Nov,11: History has a way of repeating itself, more so in Pakistan. Situations may differ. Politicians come and go. But its army is constant.
On December 10, 2000, then military ruler Pervez Musharraf issued a pardon of Nawaz Sharif who he had deposed and allowed him to travel to Saudi Arabia. He was exiled for seven years.
On November 7, almost 19 years later, Nawaz, seriously sick in prison, is being allowed to go to Britain for urgent medical treatment. Apparently, the Imran Khan Government does not want Nawaz’s blood on its hands.
Nawaz had to go, again in 1993, after differences with then army chief. For the third time Nawaz was deposed, this time, not through a military coup but by a Supreme Court verdict. He had to resign after the court without even trying to prove the many corruption charges against him, simply found his ‘intents’ bad and jailed him.
His exile is being granted – not pardon from charges and jail, though – by a civilian government. The army, of course, is not directly involved, but even a child knows it is there. For, the army first engineered Nawaz’s ouster by remote control and then managed the election that brought Khan to power.
In another repeat, Imran Khan, challenged from all-around, is facing a dharna in Islamabad’s Constitution Square, the seat of power, exactly the way he had himself done against Nawaz in 2014. Imran laid a siege for 126 days. Everyone witnessed the unseemly sights of thousands of men living, eating and even defecating in that VIP Zone.
On the last day’s afternoon, a mysterious phone call came. Men close to Khan rushed to the army’s General Headquarters. Ostensibly, they were asked to lift the siege. And it was all over by that evening. The National Assembly debated it and on a cue from the army, criticized Khan without naming him and let Nawaz off with a warning.
Came another dharna in 2017 by Maulana Khadim Husain Rizvi, leader of Tehrik-e-Labbaik, an extremist Islamic group. Six people were killed in the same VIP zone. When the government ‘requested’ the army for troops to counter Rizvi, the army asked the government to hold ‘talks’ with the protestors. The army was openly siding with a religious group seemingly to destabilize an elected government.
The current dharna, on since October 27, is staged by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, chief of a faction of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami. The VIP Zone again witnesses water supply by civic authorities to meet the demonstrators’ biological requirements. Water floods the roads that have no drains for disposal. And Pakistan boasts of being the seat of Indus Valley Civilization that had drainage system!
Always in good books of the military, Maulana Fazl doesn’t name the army, but insists that the 2018 election was ‘stolen’ and that he was himself made to lose in parliamentary seats. He has activated because of the widespread perceptions that the army is disillusioned with Imran and is scouting around for an alternative.
Definitely a show of strength, however, dharna is unlikely to last long. Nawaz’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Bhutto/Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) withdrew after making a token first-day presence after the Army’s PR man, Major General Asif Ghafoor, issued a formal warning to the opposition, thus standing by the Khan Government, but with an implied warning that it should improve performance.
Actually, the League was awaiting relief for Nawaz, now secured. And PPP, going by speculation in and outside Pakistan, thinks it is Bilawal Bhutto’s turn to earn the army’s favour.
This may well be a new round of dog-and-the-bone game that the army always plays. Make no mistake – each political character mentioned here has been played up or played down by the army, depending upon its preferences and circumstances.
Nawaz was groomed by Ziaul Haq in 1980s. He lost when Benazir, too, made peace with the army once Zia, who had deposed and then got her father ZA Bhutto hanged, had died in a mysterious air accident. Musharraf tried to make peace with Benazir. But opposed to a woman as a ruler of a Muslim nation, Saudis sent back Nawaz to contest 2008 election.
Benazir was assassinated in December 2007, allegedly by a militant group, but also allegedly at Musharraf’s behest. She named an officer in writing to Musharraf and also told British media about the impending attack on her. It happened. The officer, Brig Ijaz Shah, is today Pakistan’s Minister for Interior.
To return to Maulana Fazlur Rahman, Zia hand-picked him to set up scores of madrassas in the 1980s to train thousands of fighters for the ‘jihad’ against Afghanistan then controlled by the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The secret of his power is the madrasas, now spread all over Pakistan and especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. They give the dharna a religious flavor, unlike Imran Khan’s political workers. These are the sections that face unemployment and high prices.
Things could get worse for Imran if economic sanctions are imposed on Pakistan for failing to curb laundering of funds that nurture terrorist activities. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has placed Pakistan on ‘grey’ list. It escaped sanctions last month thanks to China, Turkey and Malaysia. FATF meeting in February 2020 could place it on ‘black’ list triggering sanctions.
Finally, the Modi Government’s action taken well within India of revoking Article 370 and breaking up Jammu and Kashmir totally surprised Imran Khan and his military mentors. Much as they shout diplomatically, as The New York Times says, their options are limited.
How the army, its chief, General Bajwa having secured a three-year extension, responds to multiple challenges remains to be seen.