Smoke billows from a building set ablaze by supporters of former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Peshawar. AFP
Imran Khan is perhaps the best Prime Minister Pakistan has ever had. Today he is in remand custody in an unknown location amid fears that he would be killed by Pakistan’s all-powerful military, the state within the state that is above the law. He survived an assassination attempt last year and accused the head of the Inter-Service-Intelligence of trying to kill him.
No Pakistani leader in recent years has been as popular as Khan, the world cup-winning cricket captain turned politician. The youth see him as the savior who can salvage Pakistan from the misery it has fallen into. He is also viewed as uncorrupt and forthright.
The charismatic leader is so popular that all surveys show that his party – Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) – is heading for a landslide victory in the general elections to be held before October 14. Even in the military that Khan has decided to take on, he has supporters.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, told BBC, “My sense is that the senior-most army leadership would be happy not to see him involved in politics anymore, whereas many elements in the lower and middle ranks of the army are big supporters of Khan. Khan has polarised politics, he’s polarised the public and he’s polarised the army as well, which is a difficult feat to pull off.”
Khan’s arrest has triggered countrywide protests. People took to the streets, blocked highways, clashed with security forces, and marched up to the army headquarters. Troops were deployed in Islamabad, the seat of government power. About six people have been killed and hundreds, including police officers, wounded in clashes. More than 2000 people including PTI leaders and activists have been arrested.
The protests were not confined to Pakistan alone. Since his arrest, Pakistani communities have been holding protest rallies in the US, the UK, Australia, and other countries, expressing their unstinted support for the jailed leader.
Earlier, police tried to arrest Khan twice, but his supporters thwarted such attempts. In several cases, the party lawyers managed to get bail for Khan. But this time, he was arrested when he appeared for a case in the Islamabad High Court
Khan’s supporters say democracy is under attack from the establishment — the military, the deep state in Pakistan. They say the objective of incarcerating Khan on hundreds of trumped-up charges is to prevent him from leading his party to victory in the general elections. If Khan is convicted ahead of the elections, he will not be able to contest.
Earlier, resorting to a constitutional manoeuvre, the PTI dissolved Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assemblies which it controlled in a bid to force the government to call early general elections. The matter is now before the Supreme Court, with the Election Commission claiming it does not have no sufficient funds to hold elections.
Pakistan’s coalition government led by Prime Minister Shebbaz Sharif says Khan was taken into custody for not cooperating with the authorities in corruption investigations. They include a land donation to a charity run by Khan’s wife, and selling state gifts and not disclosing it.
The events unfolding in Pakistan have aggravated the economic crisis which has placed the country on the verge of bankruptcy. With no lifeline from the International Monetary Fund yet, the country is struggling to meet its import bills while inflation has soared sky-high. Was Khan’s arrest a condition some influential countries set to give their approval for the US$ 6.5 billion bailout package Pakistan is seeking?
Earlier, police tried to arrest Khan twice, but his supporters thwarted such attempts. In several cases, the party lawyers managed to get bail for Khan. But this time, he was arrested when he appeared for a case in the Islamabad High Court. Video footage shows 70-year-old Khan being manhandled by the paramilitary troops and pushed into a waiting vehicle inside the court premises.
As the authorities deployed troops and blacked out social media platforms to bring the situation under control, tens of thousands of supporters used the VPN (Virtual Private Network) to gain access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms and proclaim that they would continue the fight till death.
Oxford-educated Khan is a leader with courage and that was the cause of his downfall. With his foolhardiness, he courted trouble, disregarding Pakistan politics’ cardinal rule that no prime minister should ever defy the military. But Imran Khan is not made of weaker stuff. Encouraged by the near fanatical support of the people, he decided to take on the military.
Not only did he defy the military, even though he owed his 2018 general election victory to the military, but he also had the guts to tell the United States that Pakistan would not sacrifice its national interest to promote the US national interest. Even before he became Pakistan’s prime minister, he condemned indiscriminate US drone attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan and called for accountability for the killing of innocent civilians. When asked whether he would allow Pakistan to be used as a base for the US to launch attacks on targets inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, he categorically said no. When he was removed from office in a no-confidence vote in April 2022, he said the US was behind the constitutional coup to topple his government.
Yes, regime change is part of the US foreign policy. Washington does not tolerate courageous independent leaders in Third World countries, especially Muslim countries. Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s democratically elected leader after the Arab Spring protests ousted the US lackey and autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Morsi was ousted in a US-backed counter-revolution coup. Then there was Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych. He was got rid of in a US-engineered uprising. The fact that he was elected in a democratic election did not matter to the regime change operators in Washington.
The regime changers also target Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His fate will be decided at Sunday’s presidential poll. His opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu has vowed to place Turkey once again on the US-led Western orbit. The race is said to be tight. Though Turkey is a member of the US-led military alliance NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), under Erdogan’s leadership, it maintains close defence and economic ties with Russia and has disputes with the US over Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish groups which have a close rapport with the Turkish Kurdish separatists.
In Pakistan, when Khan was ousted through a no-confidence vote, he alleged the opposition colluded with the US to unseat him. The US has dismissed the allegation. But most Pakistanis believe the US is determined to prevent him from contesting the polls. When he was the prime minister, Khan was getting too close to China, which has committed billions of dollars for the 3000km-long China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. But the military does not want to cut its umbilical cord with the US, though it appears to be pushing for a balancing act between the US and China.
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