MARCH 18, 2023. The images of an orange Hyundai bulldozer, manned and supervised by the Punjab Police, smashing the main gate of Imran Khan’s house in Zaman Park, Lahore, are the microcosm of the current political chaos in my beloved Pakistan.
Inside Khan’s home was his wife in purdah, Bushra Bibi, and his domestic staff who were mercilessly beaten by the heavily armed Punjab Police in protective gear.
March 15, 2023. Pakistan witnessed the unleashing of mayhem in a quiet and one of the oldest residential areas of Lahore that for the last few weeks has become the assembly point for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) leaders, workers, and supporters.
In an unprecedented expression of solidarity in Pakistan’s political history, PTI workers and supporters are acting as a bulwark against the incumbent government’s efforts to arrest Khan on a Toshakhana gift allegation. Like all the other allegations against him, Khan’s supporters consider it a complete fabrication.
In the hours-long clear-Zaman Park operation, many PTI supporters were beaten and tear-gassed. TV and phone cameras recorded everything. Reportedly, several police personnel were also injured. The law enforcement agencies (LEAs) retreated after the Lahore High Court’s order for cessation of the operation of the Punjab Police and Pakistan Rangers in Zaman Park.
Following his ouster on April 10, 2022 through a carefully executed vote of no-confidence, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who did not have against him any accusation of monetary and/or other corruption at the time of his removal, is facing in March 2023 ninety-six cases on allegations that include blasphemy, murder, sedition, terrorism, and corruption. One sixer will complete Khan’s FIR century.
Khan’s supporters and even his rational detractors are aware and unequivocally critical of the frivolousness of these 96 cases. That this tamasha cloaked as legalities is blatant vengeance to teach Khan a lesson for his crusade against the opposition leaders when he was in power and to ensure his lifetime disqualification from prime ministerial office.
In my cover story for Pakistan’s Express Tribune Sunday magazine on March 19, I wrote: “Law is equal for all, and Imran Khan, despite his current status of being the most popular leader in Pakistan, is not an exception to that rule. Needless to reiterate that he should be present at all his court hearings and respecting a court verdict is his responsibility as a law-abiding citizen of Pakistan. Khan seems to be cognizant of these realities as is apparent from his constant reassurances of upholding judicial decisions. What is problematic, on various levels, is the daily addition to the cases against him, making it physically impossible for him to be present in different courts in different cities in different provinces.
“In addition to the number of cases, almost all of them deemed bogus as per the PTI leadership and legal team, there is the unambiguous threat to Khan’s life after having survived an assassination attempt on November 3, 2022. Police protection is negligible, and the presence of the massive number of his supporters in all court premises—while a sign of their undying support for him—is a security risk.”
Khan’s tweet on March 15 carried a photo of a large table covered with empty tear gas shells and bullets: “My house has been under heavy attack since yesterday afternoon. Latest attack by Rangers, pitting the largest pol party against the army. This is what PDM and the enemies of Pakistan want. No lessons learnt from the East Pakistan tragedy.”
In his telephonic interview with CNN Khan said: “The PDM government know that even if I go to jail, we will sweep the elections. I’m mentally prepared to spend the night, or I don’t know how many nights, in a cell. I’m convinced that they are going to arrest me. [Looking at] the number of police, you would think it’s the biggest terrorist hiding in this house.”
Post-termination of the LEA operation, Khan spoke to the AFP news agency: “The reason why this is happening is not because I broke any law. They want me in jail so that I cannot contest elections.”
Despite a clear court order to end the operation in Zaman Park, what happened to Imran Khan’s home on March 18 is an unparalleled atrocity in the history of Pakistan’s convoluted politics that will inevitably return to haunt those who planned, ordered, and executed it. Political precedents that flout myriad social, moral, and legal guidelines have a way of harming the perpetrators; time and history bear witness to that.
Khan’s supporters and even his rational detractors are aware of the frivolousness of these 96 cases. This tamasha is vengeance for his crusade against opposition leaders when he was in power and to ensure his lifetime disqualification from prime ministerial office
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Khan tweeted: “The assault on my house today was first of all a contempt of court. We had agreed that an SP with one of our people would implement a search warrant bec[ause] we knew otherwise they would plant stuff on their own, which they did. Under what law did they break the gate, pull down trees & barge into the house heavily armed? Worse, they did this after I left to present myself before Islamabad court, & Bushra bibi, a totally private non-political person, was alone in house. This is a total violation of the Islamic principle of sanctity of chadar & char diwari.”
The crackdown continues. PTI workers, lawyers, and journalists, considered to be partial to Khan, are being arrested. Raids are being conducted on the homes of PTI workers and leaders; a 10-year-old son of a PTI worker was arrested on March 19.
My lifelong interest in politics, and I have never attended a political rally or a march or a protest. I participate through my words—my writing and my tweets, and occasionally, on a talkshow. March 18’s images of Khan’s gate being destroyed when it could have easily been opened from inside shook me— as a human being, as a Pakistani, as a PTI supporter. My ideal of democracy. Of the importance of fairness in politics. Of the sanctity of human rights.
Before and after joining politics, Khan was and is a national hero, as a cricket legend, and later as the founder of Pakistan’s first cancer hospital, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital, where 75 per cent of patients receive free treatment. To date, he is Pakistan’s biggest celebrity. As prime minister, notwithstanding the flaws of his governance, his unflinching focus was the wellbeing of Pakistan’s underprivileged and the future of Pakistan. Khan is also financially incorruptible. In the words of PTI Secretary General Asad Umar, in Khan’s career are “no political legacies being created for his children, no wealth being amassed for his family. His entire fight is for the people of Pakistan.”
On March 18, my nephew Taimur accompanying me, I visited Zaman Park. My first ever attendance at a gathering of political workers and supporters. The experience moved me. Indescribably.
Standing outside Khan’s demolished gate, a green net acting as a makeshift door, covering the gaping abomination, I was among hundreds of PTI supporters who were there to show their solidarity for Khan who is currently the most popular leader of Pakistan. There was anger. There was sadness. There was passion. There was love. Unfiltered genuine unaltering love for Khan. They chanted slogans of azaadi. They chanted slogans for Pakistan.
The number of protesters continued to grow during the one hour we were there. The PDM government calls Khan a “fitna” and his supporters “terrorist”. Khan’s supporters—young, middle-aged and old men and women, teenagers, families with little children. Without a leader orchestrating the protest. No sign of fear, no sign of panic. Making way for females and talking to them with great civility, PTI male supporters, many of them from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, were eloquent, enlightened, passionate, and very focused.
PTI supporters are the new political force of Pakistan. Unlike supporters of other ousted prime ministers, in an organic solidarity, PTI supporters’ agenda is to stand with their leader and become his shield whenever he is in public, wherever he is. They are the ideal all parties wish their workers and supporters could be but never will be. Authentic, long-lasting public support is the coveted gift only the truly loved leaders receive. Imran Khan, after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto, is that leader.
Awaiting the arrival of Imran Khan from his court hearing in Islamabad, PTI protesters were camped in front of his broken gate in a dignified unity. They had been waiting for hours. They would have stayed there the whole night to welcome him home.
On March 18, 2023, Imran Khan’s gate was broken but not the spirit of his supporters.