Imran Khan’s narrative of treason against his opponents will not fly. He will be asked to prove the allegations in a court of law
mran Khan is not exactly known for being subtle. He has preferred – in opposition as well as in government – bombast over finesse. But he has outdone himself by unleashing a virulent strain of political narrative that shifts up the gear from accusations of corruption against his opponents to allegations of high treason.
The charges of treason, in themselves, are not new – indeed it is easy to be branded a traitor in Pakistan. Support American drone attacks against terrorists; advocate diplomatic ties with Israel; argue for close cooperation with India; question the role of some Gulf states in funding religious zeal in Pakistan; commiserate with the sentiments of nationalists in Balochistan and Sindh; express support for proper legal process for the likes of Shakil Afridi who helped locate Osama bin Laden; support calls for apologising to Bangladesh for the events of 1971; question the veracity of claims that Pakistan won all wars against India; wonder aloud if secularism would not be a better bet in promoting equality of citizenry than embracing a single religion; or even support a former army chief’s trial for treason – and you will automatically qualify for the dubious distinction of being traitorous towards Pakistan.
What Imran Khan did a few days ago was packaged as a “surprise” – a crass attempt at trivialising wanton legal subversion – but it was not pleasant. Accusing the entire political opposition of actively colluding with the US in alleged destabilisation of his government, he had his presiding officer in the National Assembly disallow a vote of no-confidence against him. He then proceeded to advise dissolution of the legislature, and the president promptly complied.
This was certainly the first time a legislature in Pakistan was “saved” from the alleged treason of its own majority. But the hurtful use of the narrative of “treason” is not without precedent. Soon after Pakistan’s first ever election in 1970, which returned Sheikh Mujeeb ur Rehman’s party with a majority, the dispensation of military dictator Yahya Khan refused to convene the first session of the assembly. To legitimise the denial of assembly of legislators and allow a majority of the legislators to elect the prime minister – who would surely have been Rehman – the narrative of ‘treason’ was employed with ferocity against the winners.
How could a majority of legislators, just elected by the people, be all traitors? This absurd narrative triggered civil unrest and ultimately an intervention by India that ironically allowed self-fulfillment of the prophecy of treason. The outcome this narrative of treason thus was that the country broke up into two with a majority of Pakistanis walking away sick of being perceived as traitors.
Fast forward fifty years later to a few days ago and the vicious use of the narrative of treason allowed the treasury benches to invoke Article 5 of the constitution, dealing with loyalty of the citizens to the state, to functionally declare the entire opposition traitors. This even though the opposition was in the majority now, with not just allies but also ruling party members defecting from government ranks. Effectively, charges of conspiratorial treason – from the law minister – had freed the prime minister of the need to face the mandatory vote of no-confidence by declaring a majority of legislators in the house traitors.
Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto – and their aides in the National Assembly – are the not the first ones to be accused of conspiring against the state. Many of Pakistan’s distinguished and popular citizens, for example politicians Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Bacha Khan, GM Syed, Wali Khan, Mahmood Achakzai, Altaf Hussain, Fatima Jinnah, Hussain Suhrwardi, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Khair Bakhsh Marri, Akbar Bugti, Ataullah Mengal, intellectuals and writers like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Manto, Ustad Daman and Habib Jalib; activists like Asma Jahangir; and journalists like Hamid Mir, Maleeha Lodhi and Najam Sethi have at various times found themselves being branded traitors and accused of conspiracy, sedition, etc.
Then there are less known or unknown rights activists such as Baba Jan, Sultan Raees and Fida Hussain of Gilgit Baltistan, Mama Qadeer and Farzana Baloch of Balochistan and others who face charges of sedition and treason. Some have even been convicted and sentenced.
Have all these Pakistanis, including Sharif and Bilawal, been traitors? Beyond accusations, allegations and suspicion, the only measure by which they can be certified by the state as traitors is proceedings in a court of law. Ironically, the only person in Pakistan to have headed the country and been convicted of treason in a court of law was Gen Musharraf – an army chief.
So, Imran Khan’s narrative of treason against his opponents will not fly. He will be challenged to prove the charge in a court of law. The Pakistani people have never accepted official charges of treason against those elected by them. Imran Khan should worry about becoming an exception himself.
The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org