March 14, 2023
ISLAMABAD – THE toxicity in the political arena is not only playing on a loop; every incident widens the trust deficit and ramps up the vitriol still further. Matters have come to a point where each side’s version is almost violently at odds with that of the other and arriving at some compromise or consensus appears increasingly unlikely.
The press conference on Saturday by Punjab’s caretaker chief minister and IG on the death of PTI worker Ali Bilal has further underscored this divide. Both officials maintained he was killed in a road accident, “unfortunately misinterpreted”, and that — contrary to the PTI leaders’ claims — custodial torture was not to blame.
Bilal was one of the party activists picked up by police on Wednesday when the caretaker set-up decided to use force against those defying Section 144 imposed in Lahore to participate in a rally to launch PTI’s campaign for the provincial elections.
The optics of PTI workers facing batons, water cannons and tear gas were bad enough, even before images of Bilal’s battered body emerged later on social media. Party head Imran Khan alleged that the activist had been tortured to death in custody, a claim reinforced by the post-mortem report which recorded at least 26 injuries and stated that the deceased had been subjected to “massive blunt trauma”.
The Punjab Police has a well-documented reputation of being a ruthless and unaccountable force for whom custodial torture is routine practice. Its conduct in this episode would hardly have changed public perceptions.
At first, the cops claimed the video of Bilal being taken away in the police van was an old one. When that contention was exposed as a lie, they changed their story and said they had released Bilal much before his body was dropped off at a hospital later that day. Then they claimed to have arrested two men who said that Bilal had been seriously injured in an accident with their vehicle.
What is the version of those who were with the victim at the time of the purported accident? What do those activists who were arrested along with him have to say about the police having ‘released’ him? Many questions remain unanswered.
An inquiry free of allegations of bias must determine how Bilal lost his life. But this episode, beginning with the one-day imposition, on an entirely flimsy pretext, of Section 144 in Lahore also raises troubling questions about the caretaker government’s credentials as an impartial arbiter.
Its coercive actions against the PTI as well as the slanted remarks of some of its ministers on the media in the aftermath of Bilal’s death bode ill for stability in the country’s largest province. They will however burnish the PTI’s political narrative. The PML-N may want to reflect on that.