, military leaders have kept an iron grip on power. To Islamabad’s prime minister’s office, the military has pushed in the politicians of its choosing and pulled out those who stepped out of line. 

Few who dared any open defiance were either politically decimated or literally eliminated. 

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s only world cup winning cricket captain-turned-political phenomenon, elevated this rare defiance soon after he was ousted as prime minister in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April 2022. 

For months, Khan accused Major-General Faisal Naseer, a Pakistani military intelligence officer of planning an alleged assassination attempt that wounded him in November 2022. 

After falling out of favour with the ‘establishment’ – country’s powerful military-intelligence complex – a web of corruption charges made way to Khan, like they had to his predecessors, none of whom ever completed their five-year tenures. 

But unlike his immediate predecessors, such as Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Nawaz Sharif, Khan skipped court appearances and often took to grand political gatherings to rally against the army generals — a nearly blasphemous act within Pakistan’s purported democratic structure cemented by the ‘establishment’.

On May 9, the ‘establishment’ broke through the glass barriers inside an Islamabad courtroom where Khan was attending a corruption hearing. Moments later, while being pushed and shoved by the Pakistan Rangers, Imran Khan was seen following the jailed suit of many of his predecessors.

While the arrest warrant against Khan was issued by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the actual arrest was made by Pakistan Rangers.

“Nobody has any doubt in Pakistan that the military supports whatever is being done to Imran Khan,” TCA Raghavan, India’s former high commissioner to Pakistan and adviser to New Delhi-based Global Counter Terrorism Council, told WION. 

On Wednesday, an accountability court authorised Khan to be detained for eight days in connection with a corruption case, dubbed Al-Qadir trust case, which reportedly involves the transfer of real estate. Khan has denied the corruption charges while expressing concerns for his safety.

At least five people have been killed in protests since May 9. More than 1,000 people have been arrested in Punjab province alone. The protests, however, continue despite a sharp crackdown by the military, putting the country’s real power centre at a cliff-edge spot. 

This is because like many populist leaders of the country, for years Khan cultivated support within the military which paved the way for his prime ministerial elevation in 2018. An escalated crackdown on Khan’s supporters could create cracks within the military facing the challenge to reign supreme in a country which is facing one of its worst economic crises since 2007, the last time Rawalpindi’s military-intelligence complex had a formal claim to power with General Pervez Musharraf at helm. 

This time, the army has painted Imran Khan’s supporters as “the very group that wants to push Pakistan into a civil war”. Meanwhile, Khan’s supporters and skeptics within the current coalition federal government in Islamabad have pointed to history when such similar sequence of events led to formal military coups.

“The military is not inclined towards directly taking power in Pakistan. They would rather be behind-the-scenes,” Raghavan added. They want to keep the pretense of democracy, he emphasised. 

“Also they understand that Pakistan now is a very complex and a difficult society to govern. It is not like the early days when the generals would usurp power after the coup.”

Meanwhile, Khan’s supporters across Pakistan continue to be on the streets, vowing that they won’t budge until their leader is released. 

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party activists and supporters of Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan place a skip along a road during a protest against the arrest of their leader, in Peshawar on May 10, 2023 | AFP

“Imran Khan has gone to an extent which other political personalities of Pakistan have not,” said Raghavan, while pointing to the PTI leader’s opposition to the army. “His options seem to have narrowed. But they are bolstered by the fact that he has public support.”

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