Recapping 2020: Which stories dominated headlines in Pakistan

Not just the virus, this year will be recalled for much more. takes you through the biggest national stories in Pakistan.
Updated 31 Dec, 2020 10:02pm

When we review the year 2020, nothing can overshadow the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the devastation it brought on – both in terms of deaths and economic depravity.

But despite the instrumental impact this single event had on our lives this year – and it continues do so as we move into the new year – there were some other developments that created waves and deeply affected our national psyche.

From the horrific motorway case that forced the country into introspection to the anti-rape law brought into effect in its aftermath, from the opposition's support in passing legislation on COAS's extension to its movement to oust the government, and from the nightmare of Karachi's floods to the development package for the city announced by the PM, takes you through some of the most important stories from the year.

Legislation on COAS's tenure

The year began with both houses of Parliament bulldozing three bills concerning the tenure of the three services chiefs — chief of army staff, chief of air staff and chief of naval staff — and the chairman of the joint chief of staff committee.

Also read: Legislation on COAS’s tenure

Surprisingly though, the two major opposition parties — PML-N and PPP — were on board for the changes which is why the bills faced no resistance even in the opposition-dominated upper house.

Among the most prominent changes introduced, the upper age limit for a four-star appointment has been fixed at 64 years in case of reappointment and extension, otherwise the officer will retire at the age of 60 years.

The issue concerning the extension of the army chief's tenure became contentious after Prime Minister Imran had extended Gen Bajwa's tenure through a notification in August 2019, but the top court suspended the notification on Nov 26, 2019, citing irregularities in the manner of extension.

After three days of heightened uncertainty, the apex court, through a short order on Nov 28, 2019, had announced that Gen Bajwa would remain the COAS for another six months during which the parliament would legislate on the army chief’s extension/reappointment.

In its detailed verdict released on Dec 16, 2019, the top court had emphasised that it was up to the Parliament to carry out legislation that would provide "certainty and predictability" to the post of the COAS for all times to come.

Coronavirus — lockdowns, deaths and politics

Arguably, the most defining feature of the year 2020 was the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, which has wreaked havoc on the global economy, healthcare infrastructure and life as we know it.

In Pakistan, the first cases of the virus emerged in late February when several pilgrims returned from Iran— one of the worst-hit countries. Both cases were reported from Karachi, leading the Sindh government to immediately impose a blanket lockdown in order to curb the spread. Sindh government's decision did not please the Centre, as Prime Minister Imran Khan insisted that a complete lockdown would adversely affect daily wagers and lower-income people.

Nevertheless, lockdowns of varying degrees were imposed in all provinces to minimise local transmission of the virus as cases rose from 1 to 1,000 within a month. Initially, people who tested positive had flown in from highly-affected regions including Iran, United States, Britain and the European Union states among others.

Explore: Experiencing Covid-19 symptoms? Here is how you can get tested for the virus in Pakistan

On a federal level, the National Coordination Committee (NCC) and National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) were constituted. Chaired by the premier, the NCC comprises provincial chief ministers as well as government representatives of federal territories and has the authority to make decisions based on the recommendations of the NCOC.

The NCOC is chaired by Planning Minister Asad Umar and is tasked with reviewing the virus situation across the country and issue recommendations based on the data gathered.

The Centre also introduced the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme, through which lower-income families were provided cash assistance in financially challenging times.

Amid political wrangling between the federal and Sindh governments, cases continued to rise and Pakistan reached its peak in June. In the following months, however, the Centre's policy of targeted or smart lockdowns seems to have paid dividends as both reported cases and number of deaths from Covid-19 dropped and several restrictions were relaxed despite government officials insisting that the threat was no over.

Several independent experts, including the World Health Organisation chief and philanthropist Bill Gates, applauded Pakistan's success in curbing the virus when several more developed and resourceful countries were struggling with it.

But With the advent of winter, Pakistan is now in the throes of a second coronavirus wave, which according to experts is more "lethal" than the first. Health experts say both positivity rate — the percentage of people testing positive — and mortality rate — the percentage of people dying from the virus — has increased.

The government, in its efforts to contain the spread of the virus without resorting to a lockdown, has restricted public gatherings and made masks mandatory in compulsory. Public awareness campaigns are also being carried out to encourage handwashing and social distancing.

The federal government is also making efforts to procure a vaccine by the first quarter of 2021 and has already set aside funds for the purpose.

Several politicians and prominent personalities, including Sindh Governor Imran Ismail, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Health Minister Taimur Khan Jhagra, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser etc were infected by Covid-19.

While many recovered from the virus, some were unable to survive due to complications caused by the virus. The casualties included Peshawar High Court chief justice Waqar Seth, PPP's Rashid Rabbani, Jam Madad Ali, Ghulam Murtaza Baloch, PTI's Syed Jaffar Shah, Mian Jamshedud Din Kakakhel, Shaheen Raza and former Balochistan governor Syed Fazal Agha among others.

'Has the virus mutated? When is a vaccine expected in Pakistan?': Your questions about the second wave answered

Opposition unites to oust govt

PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend the PDM rally in Peshawar on Sunday, Nov 22, 2020. — AFP
PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend the PDM rally in Peshawar on Sunday, Nov 22, 2020. — AFP

This year saw opposition parties put their differences aside and gather on one platform in a renewed attempt to oust the PTI government. After a round of meetings, almost all opposition parties including PPP, PML-N, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl), Awami National Party, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, Balochistan National Party etc. passed a 26-point resolution in September.

The foremost demand of the 11-party alliance, named Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), is the resignation of "selected" Prime Minister Imran Khan. The alliance hopes to achieve this goal by holding public meetings across the country and — if the government fails to comply — a long march to Islamabad in January, 2021.

Also read: The rise of the opposition?

So far, PDM has held five power shows in Gujranwala, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar, Multan and Lahore.

The alliance has also decided that all opposition lawmakers will handover their resignations to their respective party heads by December 31.

PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, who flew to London for medical reasons last year and had mostly remained silent, also returned to the political scene and has addressed a multiparty conference of the opposition parties as well as PDM's public meetings.

In his speeches, Nawaz has accused the army leadership of tampering the 2018 general election and interfering with political matters as part of his efforts to "expose those who have formed a state above a state".

Read: Politics from Avenfield — the new normal?

Though the PDM appears united, reports of differences amongst member parties, especially with regards to resigning from assembles, are now emerging.

Safdar's arrest, leave applications and an army probe

While cases against opposition politicians have riled up their leadership, it was the arrest of PML-N leader retired Captain Mohammad Safdar, who is also the husband of Maryam Nawaz, in Karachi that became a tipping point.

In October, Safdar was arrested for by police from the hotel he was staying in a day after a massive PDM public gathering was held in Karachi, which was addressed by PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz among other leaders.

Hours before the gathering, Safdar and Maryam along with their supporters visited Jinnah's mausoleum where the former raised political slogans. The act was criticised by PTI supporters as well as some government officials, who deemed it as disrespectful. It was because of this that a case was registered against Safdar which later resulted in his arrest from the hotel a day later.

The PML-N leader was granted bail hours after his arrest and returned to Lahore with Maryam, who alleged that the Sindh police chief was kidnapped and forced by Rangers to order her husband's arrest. PPP, which is in power in Sindh, also condemned the arrest and party chief Bilawal said the provincial government was "kept unaware about the action and the arrest".

Also read: PPP left red-faced after arrest of Maryam’s husband

Matters came to a boil when a day after Safdar's arrest and subsequent release, the Sindh IGP, at least two additional inspectors general, seven deputy inspectors general and six senior superintendents of Sindh police submitted leave applications in order to "come out of […] shock" caused by the "episode of registration of FIR against Capt (R) Safdar".

Following the shock move, Bilawal urged Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI Director General Lt Gen Faiz Hameed to investigate the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Safdar and "investigate your institution [and] how it is operating in this province". Minutes later, the army chief ordered an inquiry into the "Karachi incident".

In November, the military leadership removed officials of ISI and Rangers for acting "overzealously" in light of the recommendations by the inquiry report.

Motorway gang-rape calls women's security into question

In September, the country was left shocked and furious when news of a woman being gang-raped in front of her children on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway came to light.

The victim was travelling with her two children from Lahore to Gujranwala when her car broke down on the motorway at 1am. She called the motorway police for assistance and was waiting for help when two men took her and the kids into nearby fields at gunpoint and raped the woman. The culprits also stole valuables and escaped before the police arrived.

The incident, which came to light just as the nation was reeling from the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl in Karachi, caused an uproar as people questioned the safety of women and children in the country. The absence of police on M-11 motorway — where the crime took place — was also criticised.

Public anger grew when Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Umar Sheikh, in an interview to a news channel, pontificated that the victim had failed to take due precautions before setting off for her journey that ended in a nightmare. Calls for Sheikh's removal went unheard and government officials, including prime minister's adviser Shahzad Akbar, jumped to the CCPO's defence instead.

Police arrested one suspect days after the case was reported, however, the main suspect could not be caught until a month later. Courts are currently hearing the cases against the two suspects.

Nevertheless, the federal government vowed to come up with stricter punishments for rape. Late last month, the federal cabinet approved a draft law proposing chemical castration of a habitual offender of rape with the consent of the convict. The law was eventually passed as a presidential ordinance in December.

Shehbaz's arrest and PML-N's defiance

In September, days after the PDM was formed, PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in a money laundering case after the Lahore High Court (LHC) refused to grant him a pre-arrest bail.

His arrest sparked a strong reaction from the PML-N leadership, including party supremo Nawaz and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, who vowed to go ahead with the PDM movement. PML-N's leadership alleged that the arrest was political victimisation.

The arrest was also condemned by other PDM leaders, including Bilawal, who said that the move was a "sign of Imran's worry".

Shehbaz remains in jail along with his son Hamza Shehbaz. Though the PML-N president has complained of maltreatment by the NAB, he has not applied for bail.

Centre, Sindh battle over Buddu, Bundal islands

A war of words broke out between PPP and PTI when the former's chairperson, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. vowed to oppose the Centre's attempts to take control of Buddu and Bundal islands in Sindh to initiate development projects.

The federal government is eyeing both islands, located near the Karachi coast, for mega real estate projects to ease pressure on the expanding megacity, which is home to over 20 million people.

Environmentalists and the fishermen community have fiercely opposed the government's plans, saying that construction on the islands would endanger the mangroves which provide vital coastal protection to Karachi.

The Centre, however, is bent on going ahead with the project and in August President Arif Alvi promulgated the Pakistan Islands Develop­ment Authority (PIDA) Ordinance, 2020, to allow the federal government to take control of the two islands. The move outraged environmentalists, the fishermen community and the Sindh government, which said that the islands belonged to the province. Bilawal slammed the Centre for the "illegal annexation" of the islands and likened the move to "Modi’s actions in occupied Kashmir".

The row intensified when PTI leader and Maritime Affairs Minister Ali Zaidi, in response to Bilawal, tweeted the picture of a Sindh government letter, dated July 6, 2020, through which it had made “available” Bundal Island to the federal government.

As PPP continued to be defiant, Islamabad assured the Sindh government that development work would not be started on the proposed project until consent was attained by the provincial government.

Karachi floods

The last week of August was a nightmare for the residents of Karachi as record rainfall lashed the city, which became a picture of misery as water flooded all key roads, submerged underpasses and streets and paralysed all segments of life with telecom services breaking down and power failures continuing for days on end.

The most traumatic day was Aug 27, when Karachi saw the highest rainfall ever recorded in a single day – 223.5mm in just 12 hours – and at least 19 people lost their lives on that day alone.

People wade through a flooded residential area after heavy monsoon rains in Karachi on August 27, 2020. — AFP
People wade through a flooded residential area after heavy monsoon rains in Karachi on August 27, 2020. — AFP

Officials said downpours in August shattered 89-year-old records for the city. Some 484mm (19 inches) of rain was recorded in August, city weatherman Sardar Sarfaraz said, adding that: “It has never rained so much in the month of August, according to our data which goes back to 1931.”

By the end of the week on August 30, at least 40 people had lost their lives in rain-related incidents – electrocution from broken wires, drowning, car accidents and collapsing walls – while electricity in some areas had still not been restored.

Hundreds of houses situated along the main Lyari and Malir rivers were washed away, forcing the residents to leave their belongings and houses for safer places. Meanwhile other areas such as the Defence Housing Authority, Naya Nazimabad and Orangi Town remain flooded for days after the rain ended with residents fearing their houses might end up collapsing from the damage standing water had caused.

It took days for business and industry to return to normalcy even after the rain ended and the water receded as fuel pumps ran dry, telecom towers fell out of service and many ATM machines were either not functioning or empty of cash and power outages extended into days.

People thronged to supermarkets and corner shops to replenish food stocks, only to find them shut or flooded, and in some cases, the large sections of the artificial ceilings had fallen in as rain water seeped through the roof.

Years of negligence by the governments was at display with authorities seemingly helpless in the face of what was termed a "natural disaster". Experts however said the situation could have been much less disastrous if the government had ensured proper maintenance of the city's rainwater drains and nullahs and not allowed illegal constructions around them.

Also read: Why Karachi floods

Sindh government had to invite the intervention of Prime Minister Imran Khan who ordered immediate rescue operations for thousands of affected people. The army and the National Disaster Management Authority was also called in to assist in rescue and relief efforts, with the prime minister promising a "permanent solution to the problems caused by floods" in Karachi.

About a week later, Imran unveiled an ambitious Rs1,113 billion package – with contributions from both Sindh and Centre – for the development of the country’s financial capital and set up a coordination and implementation committee led by Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah to bring all “stakeholders and authorities” together to make key decisions, remove hurdles and ensure their implementation.

However, the consensus that developed between the federal and provincial governments was short-lived, much to the decrement of the people of Karachi. Just a day after the announcement of the "historic" Karachi package, the two stakeholders began sparring over who had contributed how much, each claiming it was bearing the lion's share of the budget.

With work on the promises yet to begin and the federal and provincial governments playing politics over petty issues, it is not clear what the fate of this glorious city will be if heavy rains hit again next year.

Arzoo's case

Arzoo’s parents hold up her picture.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Arzoo’s parents hold up her picture.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

In October this year, the case of a 13-year-old Christian girl, who had been "abducted", allegedly forced to convert to Islam and married to a Muslim adult came to the limelight after several human rights activist raised their voice on social media.

According to the first information report of the case registered on Arzoo's father's complaint, Raja said he and his wife went to work while their son Shahbaz had gone to school. The complainant said his three daughters, including Arzoo, were present at their home in Karachi's Railway Colony when he received a call from a relative, who told him that Arzoo was missing.

On hearing this, Raja said he reached home and contacted his neighbours, but could not trace his daughter. He subsequently lodged a case regarding the abduction of his daughter against unknown persons at the Frere police station.

In-depth: The case of missing Arzoo

Arzoo's family members earlier this month told Dawn that her purported husband, Azhar, lived in a house opposite theirs along with his family and was at least 45-years-old. “The rascal who abducted her has prepared fake papers to show that she is 18-years-old,” her mother said.

Following a months-long legal battle, the girl's age was determined to be 14 and she was separated from her abductor, Syed Azhar Ali, and his family. Arzoo’s parents are hopeful that soon their young girl will also be reunited with them. The parents are clearly anxious and happy, all at the same time.

Anti-France rallies and death of a firebrand cleric

October saw widespread demonstrations in the country as hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets protesting against the French president and demanding a boycott of French products and the expulsion of its ambassador. The protests erupted after French President Emmanuel Macron criticised Islamists and vowed not to "give up cartoons" depicting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) — a move which Prime Minister Imran termed as "encouragement of Islamophobia".

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Karachi, Peshawar, Hyderabad and other cities of Pakistan. But perhaps the biggest demonstrations were organised by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, which after protesting in Karachi, threatened to march on Islamabad. Blockades were installed at different entry points of the capital, including Faizabad, with the deployment of police and the paramilitary force to stop the protest rally. Police also detained several leaders and party workers in Rawalpindi.

The protest rally started on Nov 15 from Pindi's Liaquat Bagh and was going towards Faizabad in the capital. However, it turned chaotic as clashes broke out between protesters and police with dozens injured. Riot police had to resort to teargas shelling against the stone-pelting protesters who had gathered on the call of TLP chief Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi.

Successful negotiations were held between the government and TLP to end the protest with the party claiming the government had accepted all four of its demands including taking a decision from Parliament regarding expulsion of the French ambassador within three months, not appointing its ambassador to France and releasing all the arrested workers of the TLP. The government would not register any case against the TLP leaders or workers even after it called off the sit-in, according to the agreement.

It turned out to be the last rally led by Rizvi as the TLP chief died shortly after in Lahore at the age of 54. Thousands of people gathered to attend his funeral prayers at Minar-i-Pakistan. The prayers were led by Rizvi's son, Saad Hussain Rizvi, who was named the new TLP chief.

Read: Who was Khadim Hussain Rizvi?

Header illustration by Mushba Said