May 18, 2023
ISLAMABAD – THE battle lines had long been drawn. Now the fight has reached a critical stage. The May 9 attacks on military installations in some cities seem to be a turning point. Enraged PTI supporters directly took on the security establishment. Former prime minister Imran Khan has lashed out at the army chief, thus crossing the Rubicon.
Now the empire has struck back. Thousands of PTI leaders and supporters have been arrested in a countrywide crackdown. Some of them could face trial under the Army Act. The creeping shadow of army rule is becoming more pronounced.
However, the battle between Imran Khan and the security establishment is only one part of the game of thrones. The other part features the ruling coalition which is up in arms against the top judiciary and is vowing to remove the chief justice, who they allege is favouring the former prime minister. The court’s order to release Khan within a day of his arrest and provide him with protection from further action has intensified the conflict. Parliament has passed a resolution calling to file a reference against the top judge.
The ruling coalition has also decided to demonstrate its street power. Thousands of opposition supporters this week gathered outside the Supreme Court demanding that the chief justice step down. The protesters may have dispersed peacefully, with no act of violence reported, but it has brought the battle between the government and the top judiciary to a head.
A trial under the Army Act does not fulfil the requirement of fairness.
Both aspects of the picture — an opposition pitted against the security establishment and a government at loggerheads with the apex court — gives a dangerous twist to the power game. It’s a free-for-all and a volatile situation. The endgame is unpredictable.
Curiously, the decision to try the perpetrators of the May 9 attacks on military installations was taken in an extraordinary corps commanders meeting and not by the civilian government. The cabinet is most likely to rubber-stamp the decision. But it will be hard for the Supreme Court to validate the move to try civilians under the Army Act and the Official Secrets Act — something that would legitimise the military’s growing sway. The proposed establishment of military courts and deployment of the army in major cities would further lengthen the institution’s shadow, which already eclipses a tottering civilian government.
The use of the Army Act against political activists will have serious implications, and intensify anti-establishment sentiments. Such actions would further erode the democratic process in the country. Khan fears that he could be tried for sedition and sentenced to several years in jail. Such a situation would worsen matters. Similar draconian measures have not succeeded in restoring order in the past and will not work this time either.
There is no dispute that the rioters should be punished and the law should take its course. But a trial under the Army Act does not fulfil the requirement of fairness. It is clear that the government is using the May 9 incident to crack down on the entire party. Apart from the thousands of PTI workers who have been picked up, almost the entire senior leadership has been detained without trial. Political victimisation has deepened the polarisation.
While miscreants are brought to justice, it must also be investigated how GHQ in Rawalpindi, the corps commander’s official residence in Lahore and other sensitive installations were left at the mercy of few hundred protesters who managed to vandalise such properties with impunity. Under normal circumstances, the crowd would not have dared to enter such a high-security zone. Some unconfirmed reports and videos circulating on social media suggest that the senior military official and his family might have been inside the residence when the crowd entered it.
It was not a mob of thousands sweeping away the security detail as was witnessed in Sri Lanka last year. There are many questions that have remained unanswered. There should be a public inquiry into the incident. Not many will accept the explanation of the military’s media wing that the army has shown restraint. The spectacle of a crowd, apparently led by a woman, walking through the gates of GHQ has also raised many questions.
Heads would have rolled had such an incident taken place in any other country. But here, the government seems to be more interested in using the May 9 events for political point-scoring.
Meanwhile, the statement issued after the latest corps commanders meeting said that a “well-coordinated arson plan involving the desecration of Shuhada pictures, and monuments, burning down of historical buildings and vandalism of military installations was executed to malign the institution and provoke it towards giving an impulsive reaction”.
It may be true that the attacks were well-coordinated and preplanned. But there is no answer to the question of where the security meant to guard sensitive buildings was when a few hundred miscreants turned up. All unanswered questions give currency to conspiracy theories. The trial of the perpetrators of the May 9 violence will not help sweep aside these questions.
The top brass of the army has called for a “national consensus amongst all stakeholders to address the ongoing political instability as a priority so as to restore public confidence, reinvigorate economic activity and strengthen the democratic process”.
The worsening clash of institutions and the deepening polarisation in the country — for which the establishment must also accept responsibility — has weakened the democratic process and made it more challenging to put it back on track. Public confidence cannot be restored in an atmosphere of repression and censorship.
There are reports of scores of forced disappearances; even journalists are not being spared. Social media and internet services have been facing intermittent closure. Such censorship has encouraged the spread of fake news and misinformation. Political instability makes it harder to revive the economy. The country is now facing an existentialist threat as the system collapses.
There is indeed a dire need for a national consensus among all stakeholders. But for that, it is necessary to lower the political temperature and not exacerbate matters by resorting to repression.