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Tuesday February 27, 2024

Connecting the dates

May 21, 2023

Where were you on May 9, 2023? This is one journalistic device to bring up a particular event for comment and interpretation, an event that may have touched the lives of people across the country. And May 9 of this year – less than two weeks ago – has certainly become a date that will remain on our national calendar as an anniversary of immense political significance.

So, it would be an appropriate question to initiate a discourse on how one had reacted to a particular situation that had arisen on a particular date. In this case, the arrest of Imran Khan by the Rangers had triggered a response from the supporters of his party and protests in major cities had greatly disrupted the lives of a large number of citizens.

At an emotional level, the impact was more widespread because of the strong feelings that the former prime minister has activated in a deeply polarized society – to an extent that talking politics with an adversary in a civilized manner is almost not possible. For this reason also, the date and the day became important.

But how important would this date become in our history? Is it another day of infamy that will remind us every year of a tragedy of large proportions and underline the loss of a national sense of direction? Will it figure significantly in the catalogue of our deviations from the path of sanity and reason?

Obviously, I am distracted to think about many other dates that stand out as potential turning points, dates that marked the culmination of a series of misadventures and missteps. I have a long list of such dates and I feel that they are connected in some random manner to define the present reality of Pakistan. I think of them as milestones on our journey to May 9, 2023.

Where does one begin? There was the sixteenth of December not just in 1971 but also in 2014, when 132 children were massacred by the Taliban gunmen in Peshawar’s Army Public School. There was the fourth of April in 1979 and the twenty-seventh of December in 2007.

In my view, the thirteenth of April in 2017 deserves a high place in this because of how Mashal Khan was lynched not by a mob in a bazaar but by his fellow graduate and post-graduate students on a campus in Mardan. In the same category, Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his own guard on the fourth of January in 2011.

The performance of the higher judiciary should have some linkage with what happened on May 9. For that matter, there is this date that is generally not remembered, that of the judgment of Justice Munir in the case of Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan that changed the course of our destiny. It was March 18 in 1955. Coincidentally, it was the same date – March 18 – in 1978 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was sentenced to death by the Lahore High Court.

As I said, there are so many other dates that I can recount and one segment of this register of shame relates to military interventions at the cost of the democratic principle of civilian supremacy. Pakistan’s first martial law was imposed on October 7, 1958, with the abrogation of the constitution by President Iskander Mirza, who was himself deposed by Gen Ayub Khan on October 27, 1958. There are other generals and other dates.

Coming back to the present, there is still no clarity as to how dark and deadly the shadow of May 9, 2023 will be and what its impact will be on the future of politics and the nature of governance in Pakistan. What is certain is that this date is now stamped in blood in the history of Pakistan.

Actually, May 9, 2023, did not reveal its secrets all at once. It took some time for the volcano to erupt. Yes, there were suggestions immediately that the PTI rioters had crossed a red line and the ISPR had issued a scathing statement the next day, stressing that “May 9 will be remembered as a dark chapter”. It also noted that a large number of “PTI supporters” had barged into the residence of Lahore corps commander and had ransacked it, setting fire to its furniture.

However, the gravity of the situation and the ruthless crackdown on PTI leaders and supporters emerged gradually. It now seems ironic that when Imran Khan was summoned to the Supreme Court on May 11, he did not appear to be under any threat. Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial greeted him with words that may survive as a footnote in history: “Good to see you”.

So much so that when Imran Khan was given an unprecedented blank relief by the Islamabad High Court on May 12, the lead in an English daily the next day said: ‘Victorious’ Imran returns home after blanket relief”. But that impression, created by the benevolence of the higher judiciary, has totally dissolved and the prospects for the leader and his party look bleak indeed. The reverberations of May 9 are becoming seismic in nature.

In the heat of this moment, there is little opportunity for a patient and thoughtful analysis of how Imran Khan has led himself into a direct confrontation with the establishment. A number of issues related to civil liberties and due process have also surfaced after the resolve, validated by the National Security Committee, to try rioters under particular laws. There is an aggressive campaign to whip up popular emotions against the arsonists. The tempo is dangerously rising. Imran Khan has protested “the brutality of our security forces”.

One big question is whether and when Imran Khan will be arrested. There is suspense about an operation at his Zaman Park residence and negotiations have been held to capture ‘terrorists’ who the Punjab government insists are hiding inside. Something dire and drastic is lurking in the shadows. Is another date to remember around the corner?

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail. com