A test of leadership

Published March 19, 2023
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THERE can be no doubt that Pakistan is polarised and divided today as at no other point in the past. This was once again highlighted this past week when the Islamabad police attempted to serve arrest warrants, issued by a court in the capital, on PTI leader Imran Khan in Lahore.

The dogged resistance the police met from the former prime minister’s supporters at and around his Zaman Park residence meant that several unarmed policemen were injured and could only fire dozens of tear-gas shells from afar. Some landed in the lane outside and others in the garden of the PTI leader’s home.

The warrants remained unserved and Imran Khan’s supporters, some of whom were armed with guns, slingshots and Molotov cocktails, kept at bay Islamabad police personnel backed by a contingent of the Punjab police. Later, some Rangers were videoed firing a shotgun in the direction of PTI barricades.

The high courts in Lahore first and then Islamabad intervened to cancel the lower court’s warrants of arrest that were issued after Mr Khan missed several hearings. I don’t have legal training, so have lost track of how, why and what the Islamabad High Court first left to the lower court, and then took up itself and rescinded the latter’s order. I think the Lahore High Court may have done something similar.

It was clear that if the arrest warrants were executed, an armed confrontation would ensue.

While the PTI supporters hailed the development as a big win and attributed it to their resistance, the party’s opponents decried the authorities’ inability to execute the warrants and described it as a mockery of the law and slammed what they called a weak-kneed government.

These were the two largely dominant opinions being expressed on social as well as mainstream media. What was missing from both was a rational assessment of why unarmed policemen were sent in with the warrants and what consequences an armed stand-off could have meant.

Seeing the images of Imran Khan’s diehard supporters — some of whom, according to a tweeted boast by a social media influencer close to the PTI who was at Zaman Park, were trained and armed — confronting the police brought back scary images from 30 years ago.

Remember Waco, Texas? In February 1993, officers of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau went to the compound (ranch) of the Branch Davidian religious cult to execute search and arrest warrants after receiving intelligence that the inhabitants of the compound led by their leader David Koresh had stockpiled arms.

Four officers and five cult members were shot and killed when the compound residents exchanged fire with them. The incident led to the law-enforcement agents led by FBI laying a 50-day siege to the compound. Given the tense stand-off lasting so long, it isn’t clear who started it but a fire engulfed the whole complex in April 1993.

Some 75 cult members including 25 children and women, two of whom were pregnant and David Koresh perished in the inferno. The FBI maintained that listening devices told them that the Branch Davidian members themselves set ablaze the buildings.

The critics blamed the incendiary tear-gas shells lobbed by the federal agents for the fire. The incident is attributed as one of the reasons for the Oklahoma bombing and the rise of the right-wing militias in the US.

Our own experience whether in Hyderabad’s Pucca Qilla in 1990 or the Model Town incident in Lahore in 2014 is not too dissimilar. In both cases, the police claimed they were fired at first and returned fire. But when civilians are killed, the police are blamed by one and all. Their point of view receives scant attention.

So, reverting to the events at Zaman Park this week, it was clear that if the police had tried to execute the arrest warrants, an armed confrontation would have ensued. Bloodshed is in nobody’s interest. While there can be no justification for injuries to dozens of policemen, their leadership was prudent in not sending them in armed.

The courts have come in for some criticism in what are being seen by some as ‘pro-Imran Khan’ decisions but allow me to express a contrary opinion. Whether or not the decisions met the canons of justice and law is for legal experts to say. I just feel the courts defused a fast-developing crisis.

If law-enforcement officers’ action against a fringe cult in the US could spawn violence many years later and potentially destabilise American society, what untold ramifications could have followed from police action and a bloody clash at the home of a popular, some would argue populist, political leader — a former prime minister no less, and a chief executive in waiting.

I, for one, was grateful that better sense prevailed and the bickering of the hardliners did not inform police policy. Sadly, hope of what appeared to be a slight de-escalation, attributable to possible relief in the PTI, too, that nothing untoward happened, faded soon.

For the first time in years, Imran Khan had stated he was prepared to talk to ‘anybody’ in the interest of the country and democracy. And his offer seemed to be without words like ‘chors’ and ‘dakus’ (read: PML-N, PPP). Fawad Chaudhry called on the government to come up with dates and venues.

But before the government could respond, events at the Judicial Complex in Islamabad yesterday overtook whatever little optimism there was. It would not be a cliché to say dialogue and consultation is at the heart of any democratic process. Equally, for meaningful dialogue, both sides need to show flexibility and accommodation and put on hold divisive rhetoric and narratives.

At least Saturday’s events demonstrated that the leaders themselves can be captive to their own rhetoric. Any climb-down, in their judgement, will risk upsetting, possibly alienating their charged and polarised supporters. One can’t be sure whether Pakistan can have a leadership that consists of those capable of dealing with its myriad problems or one that is composed of rabble rousers with nothing more than slogans to offer.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2023

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