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October 25, 2020

As things fall apart

Opinion

October 25, 2020

In a metaphorical sense, we seem to be living in a ‘police state’. But literally, we are living in a state where the chief of police of a province can be abducted in the small hours and made to issue orders under duress. That overused phrase of ‘things falling apart’ has found its decisive relevance.

What happened in Karachi during the night between Sunday and Monday – November 18-19 – is sure to stand out in Pakistan’s political history. Some of its details have become incontrovertible because of the official steps that have been initiated, though PM Imran Khan’s spokespersons are making a desperate attempt to put a spin on the ‘Karachi incident’.

And on Friday, in a television interview, Prime Minister Imran Khan played it down and called it a ‘comedy’. This could be an evidence of his disconnection from reality. Or, more likely, he is in the process of devising a game plan to counter the rising wave of the opposition’s Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). Clearly, the government’s defences are beginning to be breached.

Our experience is that a popular agitation does not overthrow a regime. But what happens on the streets can also reverberate across the ramparts of the citadel of power. Is the ‘Karachi incident’ an indication of some rumblings in the inner sanctum? Since the pace of events is breathless with tension, the unfolding events should provide some more clues.

Imran Khan’s interview on Friday was itself an admission of vulnerability. It was an outburst, after opposition leaders had mocked him for not being in the picture and not taking charge of the ‘Karachi incident’. It should be possible to see his furious performance as a call for a confrontation that may lead to violent unrest and unforeseen consequences.

In a theatrical context, Imran Khan can be seen as a prisoner of Nawaz Sharif, so obsessed he is with the former prime minister. He has vowed to bring Nawaz Sharif back from London and put him in prison. He says that if he has to, he will himself go to Britain and talk to Boris Johnson. It is not a pleasant sight to see Imran Khan painting himself into a corner.

Meanwhile, momentous developments are taking place in quick succession. This week’s spell was sparked by the second rally of the opposition held on Sunday, November 18, in Karachi. It was the PPP’s show of power, though the star speaker was Maryam Nawaz of the PML-N. Building on the success of the first PDM rally in Gujranwala on Friday, it bolstered the spirits of the opposition and raised the level of popular excitement and expectation.

But before the echoes of the speeches made and slogans raised in the rally could completely die down, the nation woke up to a thunderous event early on Monday morning. The police raided the room in the hotel where Maryam was staying with her husband, retired captain Mohammad Safdar, who had raised slogans inside the Quaid’s mausoleum on Sunday.

The manner in which Capt Safdar was arrested was shocking. It just did not make sense, mainly because Maryam and Safdar were honoured guests of the PPP government of Sindh. It would naturally be a great embarrassment for the hosts. But soon Maryam was informed that the arrest was made after the IG, Mushtaq Mahar, had allegedly been abducted and was forced to do it. It would mean that a Machiavellian stratagem to create a rift between the PML-N and the PPP did not work.

Let us not go into the details of what had transpired during that night, with specific reference to the allegation of IG’s abduction. We had ample certification of it in what happened later in the public sphere. The crisis that developed on Tuesday had the inklings of a systemic disorder.

To put it as briefly as I can, I will begin with Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah’s press conference in which he expressed his annoyance about the high-handed arrest of Capt Safdar. Though he defended the Sindh police, he was elusive about IG’s ordeal. This may have been a disappointment for the police officers, who understandably felt offended.

Later in the day, Bilawal-Bhutto Zardari held his press conference and laid out in detail what Sindh’s top cop had gone through at 2am at night, his house laid siege to and him having made to sign the arrest orders. He specifically asked Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa to order an institutional probe into the incident.

In the evening, the IG himself and other senior police officers started to write applications to go on leave. Things were happening at a rapid pace and the protest was reaching down to the SHO level. Eventually, the COAS made a call to Bilawal and soon after the ISPR announced that the corps commander had been asked by Gen Bajwa to urgently probe the ‘Karachi incident’. After this assurance, the police officers decided to defer their protest leave for 10 days.

But this may linger, as the ministerial committee appointed by the chief minister to probe Capt Safdar’s arrest, who was released on bail on Monday evening, was asked to submit its report within a period of 30 days. We can be sure that Pakistan’s stormy politics will throw up many more distractions during this period.

For that matter, the PDM’s third rally is being held today in Quetta. In addition to the rising second wave of Covid-19, there is a security alert by the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta), with fears that a prominent leader may be a target. The Balochistan government has appealed to the PDM to not hold today’s rally.

Hence, a suspense is building up about the rally in Quetta. In this unusual moment in Pakistan’s history, the stage is being set for a big battle. And I am reminded of a Graham Greene quote: “Sooner or later, one has to take sides. If one is to remain human”.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]