The Resurgence Of Violence In Mainstream Politics

The Resurgence Of Violence In Mainstream Politics
May 9, 2023 will be remembered in our history as the day when organized violence creeped its way back into mainstream politics in our society. Our mainstream political parties have not been familiar with the tools of organized violence for a long time. That doesn’t mean that they don’t engage in political violence. Indeed, they do, especially during the electoral process. But they don’t employ violence as a political tool in a systematic and organized manner. On May 9, 2023, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) broke with this trend. They not only employed violence in a systematic manner to achieve a political end, which was to demonstrate that Imran Khan was their “red line” - they used their limited capacity to employ organized violence against an institution which has an uncontested monopoly over the use of violence within the territory of Pakistan. The Pakistani military’s monopoly over the use of violence is only challenged by militant and terror groups, which not only challenge the legitimacy of the state, but are hellbent upon overthrowing the state and its structures. Clearly, the PTI has no intentions or aims to overthrow the state or to question its legitimacy. PTI’s stated objective at the time of May 9 violence was to pressurize the government and establishment to hold elections in the province of Punjab and to ensure that their leader, Imran Khan remained “untouchable” as far as arrest over charges of corruption was concerned.

Before May 9, PTI had demonstrated little capacity to carry out violence in an organized manner. Even on May 9, 2023 what PTI workers did in Lahore and other cities is distinguishable more by the spectacle it created than by lethality of their acts. PTI workers created a pandemonium at the Lahore Corps Commander’s residence. They attacked GHQ’s main gate and broke the GHQ emblem, but failed to cause any major damage. Media accounts don’t tell us how far inside the GHQ they went and how long they stayed there. The information about the attacks on air bases in Sargodha and Mianwali are at best sketchy.

Some of the government figures made the startling claim that the real target of PTI workers were Pakistani aircraft stationed at these bases, a plan which was thwarted by the jawans of the police and Air Force. Apparently, the protestors didn’t cause any damage to military assets. The most spectacular acts of violence took place in the Lahore Corps Commander’s residence. According to government information, 400 PTI workers entered the house while a crowd of 3,000 people waited outside. They ransacked the house and burned it to ashes. The positives from the incident are that they didn’t harm the Corps Commander’s family, which was present in the house at the time of the attack. Another positive was that there was no loss of life in the attacks on military installations.

How could all this be described as organized violence? Even a disorganized and unruly mob is also capable of causing such harm to buildings and private property. The investigators now have enough evidence to conclude that PTI’s central leaders were in contact with the rioters who entered the Corps Commander’s residence and burned it to the ashes. This they have concluded from conversational data, involving cell phone contacts between PTI Lahore’s leaders and the rioters, while rioters were inside the Corps Commander’s residence, that they have secured through the mobile companies. The investigators have pieced together a story that most of the rioters were armed with combustible material when they entered the residence of the Corps Commander. Bloodshed was only avoided because the guards at Corps Commander’s Residence and other military installations didn’t fire at the rioters as required by the SPOs.

To put all this in perspective, and considering the recent history of violence in our society, May 9, 2023 incidents occurred while we have just come out of an extremely bloody period of our social and political history. The Pakistani military claims to have broken the back of militancy in the North Western parts of the country after our society witnessed large scale violence and terrorism, especially in the period between 2007 and 2014, when suicide bombings in our urban areas were daily occurrences. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was the target of the Pakistani military’s push in the erstwhile tribal areas to flush out terrorists and militants. As a response, TTP launched a lethal campaign of suicide bombings in our urban areas. There were bloody clashes between Pakistani military troops and TTP fighters in erstwhile tribal areas. All this was punctuated by American CIA led drone attacks, another form of violence, against militants hiding in the Pak-Afghan border areas along the Durand Line. Therefore, violence in Pakistani society was widespread and orchestrated primarily by military style terrorist outfits and insurgent groups. Since 2006, the Pakistani military has been encountering another insurgency in the South Western province of Balochistan. While all this was happening, Pakistan’s mainstream politics remained discernibly peaceful. In the 2007-2008 period, the Pakistani heartland even witnessed a political agitation when the military government sacked former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Mainstream political parties participated in the agitation, but it remained peaceful. The only violence that took place during the agitation was from MQM in Karachi, which by definition and by ideology cannot be described as a mainstream political party, since it was at the time a coalition partner of the military government of General Musharraf.

The question we as a society should be pondering is why a mainstream political party like PTI, which previously has shown no inclination or capacity towards organized political violence turned toward using violence as a tool to achieve political objectives? Let’s give the devil its due: the PTI, by no definition, is a violent political party. It has a long political struggle to its credit, which is not at all dotted with any kind of violence. Why did it turn violent? And why did it turn violent at this point in time, when overall terror and militant led violence in our society is at its lowest ebb?

There are two low key insurgencies underway in the North West and South Western parts of the country. But military leaders think they can manage them fairly easily. Why, in such circumstances did the PTI decide to use violence as a political tool? And why was the military the target of its violence?

The answer lies in Imran Khan’s thinking, which he keeps revealing during his media talks, that makes him believe the new Army Chief, General Asim Munir is angry with him because the latter perceives that Imran Khan opposed his appointment as Army Chief. Imran Khan gradually became very aggressive in his public speeches during the past one year. On many occasions, he hinted at using violence in his speeches. But this far, he was uttering routine staff. He was very critical of the Army and its new leadership. While constructing this aggressive narrative, even he didn’t realize that he was creating a powder keg. It only needed the slightest flame to set alight. Since the faceoff between Punjab police and PTI workers in and around Zaman Park at the time when Punjab police attempted to arrest Imran Khan, there are many media accounts which describe PTI workers as consisting largely of Pushtun and Afghan youth, who were housed in and around Imran Khan’s residence. Police are still looking for Afghan youth who have been identified by their still pictures from CCTV cameras.

I think this was the light which led to the explosion in the powder keg that Imran Khan was building through his aggressive narrative. Perhaps the anger of unemployed youth from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over military operations in their areas, mutating itself into a public manifestation of political violence in Lahore and other cities. I think we as society have not been successful in gauging what kind of anger and alienation the military's highhandedness generates in the country’s peripheries, and how many mutated forms it can take in a society which is clearly in a state of flux. Perhaps investigators have a clearer picture of what happened on May 9. But this picture will never see the light of the day primarily because of political sensitivities.

In such a situation, a sustained and continuous political process is our only path to salvation—a political process in which all political forces and groups participate freely, but do so within the ambit of law and constitution. Destruction of the political process or a political party will play into the hands of those forces, which are hellbent on spreading violence in society. A society without a healthy political process is an open field for violent forces. Only a self-sustaining political process, free of any external pressure will ensure that the forces of chaos and anarchy remain at bay. The real problem are those political leaders who think violence can help them get their way. Frustration with the political system is as old as our system itself. Imran Khan is not the only leader who is frustrated with the system. But he is the first one in the post-Musharraf period to turn to violence to give vent to his frustration. The destruction of the political process or a political party will be as unfortunate as was the violence against military installations.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.