On May 9 this year, violence erupted in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when Imran Khan, the chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), was arrested from the premises of the Islamabad High Court. He was angrily hauled away by the security forces for his role in a major corruption scandal.
The aggression displayed by dozens of members belonging to a paramilitary force when arresting him was an indication of their frustration. The government and the military establishment (ME) had previously been unable to nab Imran or get him indicted by the courts for the numerous cases registered against him. This is mainly due to the manner in which Imran has cleverly manoeuvred the sympathy for him among various high court and Supreme Court judges.
However, there is every likelihood that he might not be able to continue doing this for long, because the unprecedented overt support for him demonstrated by some senior judges has made them entirely controversial. They are now not only facing severe criticism from the non-PTI lot, but may face overt and covert action by the government and the ME.
The most startling aspect of the May 9-10 riots were scenes of mobs entering a corps commander’s residence in Lahore to plunder, loot and then set it on fire. There were attacks against other military installations as well, and a semi-invasion of the military’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Islamabad. The attack on the corps commander’s house and the kicking down of a gate of the GHQ stunned many.
So far, early investigations by the government and the military have demonstrated that the attacks on the GHQ and the commander’s residence were not spontaneous. They were not spur-of-the-moment decisions by an anarchic mob. They were ‘planned’ beforehand. Leaked calls by PTI’s top leadership suggest that it was ‘guiding’ the mobs and urging them to reach designated areas marked out before the explosion of violence.
The wave of PTI riots which erupted after Imran Khan’s arrest were not precursors to a ‘revolution’. Instead, they served to reinforce a collective identity through iconoclastic acts
On the surface, attacking symbols of the powerful ME was PTI’s way of venting out its anger against the military for ‘allowing’ Imran’s removal as prime minister in April 2022 through a no confidence vote in the parliament. From 2011 onwards, the ME, with the aid of the judiciary, had been facilitating Imran’s rise to power, until finally realising that his populist brand of politics was unfit for a complex country such as Pakistan.
PTI and its supporters saw this as a betrayal. The anger was compounded when the new military chief, Gen Asim Munir, allegedly refused to take any calls from Imran or from the former touts of the ME (who now feel abandoned), leaving Imran to intensify his rhetoric against certain military officers, including Gen Asim.
The quagmire that Imran found himself in did not regulate his usual populist rhetoric. On the contrary, he raised its temperature to pose as an iconoclast, striving to vanquish the might of the ME. This became his newest calling. It aided him in providing his supporters with a new noble purpose, after many of his previous ‘noble’ purposes — such as ending corruption, throwing out the civilian political elites, creating an ‘Islamic welfare state’, fighting Islamophobia and exposing ‘US conspiracies’ against Pakistan — fell apart. It was Imran’s new calling and purpose that was on display during the riots.
When supporters of former US President Donald Trump attacked the Capitol Building in Washington DC in January 2022, Democratic Party leader Chuck Schumer explained the attack as a “desecration of the temple of democracy.” The historian Justine Firnhaber-Baker explains such acts as “symbolically and performatively transgressive.” They breach not only written laws and rules but also unspoken social norms and boundaries. According to the British historian Ja Elsner, the activity of iconoclasts is a “discursive act of self-affirmation” through “the negation of a rejected material symbol.”
Crossing a red line by attacking symbols that ideologies such as nationalism deem sacred is not really about a revolution in the making. It is more about intensifying a collective identity through iconoclastic acts, when it is felt that other means in this regard are not effective enough.
There is then also the ridicule that most populists and their supporters often face, leading to a feeling of deep resentment against mainstream views of sanity and rationality. The attack on the Capitol Building, which is a hallowed symbol of American democracy, was meant to demonstrate that Trump supporters were willing to go to any lengths to see his return as president. But the cause attached to an iconoclastic act is really secondary. The need to seek attention is the primary factor.
According to the Belgian historian Koenraad Jonckheere, iconoclasts aim for maximum visibility for maximum effect. They consciously offend the sensibilities instilled in mainstream society about certain nationalistic icons. One can critique the founder of Pakistan. This will raise eyebrows and can generate some anger. But the red line would be crossed if his tomb in Karachi is attacked. It would give the attackers maximum visibility in the media, yet, rationality often holds many back from crossing red lines in this respect. Their iconoclasm remains within the boundaries of carefully chosen words.
The cause of those who set fire to state buildings and military installations on May 9-10 was secondary. It was only superficially about an uprising against a ubiquitous state institution to benefit democracy and constitutionalism. On a psychological level, it was primarily about answering the ridicule that PTI supporters face. They are frequently called out for being cultish and even downright stupid. They can now claim that they clashed head-on with a sacred cow for the supremacy of democracy.
However, ironically, on a political level, the attacks were about getting the attention of a military chief who avoids meeting a populist leader who has become extremely controversial and destructive. The attacks were a self-defeating tactic on both levels.
The ‘soft’ judges will not be able to remain so soft (even if they want to). And outside the PTI fan base and the usual ‘progressive’ fringe (that has a long history of riding on the coat-tails of reactionaries ‘for the sake of democracy’), the violent actions of the rioters will increasingly become problematic for a majority of Pakistanis to accept.
PTI may be feeling that it has initiated a ‘revolution’ of sorts, but the truth is that it has only managed to punch itself into a dark corner.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 21st, 2023