Estranged and divided

October 25, 2020

The events leading to Capt Safdar’s arrest have strengthened the opposition’s anti-establishment narrative

Political temperature is on the rise in the country following two major rallies staged by opposition parties under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement.

At the October 16 Gujranwala rally and the October 18 Karachi power-show, opposition leaders made headlines by levelling serious allegations against the establishment.

Immediately after the Karachi rally, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) alleged that Pakistan Rangers had ‘abducted’ the Sindh Police inspector general and forced him to issue arrest warrants for Capt (retired) Safdar Awan from a Karachi hotel. An FIR had been lodged against him for chanting ‘objectionable’ slogans at the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the country. “The action was meant to harass Maryam Nawaz and create a rift in the PDM,” the PPP leaders said.

The PDM leaders alleged that Safdar’s arrest was an attempt by the federal government and its agencies, which “kidnapped the provincial police chief and forced him into signing the arrest order” for Safdar on charges of vandalising the mausoleum and threatening some people with death. The PPP leadership vowed to frustrate all conspiracies to divide the opposition alliance.

The episode provided a good opportunity to the PDM to highlight the alleged role of the establishment. In the end, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief, had to step in. He separately called Bilawal Bhutto and the Sindh IGP and assured them of a transparent investigation into the incident.

“PDM leaders are aware that Safdar’s arrest was part of the federal government’s plans to divide the PDM and create differences among its component parties,” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the PDM spokesperson and an Awami National Party central leader, says. “The arrest shows that the government has panicked after PDM’s two successful demonstrations of public support.”

“Still, there is no clarity over who ordered Safdar’s arrest. It could have been on the behest of the Sindh governor,” says analyst Zahid Hussain. “It appears that the army top brass has tactfully defused the situation by calling the PPP leadership and ensuring that police officers are back on duty.”

He says both sides – the federal government and the opposition – are now accusing each other of lying. He hopes that the situation will be clearer in a week or so. “For the moment, this has given the PDM the upper hand and boosted their campaign.”

Earlier, in Karachi, the PDM successfully staged a massive power show where leaders of its component parties continued to speak in an aggressive tone against the federal government and its backers. Before starting her journey to Karachi, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Maryam Nawaz had said: “We are not afraid of prisons but why is Imran Khan so worried, panicked and frustrated? It [PDM campaign] is not against him. Children should stay away from an altercation between their elders. It would only end with the fall of his government.” She was reacting to Imran Khans’ earlier speech, in which the PM had said that “he would get tougher with opposition parties” and announced all-out efforts to bring Nawaz Sharif back to Pakistan.

At the jam-packed Bagh-i-Jinnah rally, a barren piece of land adjacent to the Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum, the PDM leaders reiterated that their struggle would continue till the fall of Imran Khan’s government.

For the PML-N, Maryam Nawaz’s visit to Karachi and her participation in the PDM rally was a launch pad for politics at the national level. Instead of showing its strength in the rally, the PML-N activists focused on according Maryam a warm welcome at the airport and at Shahrah-i-Faisal.

“There is still no clarity over who ordered Safdar’s arrest. It might have been made at the behest of Sindh governor. It appears that the army top brass has tactfully defused the situation by contacting the PPP leadership and ensuring that police officers are back on duty,” says analyst Zahid Hussain.

However, the political battle between the federal government and opposition parties turned ugly early on October 19 when police raided Maryam Nawaz’s hotel room and arrested her husband, for allegedly violating the sanctity of the Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum. The arrest put the PPP-led Sindh administration into an awkward position.

Safdar was released 10 hours later. On October 20, more than 100 police officers, including the Sindh police top decided to go on long leaves in protest over the humiliation of the provincial police chief Mushtaq Mehar. PML-N leader Muhammad Zubair claimed that the Sindh IGP was ‘kidnapped’ by a paramilitary force and compelled to order Safdar’s arrest. This created a crisis in the province.

Demoralised police officers waited for Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah’s press conference before en masse requests for leave. His presser, where he announced his plan to form a ministerial committee to probe the episode, could not allay the apprehensions of the irate policemen.

“Police offices of every rank, not only in Sindh province but across the country, are upset over how the Sindh police chief was treated. They are ready to tender resignations en masse. It is for their dignity,” a senior police officer, who had also requested to go on leave, said while talking to The News on Sunday. “We were expecting that Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, the province’s chief executive, will take some bold steps. However, he only announced the formation of a committee comprising some ministers. That is a mere formality.”

The situation forced PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto to address a press conference where he asked Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence Director General Faiz Hameed to investigate the involvement of “their institution [and] how it is operating in this province.” He also said he was “embarrassed” by the raiding of Maryam’s hotel room.

“The army chief has directed the Karachi corps commander to “immediately inquire into the circumstances to determine the facts and report back as soon as possible,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) later stated. The episode turned into a political victory for the PDM in their struggle with the establishment. Later, tweets by Maryam Nawaz and her father Nawaz Sharif helped remove speculations about differences between the PML-N and the PPP.

“It is heartening to see civilians breaking the shackles of fear, standing up for supremacy of the constitution and reclaiming their long-lost rights. The conspiracy & conspirators stand badly exposed,” tweeted Maryam, while thanking Bilawal for “his support and a clear stance.”

Nawaz Sharif also took the opportunity to call the events in Karachi an “endorsement” of his narrative. “Karachi events endorse our narrative. State above the State. You ridiculed the mandate of the provincial govt; Trampled on the sanctity of family privacy; Abducted senior police officers to extort orders; Defamed our Armed Forces; Addl IGP’s letter proves that you subverted the Constitution,” he tweeted.

This development has strengthened the opposition parties as their anti-government campaign is gaining momentum.

“At the moment, the PTI appears to be at its weakest. If the PDM movement intensifies, it may cause further political damage to the government,” analyst Zahid Hussain observes.

The writers can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]

Estranged and divided: Events leading to Capt Safdar’s arrest have strengthened opposition’s anti-establishment narrative