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Footsteps of anarchy

There is something about Imran Khan’s bond with the higher courts that one cannot easily fathom. And I cannot begin to explore that because of my lack of sufficient understanding of the judicial process. Also, there is a sense of spectacle in how he attends court hearings, accompanied by a procession of supporters. His inability to often not meet deadlines does not seem to matter much.

But there was a lot more drama and bewilderment in the former prime minister’s encounter with the courts this week. The focus of all this activity, though, was events that took place on the battlefield of the Zaman Park neighbourhood in Lahore. When an Islamabad police team arrived to arrest Imran Khan on Tuesday, it ran into fierce resistance from PTI supporters. And, for once, the law-enforcement personnel were overwhelmed by what was truly an angry mob.

There are details about this Zaman Park operation that I will not go into. That would be a long story that concluded on Friday, when the Lahore High Court granted Imran Khan protective bail till March 27 in the terrorism cases registered in Lahore and till March 24 in cases registered in Islamabad. It played like a triumph for the PTI leader and a celebration was staged by his supporters.

Initially, the pitched battles fought in Zaman Park raised fears of dangerous escalation in a polarized polity. It seemed possible to see the use of petrol bombs by the activists of a mainstream political party as a massive disorder bordering on some kind of a civil war. A leaked audio of a purported conversation between Dr Yasmin Rashid and President Arif Alvi portrayed grim prospects of what could happen.

In that audio leak, Dr Rashid is appealing to President Alvi to talk to someone as the situation was getting out of control. She is heard saying that the PTI workers had started throwing petrol bombs. And who was the person President Alvi was being persuaded to speak to? The PTI leader himself, who should be asked to give in and fight another day.

Thankfully, the confrontation did not become so deadly as to lead to fatalities. Imran Khan himself expressed concern about the developing situation. In a Tweet on Wednesday he said: “My house has been under heavy attack since yesterday afternoon. Latest attacked by Rangers, pitting the largest political party against the army. This is what PDM and enemies of Pakistan want. No lessons learnt from East Pakistan tragedy”.

Ah, but who held the most responsibility for generating this particular crisis? On Thursday, Additional District and Sessions Judge Zafar Iqbal resumed proceedings in the Toshakhana case and rejected Imran Khan’s plea for the suspension of arrest warrants.

He lamented that instead of complying with the court’s order, Imran Khan had made every effort to defy the order and his followers not only resisted the execution of the warrants but the standoff also resulted in injuries to 65 police officials. The judge said that the applicant [Imran Khan] had challenged the dignity and the writ of the state.

What one gathered from the visuals that were shown on television was that the PTI workers, mostly armed with lathis, were itching for a fight. They provided the dark side of a cult following. It was disconcerting to see a political party apparently committed to rule of law and struggling to rid the country of corruption had gathered and sent these people into battle. What kind of aberration or weakness do these tactics portray?

Concern was expressed about the presence in that group of a militant associated with the TTP. There is this photograph of Iqbal Khan of upper Swat who had been a close aide of Sufi Mohammad, the leader of the Swat Taliban. He is said to have served a long term in prison. There was also some confusion about the involvement of police from Gilgit-Baltistan, where the PTI is the ruling party.

Though the situation seemed to have defused a bit by Friday evening, with hints about talks between PTI and the ruling coalition, what has happened in Zaman Park is a reality that must have some consequences. Will the elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa still be held on the dates announced?

Let me quote a March 15 tweet of Ahmed Bilal Mehboob of Pildat: “I think Imran Khan, through the events of the past 30 hours or so has unwittingly provided the strongest argument against Punjab Assembly Election on 30th April. Petrol bombs were a great idea of someone who did not want the election”.

Now, as they say, the law has to take its course. Among the number of cases that Imran Khan is facing in courts, one more is added. An eventual disqualification in any of these would be another kind of a petrol bomb thrown on Pakistani politics. A reference to how the superior judiciary had dealt with the cases of other leading politicians, including former prime ministers, makes it hard to foresee any other prospect.

That is how the plot thickens. At another level, Imran Khan’s relationship with the establishment is likely to be decisive. In one of his interviews this week, Imran Khan specifically named the present command. We have to wait for some crucial decisions that will be taken behind closed doors. Meanwhile, the PTI leader is showing willingness to talk to his political adversaries.

There are many different ways in which the battle that was fought in Zaman Park will leave its impact on Pakistan’s politics. The madness that was demonstrated by the fiery workers of PTI should raise questions about the passions that Imran Khan has invested in his politics. He bears total responsibility for what happened, including the use of petrol bombs. What, really, is his game plan?

The most furious and strident political response has expectedly come from PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz. In a press conference in Lahore she demanded that the PTI should be designated as a terrorist organization.

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail. com

Ghazi Salahuddin, "Footsteps of anarchy," The News. 2023-03-19.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political adversaries , Taliban , Politicians , Ahmed Bilal Mehboob , Imran Khan , Pakistan , PTI , PMLN