Has Imran Khan Accidentally Helped Democracy Flourish In Pakistan?

Here’s how Imran Khan & Co have brought about unintended change which bodes well for democracy in Pakistan.

Published
Opinion
7 min read
File photo of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan used for representational purposes.
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Halfway through the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) term in government, it is time to take stock of the unintended tabdeeli (change) that Imran Khan and the PTI cabal have brought about. It is what I call ‘collateral benefit’ of the destruction they have caused over the last two years in power overall, and seven years if their tenure in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province is included.

This tabdeeli is buried in layers of the changing social fabric of the society, caused directly by the tabdeeli sarkar, and needs to be teased out from under layers of its destructive effects which are more visible.

First, because of the vicious indiscriminate attacks on all liberals and progressives, on all political parties and their supporters, and on all those who hold an opinion different to theirs, and especially on all those who recognise and criticise the military’s intervention to bring them into power, they have caused a coalescence of all their victims against the PTI and its backer, the Pakistani Army.

Why Are Liberal Pakistani Women Suddenly Getting ‘Love & Respect’ From The Most Conservative Quarters?

We first began to see evidence of it on social media starting way back in 2014 when Imran Khan started his protests. PTI would abuse and mock all, and all would mock only the PTI and not each other. Today we see that that has manifested itself in the all parties’ Pakistan Democratic Movement, which is a struggle against military interventions and its current puppet, the PTI.

The divide among political parties, especially among the PMLN and the PPP, that had partially enabled the overthrow of the PMLN in 2018 and the tight grip on power of the Imran-Bajwa Junta, now stands evaporated.

Repeated onslaughts on this alliance – like the arrest of Capt Safdar in Sindh a few weeks ago, and the distortion of Bilawal Bhutto’s statement by the media on Friday – are all failing to cause schisms in the PDM.

The support, protection, love, and respect that liberal women are now getting from the most conservative and even religious quarters is another fascinating change caused by the tabdeeli junta.

This too is evidenced on social media. Those conservative Punjabi men who would have flayed me themselves ten years ago for how I dress, for example, now defend my right to dress the way I think proper – just because the PTI and fauji trolls attack my appearance and throw sexual abuse my way because they cannot counter my argument.

How The Junta Has ‘Brought All Nations Together’ – Unprecedented For Pakistan

Among conservative sections of society, the recognition that a woman is to be respected for her ideas, courage, and struggle, and not for how demure she is, or how religious she is, is massive. And this phenomenon becomes obvious everyday, when members of the public belonging to a largely conservative society come to the defence of women like me, and counter-attack the trolls. This has played out for Asma Jehangir, Iman Mazari, Malala Yousafzai, Maria Toorpakai and many others. Surely, this was an unintended positive change effected by the Junta’s onslaught on thinking women who speak their minds and resist the regime: conservative men have developed more progressive attitudes towards women.

Because the Junta attacks all progressive and nationalist movements in its bid to preserve and shore-up its stranglehold on power and resources, via the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ tool, to ride roughshod over the rights of individuals, and the rights of the nations over their own resources, the Junta has ended up bringing all nations together too – this is unprecedented for Pakistan.

The Baloch had struggled for their rights for 73 years, with no other nationality or high profile personality in mainstream politics standing up for them. Exactly the same was true for Sindhis, Pashtuns, and Gilgit Baltistanis, and other nations who make up the body politic of Pakistan. The Pakistani Army had successfully prevented any unity among the nations for 73 years, through physical means as well as through propaganda.

How There Came To Be Mass Support For People Of Baloch & Other Persecuted Groups

There was no direct highway on which a Pashtun from KPK could travel to the Pashtun belt or the Baloch people in Quetta. Resentments and prejudices among nations were craftily nurtured. Even sectarian divides among religious sects were nurtured by the Army.

But the success of the Army began to crumble after the rise of the PTM. Initially there was little support for the Pashtun movement outside of the ex-FATA, but as the attacks on the Punjabi polity and their representatives (Nawaz Sharif and the PMLN) intensified, one began to observe sympathies for the PTM increase countrywide – because now Punjab could finally visualise the Army as the common tormentor.

Conversely, the PTM’s well-judged support for the Baloch, Sindhi, Mohajir, Gilgit-Baltistani, and even Punjabi victims of the Army triggered the increasing unity and sympathy among all these nations that is apparent today. There was a time when there used to be two or three non-Baloch voices that would speak for the Baloch missing persons. Today, there is a groundswell of support across the country.

‘Collateral Benefits’ The Junta Would Have Never Wanted

The same is true of the violations by the Army in ex-FATA. The history of this change goes thus: the two red lines (criticism of the Army and Balochistan) the controlled media could not and largely never used to cross.

As a consequence, the citizenry at large remained ignorant of the human rights violations and usurping of resources by the Army. Ex-FATA too remained an information black hole because of the Army’s occupation of it.

But when the Imran-Bajwa Junta encroached further to create more and more red lines and completely throttled the media on every subject in its attempt to crush dissent, people took to social media and ended up breaking all taboos.

The strong-arming led to the floodgates of information breaking loose, which finally led to the beginning of the coming together of nations.

One is quite, quite, sure this tabdeeli was never intended. This too is a collateral benefit that bodes well for a better, more stable future for the country – which the Junta would never have wanted.

Imran-Bajwa Junta Tried To Kill Journalism In Pakistan – Here’s What Happened Instead

As all suppressed news now breaks on social media, and all critical opinion and resistance is therefore on social media, the mainstream media has largely been rendered irrelevant, and throttling of the traditional media has resulted in the opposite of the objective: instead of total control over information and narrative, the Junta has lost control over it completely. The public wrested the control via social media.

So some bright spark in the Army came up with the idea of smothering social media dissent with often horrific or ludicrous undertakings such as:

  • my abduction
  • abductions of hundreds of others
  • threats to SM activists
  • attempts to get critical accounts suspended with baseless complaints to Twitter and Facebook
  • ex-DGISPR Asif Ghafoor’s street-dog fights on social media
  • unleashing of the most vicious trolls

Everything failed and resistance intensified.

Those abducted or threatened became fiercer voices that reached, influenced, and inspired hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of others to thought and courage. After a struggle of a mere few years, we see all Opposition political parties echoing the narrative and openness only a few activists used to dare push.

Speeches from across the board at PDM jalsas now echo our words of yore. This means that the political parties are now doing the heavy-lifting that we used to keep trying to push them to do.

Could the Imran-Bajwa Junta ever have imagined this would be the result of trying to kill independent journalism in the country? Not in their wildest dreams. 

It’s like a hurtling train hitting them from the back. Talk of the missing persons, names of serving generals meddling in politics, and the treason of serving generals has become mainstream. This was unthinkable before.

My Appeal To Nawaz Sharif – And Its Impact

In the Autumn of 2017, I was invited to a ‘vote ko izzat do’ convention of the PMLN. During my speech, I addressed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif directly, asking him to bring all nationalities under his umbrella for a unified struggle for democracy; I reminded him that he was the prime minister of the entire country, and not just of Punjab; that we Punjabis were now crying because our votes had been stolen, but from the Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhis, their homes, lives, and futures were stolen by the same oppressor.

Yet, one did not find any mention of the PTM, which was facing the most fierce crackdown at the time, in his speeches thereafter. But the increasing fascism of the Junta has today resulted in:

  • Sharif speaking in support of Mohsin Dawar, a PTM member of parliament
  • Maryam Nawaz repeatedly speaking up for the rights of the abducted, and staring down the generals
  • Bilawal Bhutto effecting the inclusion of Dawar in the PDM

These are all unheard of collateral benefits of the Junta’s brazenly making one mistake after another.

What The Naked Victimisation Of Nawaz Sharif Laid Bare

There are many other examples, but I will end with a very heartening tabdeeli.

Historically, one of the reasons the Army has remained very successful in its hegemonic designs is that it had achieved deep penetration into all institutions including the political parties.

And the ‘electable’ politicians that would change loyalties and jump parties at the behest of the army, were one key tool used to weaken or overthrow democratic governments. These ‘electables’ would traditionally take their voter base, beholden to them because of the politics of patronage, and throw them into the lap of the Army’s favoured party of the day.

But the naked victimisation of Sharif, and the success of his “Mujhe kyon nikala” and “vote ko izzat do” narratives, laid bare the Army’s meddling like never before, and caused a realisation across Punjab that Punjabis’ rights would only be restored traveling down the “vote ko izzat do” road, and not by sticking with the so-called ‘electables’.

A Profoundly Positive Change For Pakistani Politics & Democracy

Ahead of the general elections of 2018, I came across biradari after biradari (family blocks or tribes) in Punjab, who decided to vote for the local electable only if he stayed with the party, and to vote for anybody, even a nobody, if he jumped ship and PMLN awarded the election ticket to the ‘nobody’.

This trend indicates a profoundly positive change for politics and democracy in Pakistan, and has also been brought about by the Junta itself.

This unintended change bodes quite ill for the future of the Army meddling in politics, and the imposition of puppets on the people, because this means they have destroyed one more of their own tools with their own hands.

The way I see all these unintended positive changes coming out of the destruction and suffering that citizens have endured now for over two years is best expressed by a popular Punjabi lyric of unknown origin, “rul te gaye aan, par chass badi ayee aye” (I am ruined, but it has been a joy).

(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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