Pakistan: Cataclysmic Clash of Institutions Brings Country to Precipice
Rana Banerji

Reactions to the arrest of Imran Khan by Pakistan Rangers from the Islamabad High Court on May 09 in the Al Qadir Trust corruption case, being investigated by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), have brought Pakistan to the edge of a precipice. Intense political polarization and pursuit of the politics of hate have seen a violation of constitutional provisions, a clash between institutions hitherto considered bastions of the country’s territorial integrity. These developments seem poised to push Pakistan deeper into chaos.

On May 09, lumpen elements belonging mostly to the well trained Tiger Force of the Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf (PTI) attacked the residence of Corps Commander, IV Corps, Lahore, Lt. Gen Salman Fayyaz Ghani, Frontier Force regiment, ransacking and burning properties in the heritage Jinnah House, despite the General trying to placate the angry mob.

Though Pakistan’s military establishment has shown no overt signs of fracture, the past year has included signs of significant support for Imran. Retired military officers have been extremely critical of the establishment’s approach and its decision to distance itself from Khan since last year. For this very reason, the senior military leadership may have been under pressure to de-escalate current tensions. Perimeter security outside the GoC’s residence premises was withdrawn, to avoid civilian casualties due to possible trigger happy reprisals.
However, the Corps Commander’s appearance in civies, and a decision inviting them inside the residence campus earned the wrath of his superiors, leading to his sacking and disciplinary proceedings against him, his chief of staff and some other officers. Lt. Gen Ghani had been posted to Lahore only recently, in October, 2022. He has now been replaced by Lt. Gen Fayyaz Hussian Shah, Sindh Regiment, who was serving in General Headquarters as Inspector General, Arms.

Attacks by angry mobs did not stop at army installations in Lahore. There were attempts to break in at the gates of Rawalpindi Cantonment, stone pelting and arson outside houses of the Corps Commanders, Gujranwala (XXX Corps) and Multan (II Corps), the Bala Hissar Fort campus of the Frontier Corps in Peshawar and the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA), Kakul. Civilian institutions like offices of the Election Commission or Radio Pakistan, Peshawar also suffered from this unprecedented mob fury.

ISPR condemns (May 10)

In a strongly worded press release, the military criticized the PTI’s actions as unpatriotic, this assault on Pakistani institutions, notably army properties. It stressed, what the country’s external enemies “could not accomplish for 75 years” of Pakistan’s existence, had been accomplished in one fell swoop.

Accountability quest against Imran

Several corruption cases had been filed against Imran after his ouster from power since April, 2022. These included the foreign funding and Toshakhana cases. However, Imran has kept taking advantage of an openly partial and benevolent judiciary by avoiding to appear in them. The higher Judiciary has been turning a blind eye to his repeated avoidance of indictment proceedings, as also easily granting anticipatory bail to him in several cases.

Soon after Gen (rtd) Nazir Ahmed Butt’s appointment as Chairman, NAB in March, 2023, inquiries on the PTI’s foreign money trail into Pakistan were taken up in earnest. NAB had summoned Imran and his third spouse, Bushra Bibi in this case. After they avoided appearing, a warrant was issued. On appeal, the Islamabad High Court ruled the NAB warrant illegal on minor procedural grounds a few days back. The arrest on May 09 ensued on a fresh NAB warrant issued on May 01, for which bail had not been obtained by Imran’s legal team.

The offence

458 kanals of land in Mouza Bakrala, Tehsil Sohawa, Jhelum district and 240 kanals in Bani Gala, Islamabad ( in the name of absconding business lady associate, Farah Gogi) were gifted by notorious property dealer, Malik Riaz to Imran, ostensibly for setting up a university in the name of the Al Qadir Trust, of which both Imran and his wife, Bushra Bibi are the only trustees.

Malik Riaz had sold a property in Britain (obtained ironically, after its purchase from the son of Nawaz Sharif). The National Crimes Office (NCA, UK) had frozen these funds. Later, after an out of court settlement, Pounds 190 mn were released for refund to Government of Pakistan. Part of this money was adjusted in the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s account, against Malik Riaz’s dues. The balance was apparently set off, in violation of money laundering laws, for these land grants to Imran’s family and friends. These transactions happened in 2019, when Imran was PM. Another of Imran’s bureaucrat acolytes, former Accountability tsar Shahzad Akbar, now absconding abroad, is also believed to have facilitated the deal.

Supreme Court Intervenes

On May 11, Chief Justice, Supreme Court (SC) Umar Ata Bandial, presiding over a three- judge bench, with Justices Athar Minallah and Muhammad Ali Mazhar, asked for Imran to be produced before the SC within an hour. Within minutes of his appearance, the Chief Justice ordered his release, holding the manner of his arrest from precincts of Islamabad High Court (IHC) on May 09 illegal. The CJ further asked that Imran Khan remain in the Islamabad Police Lines guest house till the matter is taken up before the IHC on May 12.

The next day, almost as was disclosed the previous night, in an audio leak between former Governor, now Imran supporter, Khwaja Tariq Rahim and a journalist, a two judge IHC bench gave Imran bail in the NAB case. It also extended protective bail in all other cases pending against him till May 17.

Imran’s direct charge against Asim Munir

Imran remained in the Court till late at night before returning to his Zaman Park residence in Lahore. In the interim, he remained accessible to media, claiming in practised façade, to be innocent of all instigation of the violence indulged in by PTI cadres. Talking to a BBC journalist, he blamed `only one person’, the Army Chief, Gen Asim Munir for the fate that had befallen him.

This unprecedented judicial action reeks of bias and has attracted criticism from sections of the legal community in Pakistan. However, another section of lawyers and jurists believe, this stems from a conviction shared by most Judges of Pakistan’s higher Judiciary, that these cases constitute unfair victimization of Imran Khan, designed to keep him out of elections, which he may be poised to win in landslide mandates , whenever they are held.

JuI (F)’s dharna threat

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Jamiat e Ulema Islam (JuI- F) leader, an important PDM alliance partner, whose loyal cadres can be quickly mobilized against PTI’s lumpens, has threatened to hold a `peaceful’ demonstration outside the Supreme Court on May 15, despite prohibitory orders u/s 154 Cr.P.C being in vogue there. This could presage further violence between rival groups.

DG, ISPR denies plans to impose Martial Law

Even as wild rumours surfaced on social media about en masse resignations of Army officers and dissension among Generals (blog of Adil Raja, a retired major who has escaped to the United Kingdom), Director General, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), Maj Gen Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry appeared on the Geo Television Channel, generally believed to be anti- Imran Khan (because, mainly due to the long incarceration of its owner, Mir Shakil ur Rehman during the latter’s premiership) to re-assure viewers (May 12 night) that these reports were unfounded, there was no question of imposition of Martial Law, neither was there any dissension or disruption in the Army’s chain of command, Gen Asim Munir and all senior Generals remained committed to democracy.

What happens next?

PTI supporters remain angry and determined to continue protesting. Imran’s dramatic release has generated euphoria and reduced public rage, yet has left uncertainty about what may happen. At the same time, Khan’s party faces a leadership vacuum, partly because it has no clear second-in-command to lead.Most of the PTI’s senior leaders have been arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order Act (MPA), on charges of instigating and directing the violence against the military.
On the other hand, a sense of embarrassment and breach of honor due to these attacks against military installations has created deep anger within the Army. It could create a “rally around” effect, and Khan’s support within the military’s elite networks may diminish. This may need to be closely watched.

Meanwhile, the PDM government and the military are trying to contain and deter further unrest by deploying the army across the country and authorizing the use of force if necessary (under Art 245 of Constitution). If protesters target military personnel and installations again, the crackdown could become more severe.

SC on warpath

It is now being conjectured that on May 15, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial may issue show cause notices for contempt against the Shahbaz Sharif Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM) government and the Chief Election Commissioner, Sikandar Sultan Raja, for not implementing their April 04 order to hold elections to the Punjab Provincial Assembly. This may assist the PDM’s `martyrdom’ narrative and escalate personalized retaliatory backlash against CJ Bandial.

Persisting Economic crisis

Against this backdrop of political upheaval, Pakistan remains in a severe economic crisis due to dwindling foreign exchange reserves and a high external debt burden, putting the country on the brink of default. This crisis may make it harder for Pakistan to convince the IMF — and possibly even Chinese leadership, which publicly called for political stability in the country — to provide the help necessary to avert default and keep the economy afloat.

Moreover, there is a heightened risk of terrorist violence. The Pakistani Taliban movement has increased its insurgency within Pakistan, not only in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), from safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. GoC, XII Corps, Lt. Gen Asif Ghafoor, rumored to be lacking confidence of his Chief, has been thrust in the hub of counter insurgency actions simmering in Balochistan.

Implications for India

It is customary for alarmists in India and abroad, to dwell on the diversionary maneuver theory, which suggests that the Pakistan Army could gain respite by resorting to provocative trans-border terror actions through its proxies, inviting Indian reprisal. Such a national security threat could restore the Army’s dented domestic image and relegate issues like holding of elections or allowing Imran’s return to power to a back-burner. In economic terms the Army cannot perhaps afford such an escalation. However, as non-state actions are a low cost option, India cannot afford any complacency in this regard.

Be that as it may, the focus for Pakistan watchers must remain on the evolving domestic situation in Pakistan, which does not provide any silver lining in the short-term, either for its people or for its well-wishers who would want it to play its due role as a stable country in the region.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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