So it's done. After having levelled allegations against senior officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence and clearly courting trouble, Imran Khan was whisked away by the Pakistan Rangers. The surprise was the way it was done. Arriving in strength, they broke into the Islamabad High Court record room, clearly with a good deal of violence involved as images showed broken glass and bloodied faces of PTI supporters.
This is also a message to the justice system: don’t interfere, or if you do, let it be on the side of the authorities. But Khan went a step smarter. He was clearly expecting this, and a video released after his arrest, called upon the nation to rise in his support. And it did. At least a large portion of it.
The crowd has attacked the Army targets, including the Lahore Corps commander's house and apparently, General Head Quarters, and at least, one ISI building. The worst hit seems to be Peshawar, where the swelling crowd has entered the Cantonment area. Security forces did nothing. That’s not surprising. No police in the world can take on a furious mob of this size. They’ll wait it out.
The NAB and its Misuse
The PTI chairman was taken into custody by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) which was set up by General Musharraf by Ordinance in 1999 to fix most of his political opponents.
Its sphere of operation has been expanded steadily since, with the mandate to launch investigations, conduct inquiries, and issue arrests warrants against anyone in a wide range of offenses including financial mismanagement, terrorism, corruption (all in private sector, state sector, defence sector, and corporate sector), and direct cases to accountability courts.
Ironically, that agency has since been misused the most by Imran Khan himself, against nearly all major political opponents. But that’s not going to be a point of concern to these supporters. The Chairman NAB Aftab Sultan who had processed the case against Imran on the Al Qadir Trust case among others, resigned citing interference.
In March, the government appointed Lt Gen Nazir Ahmed (retd) as Chairman. He has a stellar record, Peshawar Corps Commander, heading the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul, and National Defence University apart from being Pakistan’s military attaché to the United States. An unbending man who's also a Kashmiri. But the others have been directed from elsewhere.
The Al Qadir Trust Case
The Al Qadir Trust case is contentious. It seems to involve Khan, his wife Bushra Bibi, and their close aides Zulfiqar Abbas Bukhari and Zaheer Ud Din Babar Awan, among others who formed Al-Qadir University Project Trust. It was aimed to set up ‘Al-Qadir University’ for imparting ‘quality education’ in Tehsil Sohawa District Jhelum, Punjab. The office address of the trust has been mentioned as "Bani Gala House, Islamabad”.
Check out the website of the University. A groundbreaking ceremony did take place, but nothing much else. Later, the trustees inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a private company involved in the real estate business, Bahria Town, to receive donations from the latter. For the proposal, Bahria Town allotted land measuring some 458 Kanal to the trust. Bushra Bibi signed the MoU with Bahria Town effective from March 2019. So far so good. But then Rana Sanaullah claimed that Khan fixed its shares and undervalued the land transferred through collusion.
The trust apparently received Rs180 million for operational expenses—for a non-existent university— but records showed only 8.52 million rupees. Worse, some Rs 50 billion recovered in the UK following an out-of-court settlement of a case against property tycoon Malik Riaz, was allegedly ‘adjusted’ to the accounts of the Bahria property tycoon rather than into the national exchequer.
Sanaullah also claimed that 240 Kanals of the total donated land was transferred in the name of Farah Gogi, a close aide of Khan’s wife and that the value of the land transferred through collusion was underestimated. It becomes baffling. Sanauallah is one of those people whom Khan has accused of wanting to kill him.
The minister went on national TV to say “Either Imran Khan… has now taken the country’s politics to a point where only one of the two can remain—PTI or PMLN. PMLN's entire existence is in jeopardy and we will go to any extent against him to settle a score with him…Khan is now our enemy and he will be treated like that." Sounds more like a mafia thriller than the politics of a country.
Attempts on His Life and the Men on Top
Against all this is the reality that Khan was indeed shot at, and wounded in a case that has yet to come to conclusion. For some time, Khan has indicated that one senior ISI official, officer Major General Faisal Naseer, who tried to kill him twice, was also involved in the brutal murder of senior journalist Arshad Sharif, in Kenya. The 'revelations’ have been spilling fast, and were telecast live. To a country used to the machinations of the ISI, this was 'proof’ enough. The General is known as a 'super spy’ and is said to be DG-C, a powerful post, which was also occupied by the later ISI Chief Faiz Hameed.
Khan has no direct battle with him, which seems to indicate some inside knowledge from within the Army. That again adds to the pile of evidence that seems to indicate a divide at the top. Most recently, this seemed evident as Pervez Elahi was arrested in Punjab, just as a vital meeting between political rivals was taking place. That arrest was by someone who wanted any peacemaking to fail.
At any rate what is evident is that Khan has been steadily raising the temperature, with his remarks as he left for the IHC, doubling down on these allegations, but at all times making it clear that his anger was against specific persons in the Army and not against the Army as such.
The crowd, however, seems to see any Army building or person as fair game. The protestors seem to have hit an ISI building, the Army HQ, the Lahore Corps Commander's house, and at least, one air force area with no signs of backing off anytime soon.
Staying Relevant via the Art of Disruption
To most observers, the stage seems to be set for martial law. But hang on. In the past, the Army stepped in as the ‘saviour’. This time they’re the villains. Martial law may actually make it worse, forcing the Army to shoot at its own citizens.
The Pakistani Army has done that plenty of times in the tribal areas and Balochistan, but not in its major cities. Besides, that would be saying goodbye to generous loans from the International Monetary Fund. Imran Khan has obviously thought this through, which is why he has been courting arrest for the past few months, making unprecedented statements against the Army top brass.
Khan has obviously learnt the art of disruption. And this is the only step he can take to remain relevant. It’s a massive risk if it were not for the fact that someone inside the Army may just be supporting him. We’ll know soon enough if he walks free.
There’s serious trouble ahead. And no sign at all of the Prime Minister or his Foreign Minister. As protests erupt abroad as well, and PTI workers, including courageous women, show no sign of backing off, a meltdown of sorts is indicated. Somebody has bungled. As usual, it seems to be khaki arrogance.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)