Audio leaks, TTP and the Sialkot tragedy: Here's what went down in Pakistan in 2021

It is safe to say that 2021 has not been an easy year for Pakistan.
Published December 29, 2021

The year 2021 was rung in across the world, including Pakistan, with the hope that it would offer a chance at redemption after a gruelling battle with the Covid-19 pandemic.

That was not to be.

Amid the pandemic that continued to rage and extreme acts of senseless violence — such as the Sialkot lynching, rising costs of everyday essentials and more turbulence in the already-shaky PTI government, the year 2021 has been far from easy for Pakistan.

Here are some of the stories that dominated the airwaves across Pakistan in 2021.

Noor — a light snuffed out too early

Noor Mukadam — Photo courtesy
Noor Mukadam — Photo courtesy

One of the biggest stories of the year was the brutal killing of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam. In recent years, Pakistani society has seemingly jolted into action after similar incidents of violence against women, calling for stricter punishment for perpetrators and harsher sentencing.

However, Noor's murder, just like the 2020 gang-rape of a woman on the Lahore motorway, once again exposed the monsters that roam among us.

Noor was found murdered at a residence in Islamabad's upscale Sector F-7/4 on July 20. Zahir Jaffer, the primary accused in the case, was arrested from the crime scene. Zahir, his parents, household staff and others have also been indicted in the case.

Read: Noor of our nation

Noor's untimely death shocked the nation for several reasons. One, the alleged perpetrator is the son of a leading businessman and was supposedly associated with Therapy Works, a counselling and psychotherapy service. Two, the incident took place in the federal capital. Three, Noor is the daughter of a former diplomat.

The killing triggered protests and calls for justice across the country. During the course of the trial, which formally began on Oct 20, footage detailing Noor's final moments before her death have emerged leading to the media regulatory authority to slap a ban on TV channels from airing the footage.

The murder trial is currently under way at an Islamabad court. Zahir, who has confessed to killing Noor, has filed an insanity plea with the court but has not been sentenced.

Another lynching in Sialkot

Pakistani industrialists pay tribute beside a photograph of late Sri Lankan factory manager Priyantha Kumara, in Sialkot on December 4. — AFP/File
Pakistani industrialists pay tribute beside a photograph of late Sri Lankan factory manager Priyantha Kumara, in Sialkot on December 4. — AFP/File

On December 3, a mob in Sialkot tortured Priyantha Kumara, the Sri Lankan general manger of a garment factory, to death over blasphemy allegations before setting his body on fire.

The grisly murder — which occurred on a Friday morning — brought shame to the nation. The mob had brutally tortured Kumara to death and later burnt his body. Videos also surfaced of grinning rioters taking selfies as the charred remains of the victim lay in the background.

Read: No one is responsible for lynching the Sri Lankan national in Sialkot. Absolutely no one

The government moved fast to condemn the incident while religious scholars demanded strict action against the perpetrators. PM Imran also assured the Sri Lankan president that the culprits would be "prosecuted with full severity of the law".

Initially, a case was registered against 900 workers of Rajco Industries under sections 302, 297, 201, 427, 431, 157, 149 of the Pakistan Penal Code and Sections 7 and 11WW of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). So far, police have arrested 85 suspects and obtained their physical remand.

While hundreds of citizens brought shame to the country, one man showed true courage when faced with pure and unbridled rage. Shortly after the incident occurred, videos emerged of Malik Adnan, Kumara's colleague, trying to dissuade the angry protesters from their thirst for blood.

The prime minister lauded Adnan's "moral courage and bravery" and announced that he would be awarded the Tamgha-i-Shujaat. He was also awarded a certificate of appreciation by the premier.

In the aftermath of the incident, PM Imran took an unequivocal stance and vowed to go after those who resort to violence in the name of Islam or the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him).

Subsequently, the political and military leadership decided that the government would pursue a "comprehensive strategy" to stamp out religious extremism and vigilantism. However, whether or not this is a watershed moment for Pakistan remains to be seen.

As for the remains of the 49-year-old factory manager, they were repatriated to Colombo. He was buried in his native village with state honours.

The 'faulty' tower

Work to demolish 15-storey Nasla Tower under way.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star/File
Work to demolish 15-storey Nasla Tower under way.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star/File

Midway into the year, the residents of Nasla Tower in Karachi received a huge shock. On June 16, the Supreme Court ordered the demolition of the 15-storey building for partly encroaching upon land meant for a service road. The builder filed a review petition, which was dismissed by the apex court in October. However, it gave the authorities one month to start the demolition.

More than 40 families residing in Nasla Tower packed up their belongings and left in October, saying they had not been contacted for any refund or compensation. Pre-demolition work on the ill-fated building began in November after the chief justice chastised the Karachi commissioner and directed him to use all heavy equipment and machinery available at his disposal and "immediately demolish" Nasla Tower.

In the most recent hearing this month, the Supreme Court gave the commissioner a one-week deadline to complete the demolition work. Besides taking departmental action, the apex court also ordered police and Anti-Corruption Establishment (ACE) to separately register cases against owners of the building, officials concerned of the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), Sindhi Muslim Cooperative Housing Society and other government departments for giving approval of such a construction in violation of the law. Subsequently, a case was registered by police on Monday.

Read more:

The spymaster saga

This combo photo shows new ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum (L) and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. — Photo courtesy ISPR/File
This combo photo shows new ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum (L) and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. — Photo courtesy ISPR/File

2021 was also the year where the relationship between the country's military leadership and the ruling PTI felt some "strain". What could could have put pressure on this exalted relationship? To put it succinctly: the spymaster disaster.

One fine day in October, the military's media affairs wing announced that Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum had been appo­inted as the new chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence, replacing Lt Gen Faiz Hameed.

One day passed. Then another. Then a week, followed by several more days. Soon all everyone could talk about was the delay from the Prime Minister's Office in issuing a notification for the appointment of the incoming ISI chief.

The government maintained silence on the issue until Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told a press conference that the authority to appoint the ISI chief lay with the prime minister and that the "legal procedure" would be followed for the purpose.

What legal procedure he was referring to remained a mystery, as there is no information on this in the public domain, but it did trigger a media frenzy to the point that government officials had to constantly start off their pressers by stating that civil-military relations were better than they had ever been.

Read: What is the process of appointing Pakistan's spymaster?

It also emerged that PM Imran wanted Lt Gen Hameed to continue for some time due to the critical situation in neighbouring Afghanistan and he conveyed this to Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa during a detailed meeting between the two.

Curiously, the prime minister also decided he would like to interview the potential candidates, all the while assuring party leaders that the appointment issue had been amicably settled with COAS Bajwa.

Meanwhile, the information minister, who was working overtime to put out the figurative flames, said that it was convention for the prime minister to meet candidates before appointments were made to key positions.

All the while the opposition, always a fan of the PTI government and its ministers (we're being sarcastic), castigated the premier for mishandling the issue.

The three week-long impasse was finally resolved on October 26, after the premier finally notified the appointed of Lt Gen Anjum.

The people of Gwadar rise up

Scores of women take part in a rally in Gwadar for basic rights. — Photo provided by Ghalib Nihad
Scores of women take part in a rally in Gwadar for basic rights. — Photo provided by Ghalib Nihad

What comes to mind when one thinks of Gwadar? Perhaps sandy beaches, crystal blue water, the cricket stadium every influencer seems to be gushing over and of course, CPEC. But this year, the port city located in Balochistan made headlines for mass protests organised by its residents.

Their demand? Basic rights.

To borrow words from an editorial in Dawn, "Gwadar port has long been portrayed as the jewel in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor crown, but in the process the city has become the very embodiment of a security state."

The protests, which began in November, lasted a little over a month and were joined by residents from Gwadar, Turbat, Pishkan, Zamran, Buleda, Ormara and Pasni. And it was not just the men voicing their demands.

Women and children also poured into the streets to ensure their voices were heard as Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, the secretary general of Jamaat-i-Islami's Balochistan chapter, lead the Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek.

Read: The rise of Maulana Hidayatur Rehman

Among the demands put forth by the protesters was putting an end to illegal fishing, freedom for local fishermen, provision of clean drinking water, giving priority to locals on jobs for development projects and establishing a university in Gwadar.

The massive sit-ins also prompted a response from the premier, who took notice of the "legitimate demands of hardworking fishermen of Gwadar", saying the authorities would take "strong action against illegal fishing by trawlers".

Later, Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar, Minister for Defence Production Zubaida Jalal and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority czar Khalid Mansoor visited Gwadar on PM Imran's directives where officials reviewed progress on development projects in Gwadar.

The protest ended on December 16, after the government accepted all the demands of the protesters. Balochistan Chief Minister Mir Abdul Qudoos Bizenjo and the Maulana signed an agreement in front of the protesters.

Audio clips, affidavits and former judges, oh my!

Former chief justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar. — Reuters
Former chief justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar. — Reuters

If you ask the PML-N, there was perhaps no bigger bombshell in 2021 than that concerning former chief justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar.

In November, The News journalist Ansar Abbasi published an investigative report which quoted former top judge of Gilgit-Baltistan, Rana Shamim, as saying in an alleged affidavit that Nisar colluded to deny bails to former premier Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz before the 2018 general elections.

Mic drop.

To refresh your memory, an accountability court on July 6, 2018 — 19 days before the general elections — had convicted Nawaz, Maryam and her husband retired Captain Mohammad Safdar in the Avenfield Apartment reference and handed them jail terms of 10, seven and one years, respectively, for owning assets beyond known sources of income.

Responding to the claims, the former CJP vehemently denied the allegations levelled against him. At the same time, the Islamabad High Court took suo motu notice and issued summons for Abbasi, the editor-in-chief and editor of The News and the former GB judge.

But then, another twist.

Days later, a leaked audio clip, purportedly of a conversation between Nisar and an unidentified man regarding Nawaz and Maryam's trial, surfaced.

The clip allegedly recorded the former CJP as saying the Nawaz had to be "punished", prompting Nisar to issue a second denial in as many weeks, terming the clip "fabricated".

The PML-N, however, demanded that suo motu notice be taken of the matter. "If Mian Nawaz Sharif can go to jail, why can't Mian Saqib Nisar?" questioned Shahid Khaqan Abbasi at one press conference.

Maryam also called on the former CJP to have "courage" and share the names of the people who had allegedly pressured him to convict her and Nawaz. She also said that Nisar will have to answerable for his deeds,

Meanwhile, the government lambasted the party for targeting the judiciary. The prime minister, never one to mince his words, termed the audio clip an attack on the judiciary by the PML-N to get favourable decisions by pressurising superior court judges.

Read: Will Saqib Nisar's alleged leaked audio have any legal repercussions?

However, the authenticity of the audio clip has not yet been established. Fact Focus, which broke the story, said that it was analysed by a leading firm in the United States which specialises in multimedia forensics and had not been edited in any way.

Meanwhile, ARY News sent the clip to another US forensic audit company and claimed that the company said the file showed two “reverberences” in the voice as the person spoke from two different locations.

At the same time, Shamim, after being summoned by the Islamabad High Court, submitted the contentious affidavit more than a month after it was published. At an earlier hearing, he had also claimed that he had neither circulated nor shared the affidavit with anyone.

But if you thought that this matter would have somehow died down, then I must insist you to hold your horses.

On Dec 27, English daily The Express Tribune published a report claiming that Shamim's affidavit was notarised at Nawaz's London office. The report, which cited unspecified evidence, quoted Charles D Guthrie — the London-based solicitor who had notarised Shamim's affidavit.

As was expected, PTI ministers pounced on the story and assailed the Sharifs over the development. However, this time around, there was no response from the PML-N. Not yet at least.

It is also worth mentioning that amid all this heavy political drama, Shamim's son, Supreme Court advocate Ahmed Hassan Rana, was busy giving exceedingly questionable interviews to local media which gained traction for different reasons entirely.

Dasu bus attack

Soldiers move from an army helicopter an injured Chinese national after a bus fell into a ravine following a blast killing 13 people, at a military hospital in Gilgit, on July 14. — AFP
Soldiers move from an army helicopter an injured Chinese national after a bus fell into a ravine following a blast killing 13 people, at a military hospital in Gilgit, on July 14. — AFP

In July, 13 people, including nine Chinese nationals, were killed when a bus carrying them to an under-construction tunnel site of the 4,300-megawatt Dasu hydropower project fell into a ravine in the Upper Kohistan area after an explosion.

Initially, the Foreign Office said a "leakage of gas" caused by a “mechanical failure” resulted in a blast in the bus after which it plunged into the ravine.

But within a day, the government changed its stance, stating that traces of explosive had been discovered. "Terrorism can't be ruled out," Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said on Twitter.

Subsequently, Pakistan launched an investigation into the incident which also included a 15-member team of Chinese investigators.

The incident also had implications for the long-standing relations between the two countries. PM Imran contacted his Chinese counterpart and assured him that the security of Chinese nationals, workers, projects and institutions in Pakistan was the government's top-most priority.

The army chief also stepped in to assure the Chinese ambassador of "full security" to Chinese citizens working in Pakistan.

Still, Beijing postponed a meeting of the Joint Coordination Committee of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Work was also halted on the Dasu project, which had only just resumed in February,

In August, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi announced that a suicide bomber was responsible, adding that India’s Research and Analysis Wing and Afghanistan’s National Dir­ectorate of Security were behind the attack.

Negotiating with terrorists

For the first time since 2014, the government attempted to initiate talks with the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which continued to carry out attacks in the country, including several on security personnel, as the Afghan Taliban continued to consolidate their rule in neighbouring Afghanistan.

In September, President Arif Alvi — during a TV interview — indicated that the government could consider granting amnesty to members of the banned group, provided they would lay down their weapons and agree to adhere to the Constitution.

Following the president's remarks, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi expressed similar sentiments in an interview with a British publication.

Then, the prime minister entered the conversation and confirmed that the government was indeed in talks with the TTP so that its members may surrender and reconcile in return for amnesty "to be able to live like ordinary citizens".

In a truly bizarre statement, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid also said that amnesty offer was only for the "good Taliban". On the other hand, the families of those martyred in the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar opposed the move, stating that those who had taken the lives of innocent people did not deserve amnesty.

Read: On again, off again: A timeline of govt-TTP talks

However, the official announcement was made by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry on November 8. The minister said that a complete ceasefire had been reached between the government and the banned group, adding that the month-long truce would be extended on the talks between the two parties.

It also emerged that the Afghan Taliban were mediating between Pakistan and the TTP.

However, the curtain fell on the whole negotiation process soon after. On Dec 9, the TTP announced it would not extend the month-long ceasefire with the government, accusing it of failing to honour the decisions reached earlier.

According to the statement, the government not only failed to implement the decisions reached between the two sides but to the contrary, the security forces conducted raids in Dera Ismail Khan, Lakki Marwat, Swat, Bajaur, Swabi and North Waziristan and killed and detained militants.

And with that closed yet another chapter on talks with the TTP. Or so it appears for now.

TLP and the art of a deal

Police fire teargas shells on TLP supporters during a march towards capital Islamabad from Lahore on October 22. — AFP
Police fire teargas shells on TLP supporters during a march towards capital Islamabad from Lahore on October 22. — AFP

Safe to say that the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) dominated headlines this year. From several rounds of violent protests in Punjab, to being banned and unbanned, the "party" had an eventful 2021 to say the least.

In January, the TLP had threatened to relaunch its protests from last year if the government did not fulfill its promise of expelling the French ambassador by Feb 17 over the issue of Namoos-i-Risalat.

This time, the TLP was being lead by Saad Rizvi, the son of the party's founder Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who died in 2020.

The protest was called off shortly after after a new agreement was signed between party leaders and the government, in which it was decided that the latter would present the terms of an agreement signed between them in 2020 in parliament before April 20.

However, before this could happen, Lahore police arrested the new TLP chief on April 12 as a "pre-emptive measure", triggering three days of violent protests in multiple cities. The party called on workers to "come out on the roads" in their areas in protest against the government action.

Subsequently, the federal cabinet decided to deploy paramilitary forces' personnel in all major cities of the country to maintain law and order, and on April 15, formally banned the party under the anti-terrorism law.

But Lahore soon turned into a battleground as TLP workers took 11 police officials hostage. They were later released when the government and the TLP began talks.

The protest was called off on April 20, following a second round of talks between the government and the TLP, with Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid announcing that the government would present a resolution on the expulsion of the French ambassador in the National Assembly.

At the time, PM Imran had stated that that the government had no intention of lifting the ban on the TLP. However, this was before the second wave of protests.

In October, the TLP staged a massive sit-in near its headquarters at the Masjid Rehmatul-lil-Aalemeen in Lahore. They also announced a "long march" towards Islamabad. At least five policemen were martyred as clashes broke out between TLP workers and officials.

At the same time, the government announced it would treat the TLP as a militant organisation, with the information minister saying that "it will be crushed as other such groups have been eliminated".

Undeterred, the TLP workers continued on with their long march to Islamabad, passing through several cities before being restricted to Wazirabad. As protesters camped out in the city, the government enlisted the help of a new team to negotiate with the party.

This time around, the negotiations bore fruit and on November 1, members of the government negotiating team announced that an "agreement" had been reached with the group. Curiously, they refused to comment on the details of the said agreement, stating that they would be shared at "an appropriate time".

Read: Age of extremes

Following that, scores of arrested TLP workers were released from jail and the ban on the party was also removed in the larger "national interest". On Nov 18, the TLP chief was also released from Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail. His name was also removed from the Fourth Schedule.

Around this time, it also emerged that under the "secret deal" with the government, the TLP had been allowed to contest elections. Subsequently, Rizvi addressed an event in Lahore and told participants to vote for his party in the next general elections.

In a December interview with Newsweek Pakistan, he foresaw his party as a "kingmaker" in the 2023 general elections, predicting that its vote bank would likely get a massive boost in Punjab and Sindh.

Uniformity or conformity?

In case you haven't noticed, the PTI government is really into introducing and kind-of-implementing reforms. One such example is the introduction of the single national curriculum (SNC), which the prime minister touted as an end to disparity in society by providing all students with an equal chance.

The initiative was officially launched on August 16, with Punjab being the first to introduce it in madressahs and from grades one to five in public and private schools. The government has planned to introduce the SNC from classes six to 12 in 2023.

PM Imran, a vocal critic of the English-medium educational system, said it was his 25-year long vision that there should be a uniform curriculum in the country. However, critics and educationists argued that the SNC leaves a lot to be desired while the textbooks are rudimentary at best.

Read: Dissecting the single national curriculum

In response to the allegations, the Ministry of Education argued that the SNC has been introduced to eliminate the country's class-based education system. It also used the opportunity to dispel false information about the initiative.

But despite the federal government's best efforts, the PPP government in Sindh was not convinced. In September, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah said under the 18th Amendment the formation of curriculum was a provincial subject and accused the government of imposing it "unilaterally".

In November, the education ministry notified a 10-member committee to properly implement the SNC. The committee was constituted after a meeting was held between the federal and provincial education ministers.

Senate elections

Prime Minister Imran Khan, Opposition Leader in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and former president Asif Ali Zardari case their vote during the Senate elections on March 3. — DawnNewsTV
Prime Minister Imran Khan, Opposition Leader in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and former president Asif Ali Zardari case their vote during the Senate elections on March 3. — DawnNewsTV

The year 2021 was also the year of elections for the upper house of Parliament. The PTI went in all-guns-blazing, with PM Imran directly supervising the PTI's campaign.

Last year, the president had approached the apex court to seek its opinion on whether or not the condition of secret ballot under Article 226 of the Constitution applied to the Senate elections.

The president also promulgated a premature ordinance in February after attempts by the government to pass the 26th Constitution Amendment Bill in the National Assembly failed to make headway.

However, this was in vain as the apex court announced in its verdict in March and said the polls would be held through secret ballot. The reason for the push behind using open ballots was to eliminate the practice of horse-trading.

Hours before the polls were set to begin, a video surfaced showing the son of former premier Yousuf Raza Gilani, explaining to lawmakers how to cancel their votes. Gilani was fielded as a joint candidate of the opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement from Islamabad and was the lone competitor for the now former finance minister Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh.

Despite the PTI's objections, the Senate election was held on March 3. In a major upset for the government, Gilani managed to defeat Sheikh, forcing the prime minister to seek a vote of confidence from the National Assembly.

Even though the PTI managed to bag 18 of the 48 Senate seats that were up for grabs, it also had its eyes on the Senate chairman seat. Later in March, PTI's Sadiq Sanjrani won another term as the Senate chairman despite the latter having a majority in the upper house, while PTI-backed Senator Mirza Moha­m­mad Afridi was elected deputy chairman.

Compiled by Sana Chaudhry

Header illustration by Mushba Said