Pakistan’s political turmoil hit another peak on Tuesday as police descended on the former Prime Minister’s affluent Zaman Park neighbourhood with an arrest warrant. The scene turned into a war zone as police and supporters of Imran Khan clashed in a vicious battle. Khan’s repeated failure to appear in court despite being summoned several times resulted in the warrant being issued. Chaos erupted as supporters clashed with authorities in a violent battle, with stones and petrol bombs being hurled at police. Even the use of tear gas and water cannons by the police failed to disperse his loyal followers and the clash continued to the next day. The violent political saga in Pakistan, involving yet another Prime Minister, continued to hold the attention of spectators in a vice-like grip for two days until Lahore High Court intervened and suspended the operation till Thursday.
The utilization of non-state violence and blatant disregard for court orders is reminiscent of the tactics employed by fascist parties of the past. Legal experts and political commentators are justly expressing that such actions are a dangerous deviation from the principles of democracy and rule of law, and have no place in a civilized society. Fascist parties have historically been known for their authoritarian tendencies, where they use violence and intimidation as a tool to suppress their political opponents and maintain power. They often disregard the rule of law, particularly the independence of the judiciary, and use it as a tool to further their political agenda. Scenes of the hurling of stones and petrol bombs, and PTI political leaders enticing violence with sticks in their hands while raising battleground slogans only made ordinary observers see parallels with fascism.
However, this recent incident involving Imran Khan and his supporters clashing with the police is not an isolated event. In fact, this kind of violence has been witnessed before in Pakistan’s political landscape. For instance, in 2020, hundreds of supporters of Maryam Nawaz attacked the police with stones during her caravan to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) office. Similar resistance was seen the previous year during a NAB raid against her cousin, Hamza Nawaz, where supporters assaulted NAB officials and prevented their leader’s arrest despite his arrest warrants. This disregard for the rule of law and violence against state officials is not unique to scenarios involving political leaders but has also been witnessed in other arenas. Journalist Mohsin Baig opened fire on police and Federal Investigation Agency officials during his arrest attempt in February last year.
This makes one wonder what drives citizens in Pakistan’s political landscapes to become so bloodthirsty at the sight of the police. Why have court orders and arrest warrants lost their power to command respect and compliance? These are questions that must be answered urgently if the country is to progress towards a stable and democratic future. But to answer these questions power-holders, power-brokers, and institutions need to first introspect.
The police in Pakistan has a long and troubling history of abusing their power, using violent tactics to oppress opposition forces and silence political dissent. They have been accused of acting as the private militia of the ruling junta, and at times, operating independently as forces of terror. Their actions have included extrajudicial murders of citizens, silencing the victims of the powerful, and crushing down any voices of political dissent.
Recent incidents involving the police further cement these claims of their brutality and disregard for human rights. Just a few days before the clashes in Zaman Park, the accusations of police involvement in the murder of a political supporter, Ali Bilal alias Zille Shah, and the police attacking peaceful women marchers on International Women’s Day in Islamabad, came to light. Such incidents highlight the rampant impunity with which the police operate in Pakistan, free from any accountability or consequences for their actions.
The situation is just as grim when it comes to the institution of justice as well. It is a stark reality that no political or power-holding entity in Pakistan can truthfully claim that the country upholds the rule of law. The dispensers of justice have been unable to remain free from external influences and avoid political engineering. The sanctity of both the letter and the spirit of the law has been violated repeatedly, with institutions being weaponized against political representatives of the citizens. Those who have disregarded the law or the constitution have never been held accountable for their actions. Instead, elected Prime Ministers have been judicially murdered, elected political representatives have been judicially disposed of, and military takeovers have been judicially legalized.
Considering all this, it should come as no shock that supporters of political parties take matters into their own hands when the judiciary, which is supposed to uphold the rule of law, has a long history of compromises, and the police, which is supposed to protect citizens, has a long history of unleashing brutal violence and oppression against citizens. In a functional democracy, the judiciary and police act as a safeguard against any attempts to undermine the rule of law by political parties or individuals. However, when the judiciary’s and police’s authority have been eroded over time by their repeated disregard for the constitution, how can people continue to exercise trust in these institutions? Any defiance of court orders and police actions not only undermines the democratic institutions that are the foundation of civil society. But when these institutions become instruments of political, social and electoral engineering, it only hastens this downfall.
To move towards a stable and democratic future, power-holders, power-brokers, and institutions must first introspect and acknowledge the truth of our history and mend their ways. Pakistan must take urgent steps to address the root causes of the violent political landscape and restore the rule of law. The country’s democratic institutions must be strengthened, the judiciary must be protected from external influences to preserve its independence and authority, and the police must work within legal and moral frameworks. This will lead the citizens to learn to respect the law, and violators of the law will be held accountable for their actions. Only then can Pakistan progress towards a stable and democratic future, free from the bloodshed and chaos that has plagued it for far too long.