Police fire tear gas to disperse supporters of Imran Khan protesting against the arrest of their leader. Is Imran Khan’s fight with Pakistan’s army a threat or an opportunity for India?Peshawar, 9 May, 2023: Police fire tear gas to disperse supporters of Imran Khan protesting against the arrest of their leader. [Photo by Hussain Ali/Pacific Press/Sipa USA. Credit: Sipa US/Alamy Live News]

Among the competing forces at play in the constant swirl of Pakistan’s politics, one has always been pre-eminent – until now. As Imran Khan, the playboy cricketer turned pious politician, repeatedly upped the ante in his battle to force early elections, he has exposed the weakness of the government of Shehbaz Sharif, consummate insider and brother to three-time PM, Nawaz. But, above all, he challenged the military establishment, which has ruled the country for nearly half of Pakistan’s 76-year existence (and remained the ultimate power when civilians ran the government), like no other politician in decades.

When Khan lost power after a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly in April 2022 (after losing popularity due to his poor governance), he was widely seen as being ousted by the very generals who had made him prime minister. But unlike previous occasions when the army played kingmaker, the reaction on the street was so ferocious that speculation mounted about rifts in the army and military veterans’ support for him. A month later, Khan and his supporters began a ‘long march’ to Islamabad to force fresh elections, though calling it off to avoid confrontation. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won control of Punjab, a province with half of the country’s population and seen as a bellwether for national politics.

Rioting and blasphemy

A month later the 70-year-old was charged under an anti-terror law (subsequently dropped) and banned from running for office for five years by the electoral commission. He embarked on a second ‘long march’ and then was shot in the leg in November, later accusing a military intelligence general of trying to assassinate him. In March an attempt to arrest him at his home failed as crowds repulsed the police. Khan said he faced 85 cases, including charges of corruption, terrorism, contempt of court, rioting and blasphemy.

Then, in chaotic scenes this month, paramilitary troops smashed courthouse windows to detain Khan. This sparked violent protests across Pakistan, which left at least 10 people dead. Inflation soaring to a record 36.4% and an IMF bailout to prevent a debt default added to the unrest.

An unusually forceful supreme court overturned Khan’s detention and in unprecedented scenes, PTI supporters ransacked and torched an army commander’s home and threw petrol bombs at the prime minister’s residence. It was probably the first time that such large crowds had turned on Pakistan’s army, which had always somehow been seen as above politics – however obviously it meddled in government. One PTI supporter told Al Jazeera that [while] ‘the army was supporting the constitution and stood by our leader, we always stood by the army.’

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‘Our red line is Imran Khan’

The 30-year-old from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province said: ‘When we saw the army going against Khan and his ideology, and trying to suppress our voices, I knew I cannot be with them. Our red line is Imran Khan and when you see so much brutality that has happened with him and the way he was abducted, there must be a limit … and when you go beyond, things explode.’

‘This has become a perfect political storm with very unpredictable consequences,’ said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani diplomat. ‘In the past the army acted as an arbiter of political disputes. Today, the country has no institution that can play that role.’

Faced with this rare challenge, Sharif’s government announced that the 4,000 or so civilians arrested would be tried in military courts. Human rights groups argued that this was against international law. Amnesty International’s Dinushika Dissanayake said: ‘This is purely an intimidation tactic, designed to crack down on dissent by exercising fear of an institution that has never been held to account for its overreach … The right to a fair trial, guaranteed by Pakistan’s constitution, is severely undermined.’

‘No rule of law’

Khan told CNN: ‘Everything is being done to disband democracy … there’s no rule of law.’ The growing sense that events could spiral out of control prompted China, which rarely rebukes a key ally in public, to tell Pakistan to get its house in order. ‘We sincerely hope the political forces in Pakistan will build consensus, uphold stability and more effectively address domestic and external challenges,’ China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, declared.

‘If Pakistan fails, we need to make sure it doesn’t take us down with it,’ one Indian analyst told Michael Kugelman, of Washington’s Wilson Center, who speculated that events ‘could distract Pakistan from keeping control over things that could pose grave risks to India, like India-focused militants’.

In India, however, there appeared to be schadenfreude in some quarters as observers relished the political disarray Khan had unleashed on their arch-rival, despite the threat of further instability along the border and the internationally unrecognised Line of Control running through Jammu and Kashmir, where an insurgency has been bubbling since 1989 and the potential for war is never far away.

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Kashmir’s ‘military occupation’

After abolishing its special status in 2019, Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government tried to assert a sense of normalcy in the troubled region by hosting a G20 summit there this week (China refused to attend in a disputed area, though support for Pakistan is also likely to have played a role). Tensions over Khan’s standoff with the army may have proved a useful distraction from criticism from the UN’s rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, who declared: ‘India is seeking to normalise what some have described as a military occupation by instrumentalising a G20 meeting and portray an international seal of approval’ despite ‘massive human rights violations’.

But writing in The Wire, Sharat Sabharwal, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, warned that though many Indians ‘take satisfaction in the fact that a weak and internally absorbed Pakistan impairs the ability of its establishment to trouble us’, the turmoil could be disastrous for India: ‘Each major crisis in Pakistan leaves the Pakistani state weaker and correspondingly more dangerous … the resulting chaos [of its collapse] will not leave us untouched, presenting us with an unbridled sea of extremism and terrorism from Afghanistan’s western frontier to our western border, a nuclear arsenal in an extremely volatile environment and a veritable humanitarian crisis of large numbers fleeing unrest.’

Another former Indian diplomat in Islamabad, TCA Raghavan, argued that with a ‘chaotic and dangerously divided neighbour’, the best for India would be for ‘the status quo in the currently minimal bilateral relationship to continue and that the ceasefire on the Line of Control holds’.

Akhand Bharat

However, among the Hindu nationalist bloc, led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), some may not want the fragile peace to hold. For firebrand ideologues such as Yogi Adityanath, a monk-politician and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Pakistan’s collapse would hasten the advent of Akhand Bharat (greater India), while the RSS leader Indresh Kumar declared four years ago that Pakistan would be part of India by 2025.

For the analyst Sanjaya Baru, Pakistan’s ‘civil war’ was the outcome of secular centrist parties there trying to use Islamists as a weapon against the elite of the post-colonial state until religious extremists’ power grew beyond their control. The Modi government’s agenda, he warned, could similarly ‘envelop India if we continue to pursue divisive and sectarian politics’.

The PTI should acknowledge other parties as legitimate stakeholders rather than denouncing them as corrupt, argued Baqir Sajjad, a former Dawn correspondent now at the Wilson Center. ‘Only then can stability be achieved, and the dominance of the military be mitigated,’ he said, arguing that: ‘A better opportunity for achieving the goal of civilian supremacy may not come again in the near future.’

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.