Protests against Imran Khan, Pakistan Army explained

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For the umpteenth time, Pakistan’s politics is in a state of flux. This time around, it’s an unprecedented anguish among women, and against the Pakistan Army bosses. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is, however, facing the brunt for being the civilian spokesperson of the Army.

Two seemingly unrelated developments form the backbone of anti-Imran Khan and anti-Army chief protests in Pakistan. It began with a gangrape for which a police officer, reportedly handpicked by Imran Khan, blamed the victim.

RAGE OVER RAPE

A woman driving her car with three kids sitting inside was gangraped by two men after the vehicle ran out of fuel in the second week of September. She was waylaid and raped in front of her kids on a Lahore highway.

The news jolted the conscience of the Pakistan’s middle class, which poured its anger first on social media and later took to the streets. With protests demanding justice for the rape victim snowballing, Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) of Lahore Umar Sheikh resorted to victim shaming. In his TV news bites, Sheikh reprimanded the woman for “coming out so late in the night”.

Pakistan saw protests involving a large number of women over Lahore gangrape case as the activists hit out at the Imran Khan government. (Photo: AP/PTI)

Sheikh then faced the brunt of protesters’ wrath. Reports from Pakistan suggest that his superiors in Punjab police could do nothing against him as he had been “handpicked” by Prime Minister Imran Khan for the job.

Reports of the police officer being a “chosen one” by Imran Khan saw people’s anger venting at his government. The protests saw participation of huge number of educated women. The anger had built up against Imran Khan, his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and the government led by him.

OPPOSITION UNITES

While the public was taking to streets and social media putting the Imran Khan government in the dock, the opposition parties sensed an opportunity to mend their fences and put up a united face against the government.

Just over a week after the Lahore motorway gangrape incident, 11 opposition parties of Pakistan formed an alliance with an “action plan” to dislodge the Imran Khan government. The alliance is named Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) comprising the Pakistan Muslim League (N) of Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan People’s Party of Bhutto-Zardaris.

Other key constituents of the PDM are the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur), the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, the Baloch National Party and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement.

However, the issues at hand now are rising prices, power cuts, closure of businesses and acute economic distress. Safety of women is no longer being discussed in the political grouping as tool to target the Imran Khan government.

HOW THESE PROTESTS ARE DIRECTED AT THE ARMY?

In Pakistan, the army is known to control the civilian government. Now, for the first time, a Pakistani politician of national stature has called out the Army’s political interference in the government.

The PDM has held two rallies drawing thousands of people the first one held at Gujaranwala town in Punjab and the second in Karachi in Sindh. Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is on bail and lodged in London, addressed the Gujaranwala gathering setting an unheard of tone in Pakistan politics.

In his speech, Sharif hit out at Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, accusing him of unseating him through a conspiracy. Sharif criticised the Pakistan Army for behaving as “state above the state”.

Such attacks had never been directed at an incumbent Pakistan Army chief. Another remarkable aspect of the attack was that it came at a rally in Punjab the home province of both General Bajwa and Sharif.

The credibility of the Pakistan Army is also under threat in people’s eye because Imran Khan has in the past deflected all criticism of his government saying he is “on the same page” as the Army. To add to this, Imran Khan controversially gave an extension of three years to General Bajwa as Pakistan Army chief.

JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rahman with PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari at the Karachi rally of the opposition parties seeking removal of Imran Khan as Pakistan's prime minister. (Photo: AP/PTI)

WHAT IS IMRAN KHAN’S ROLE?

This is what opposition leaders are asking. Sharif and the rest of opposition have alleged that the Army installed Imran Khan as a puppet government in 2018. General Bajwa was the face of the Army’s plan to see Imran Khan become the prime minister.

Conviction of Nawaz Sharif in a corruption case by the National Accountability Commission is also seen as an Army move. The Commission is completely controlled by the Pakistan Army.

HOW HAS IMRAN AND ARMY RESPONDED?

The government has responded by arresting the son-in-law of Nawaz Sharif, whose daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif tweeted about how police broke into her hotel room and picked up her husband Mohammad Safdar, a retired Captain of the Pakistani army.

What followed was even more brazen. The Army abducted the Karachi police chief to get him sign the documents to arrest Safdar. Pakistani intellectuals, journalists and media reported these incidents widely. Safdar was released on bail later.

Imran Khan has warned that Pakistan would see a “new Imran Khan” thereby hinting that a government crackdown will happen against protesters. People are reminding him that he came to power with the promise to build a “new Pakistan”.

WHAT IS OPPOSITION’S STRATEGY?

The opposition seems to be playing smart. They chose Maulana Fazlur Rahman of JUI-F as the head of the coalition. This buried any possibility of a rivalry between Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.

Rahman is considered a hardline Islamist with a huge following among the right wing groups in Pakistan. This has denied Imran Khan and the Pakistan Army to blame the protests on foreign players.

The opposition’s strategy has rattled both Imran Khan and the Pakistan Army. This is particularly serious because reports suggest the Army reached out to political leaders from the opposition camp asking them not to draw the Army in the political slugfest. Apparently, Nawaz Sharif refused to oblige.

Now, the Imran Khan government is looking to stop the opposition from holding future rallies. The opposition has planned rallies up to the year-end. Their next rally is scheduled for October 25 in Quetta, on November 22 in Peshawar, on November 30 in Multan and on December 13 in Lahore, where the gangrape incident took place.

The Pakistan government has announced that it would re-impose Covid-19 lockdown. This looks strange given that Pakistan’s official count of Covid-19 has been low for several weeks. Recent days have reported some spike in parts. But the lockdown decision seems to be directed at the opposition and aimed at breaking their momentum.

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