Law students and law graduates from Pakistan are reporting for JURIST on events in that country impacting its legal system. Here, Eisha Chaudhry, a law student from Islamabad pursuing her LL.B. program at the University of London, reflects on former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s remarks last weekend at a mass rally in Rawalpindi at the conclusion of his True Freedom March calling for early elections.
Opposition leader and former Pakistan premier Imran Khan addressed the nation on Saturday from the garrison city of Rawalpindi at the climax of the Haqeeqi Azaadi March (True Freedom March) in his first public appearance since surviving an assassination attempt earlier in November.
Khan has addressed over 60 rallies in the seven months after his ouster, galvanizing support and demanding fresh and early elections. He began his “long march 2.0” to Islamabad on Oct. 28 and rejoined it three weeks after being shot in the leg in the city of Wazirabad on November 3. A PTI supporter was killed and more than a dozen others wounded in the attack which was initially presumed to be religiously motivated.
The true culprits
Speaking to Marc Perelman of France 24, Khan said that he knew “exactly what happened” and that he had “predicted this over six weeks ago when they (the government) first accused me [of blasphemy]. A video film was made accusing me…and then it was picked up by this government spokesperson, by the government controlled television and six weeks ago I said that this was all planned to assassinate me through a religious fanatic.” He elaborated, “the two, Prime Minister (Shehbaz Sharif) and interior minister (Rana Sanaullah) who I named, we know their past for thirty years. Both have been involved in extra judicial killings. Both were involved in what is called the Model Town massacre where they had twelve protestors shot dead and about sixty injured.” He also named a senior military official in plotting his assassination. Sharif has denied involvement, calling for a transparent inquiry.
Objectively, the attack seems like an open and shut case as it came weeks after the PML-N member Javed Latif followed by interior Minister Rana Sanaullah used the religion card to malign Imran Khan. This narrative was actively built and propagated by the government. The alternative scenario remains to be that the attacker was aggravated by the narrative built which spurred him to carry out a vigilante attack. In both ways the government cannot shirk responsibility.
The threat lingers
Khan made his address seated behind bulletproof glass, yet the threat to his life remains. A top Pakistani judge, citing an intelligence report, said on Friday that the life of former Prime Minister Imran Khan was at risk due to fears of another assassination attempt on the politician. Aamer Farooq, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court, made the remarks while hearing a petition filed by a traders’ body over road closures in the national capital during political protests. A police official told local television channel Geo TV that a total of 10,000 personnel had been deployed for the event, with snipers positioned at various points for his security.
The interior minister, Rana Sanaullah – who Khan accuses of being involved in the assassination plot – issued a “red alert” on Friday, warning of security threats to the rally. He listed Pakistan’s Taliban and al-Qaida among the extremist groups that could harm Khan.
What does Khan want now?
Acclaimed cricketer turned populist, Khan said his party – the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI) – was quitting the national and regional assemblies, in a renewed bid to push for snap elections: he categorically stated that his party was not going to be a part of this “corrupt system”. After Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April following political furore over his involvement in the Toshakhana gifts scandal, Khan’s party resigned en-masse from the federal Parliament although most of the resignations have yet to be accepted. He remains in power in four regional governments, however, including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, Sharif’s party PML-N’s longtime bastion and home to more than half of Pakistan’s 220 million population.
Khan inspires a cultish devotion from his supporters and is widely held to be Pakistan’s most popular leader in the country’s 75-year history. Imran Khan hailed the Rawalpindi gathering as a “defining moment”, adding that Pakistan is at a crossroads of “slavery or freedom” – slavery akin to colonialism and freedom that only an early election will secure in the country. Imran announced that he would not be continuing the march towards Islamabad in order to avoid creating a situation of anarchy in the capital. “I assure you, they (government) cannot handle it, they can deploy as many police as they want. When hundreds of thousands of people enter Islamabad, no one can stop them,” he said.
After his close brush with death, he also said that he would fight to his “last drop of blood” to ensure freedom and rule of law in the country. Khan insists that if an early national vote is called, he will win overwhelmingly. However, towards the end of his more than hour long speech, he seemingly made a U-turn, stating that if elections are held in nine months when they are originally scheduled, his party will form the government again. He has also made a U-turn on framing the US as responsible for his ouster; in a recent interview to the British Financial Times newspaper, Khan said he was willing to move on from the controversy.“As far as I am concerned, it’s over, it’s behind me. The Pakistan I want to lead must have good relationships with everyone, especially the United States,” he said.
Contrary to what was being expected, Khan raised no public objection when the Sharif government last Thursday appointed a new army chief, Lt. Gen. Asim Munir, even though there was a history of bad blood between the two. While Khan was premier in 2018, he forced the army to abruptly remove Munir as head of the national intelligence agency so he could install a general he preferred.
In a warm-up speech at Saturday’s rally, veteran politician Sheikh Rasheed and PTI leader clarified that, “we welcome and congratulate the new army leadership.” He said, “this is our army. This is Pakistan’s army. It is Imran Khan’s army.”
Yet, the military faces the difficult prospect of helping align Imran khan with the government, while withstanding public backlash against its interference in civilian matters and alleged involvement in Khan’s attempted assassination. Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington says: “It will need time to restore the public trust, but it will also be under immediate pressure to ease political instability and reduce tensions between the government and khan. That’s a lot of difficult terrain to navigate.”
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari described Khan’s Saturday night rally as a “face-saving flopshow”. In a tweet, he said: “Unable to pull revolution crowds, failed at undermining appointments of new chiefs, frustrated, resorts to resignation drama.”
Still, Imran Khan’s popularity cannot be denied, nor his oratorical charm, and it is clear that the nation views him as even more of a national hero after his wounding in the name of his cause.