May 9, 2023 will be remembered in Pakistan’s history as a ‘black day’, according to the Pakistani military. That Tuesday began with former prime minister Imran Khan, chairman of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party, recording a video message as he left his Zaman Park, Lahore residence for a hearing in Islamabad. The former premier urged the people to “come out on the streets” if he was arrested.
As he was about to begin the biometric process at the diary registry of the Islamabad high court (IHC) on Tuesday afternoon, an angry battalion of security forces personnel armed with riot gear appeared outside the registry. They demanded they be let in to arrest the former premier; the staff locked the doors and refused to let them enter. The personnel then proceeded to break the windows of the registry, as staff and Imran Khan’s security could only watch helplessly. A video of Imran Khan, head in his hand as he watches the security forces pushing their way in, went viral on social media and some mainstream media channels known to disseminate news for the consumption of the PTI and those who favour Imran Khan.
Imran Khan arrested
By 1pm on Tuesday afternoon, a video emerged showing at least 50 security personnel, armed in riot gear including helmets, arresting a solitary Imran Khan, pushing and shoving him as they force-march him to a supposedly armoured black vehicle with jamming equipment on it. Once these visuals became public knowledge, it was only a matter of hours before the vitriolic narrative Imran Khan has peddled since the removal of his government in April 2022 would spill out onto the streets of Pakistan in the form of riotous violence.
The PTI leadership – caught off guard, and mostly complacent because of the authorities’ multiple failures in arresting Khan – was found confused and rudderless: it was unclear whether they would organise and lead protests, or end up in custody like Khan himself. As there was no continuity of leadership in Khan’s party once he was removed from the picture, his party workers and supporters took matters into their own hands, and began their individual efforts to rally their like-minded friends and family, and took to the streets with their party flags.
Spontaneous protests and angry mobs
By 2pm, large crowds of people waving PTI flags could be seen marching down Jail Road towards Sherpao Bridge, the entrance to Lahore Cantonment (Cantt.) which is home to the Pakistan army’s senior commanders as well as some garrisons stationed in the city. It was also reported that PTI protesters were converging at the entrance to the Pakistan army’s general headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, along with other key military installations that served as a symbol of the army’s power in the country.
By 3pm, the unthinkable was happening. Protesters had breached the gates of the Lahore corps commander’s residence, known as Jinnah House, and met no resistance from the security personnel presumably deployed there. Reports of protesters at the GHQ gate, and even trespassing onto the military’s nerve centre, were verified by videos shared publicly on social media. There were even reports of troops retaliating with gunfire at protests in Quetta, Balochistan and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Across the border to the east, the hashtag ‘#CivilWarInPakistan‘ started trending again. It had become a popular trend ever since the TLP protests of April 2021 resulted in fierce clashes and a nationwide internet shutdown, and resurfaces whenever the political or security situation in Pakistan seems grim: which is much more frequent than would be preferable.
After 4pm on May 9, it had become clear that protesters had not only breached the Lahore corps commander’s residence, but had also ransacked the entire place. Visuals of a fire raging during the early evening were followed by videos of masked agitators walking in the Jinnah House, upturning decorations and furniture, exhibiting their own power by ransacking what they presumed to be the centre of the Pakistan army’s power in Lahore. As the sun set, the fire only grew: by nightfall, the entire Jinnah House was in flames, and more videos emerged of protesters having stolen items, including fancy birds, from the corps commander’s house. One masked protester could even be seen wearing Lt Gen Salman Ghani’s uniform, replete with medals, as he declared the military to be servants of the people.
But what really happened at Jinnah House on May 9?
Rumours and speculation on the events of that day have acquired a life of their own, especially since May 12, when the Pakistan army officially announced that it had “recalled” the Lahore corps commander, Lt Gen Salman Fayyaz Ghani, to GHQ and dispatched Lt Gen Fayyaz Hussain Shah in his place. While it is widely presumed that Lt Gen Ghani will take charge as Inspector General (Arms) at GHQ – a position he held previously, which has been vacated by Lt Gen Shah as he assumes his new command – there has not been any confirmation or clarity to that effect.
In audio messages circulating on communication platforms, whose authenticity is yet to be completely verified, it is emerging that Lt Gen Salman Ghani, former corps commander of IV corps stationed in Lahore who was “recalled” to GHQ on May 12, had informed chief of army staff (COAS) Gen Syed Asim Munir that he “would not open fire on his own people”. Since he had already informed his chief, when the time came and the protesters ransacked Jinnah House, the corps commander’s official residence, Lt Gen Ghani reportedly “made calls to everyone, but nobody responded, nobody even answered his phone”. The as-yet unidentified female speaks highly of Lt Gen Ghani, saying he is a kind man and had refused to authorize the use of lethal force against ‘civilians’, because of which she believes Gen Asim Munir “did all of this”.
The female, purportedly a relative of Lt Gen Salman Ghani and intimately associated with his wife Fatima, also offers choice expletive words for army chief Gen Syed Asim Munir who, according to her version, is responsible for “abandoning” the Lahore corps commander while his house was under attack. She begins narrating the events, as allegedly told by the former corps commander’s wife to a certain Munib who in turn told her, that they and their children Ibrahim and Khadija were in the lounge when the protesters entered Jinnah House.
The female says that she thought Lt Gen Ghani would not be home at that time, but he was there in the residence with him wife and two children. The family knew that the situation would be getting bad, but perhaps even they did not expect it to spiral out of control so quickly. The first protester who entered wielding a stick came up to Fatima and demanded to know who she was. She replied that she was a resident of that house, at which the protester told her that they would not harm her. The female reiterates that the protester told Fatima “you are respectable for us” as they asked her to go inside a room.
As daughter Khadija went inside and Fatima stood in the doorway, Lt Gen Ghani and his son Ibrahim stayed in the lounge as the protesters yelled at them and encircled them. “Salman bhai didn’t say a word to any of them,” the female stresses, before she adds, “such a senior army officer, a general commanding a corps at Lahore, living in Jinnah House which has been attacked, but no army reached for his rescue”. “This was done against him (Lt Gen Ghani) with planning, because he stood up to them, he said he would not give any orders” for bloodshed in Lahore, the female asserts.
“Salman bhai just stood there, silently and patiently, he kept standing there. It was only when they starting lighting the place on fire that he sent his wife and son to the room as well,” the female claims. “After that, they put a ladder somewhere on the wall behind the residence, and snuck away to the house that shares a wall with Jinnah House, where Mehreen apa, sister/cousin of Justice Bandial, lives,” the female explains. “Salman bhai stayed inside, he just told the protesters that he will take serious action if anything happened to his children,” she says, before adding that “there was a lot of weaponry inside the house, but he (Lt Gen Ghani) stood silently, because he had already told Asim Munir that I will not take action, I will not kill my own people”.
This audio, which has yet to be authenticated or claimed as true by the person who recorded it, paints Lt Gen Salman Ghani in a very pleasing and positive light: that he had been abandoned and left helpless in order to make him suffer for allegedly disobeying orders. However, senior journalist Umar Cheema has a different report on the matter. Cheema claims that Lt Gen Ghani in fact allowed the protesters to come into Jinnah House, in some ludicrous hope that he could reason with a violent mob that had been steadily fed Imran Khan’s anti-establishment narrative for over a year.
While Cheema clarifies that he does not believe the former corps commander Lahore invited the protesters inside, he states that Lt Gen Ghani did allow the protesters to breach the Jinnah House compound without being challenged by security personnel. Cheema also said that Lt Gen Ghani is widely presumed to favour Imran Khan, which could be a reason why his station and his reputation was targeted. However, Cheema mentioned that “when Imran Khan chooses a target, he does not care whether the target loves him or hates him,” implying that if there was any conspiracy to attack the Lahore corps commander’s house and also denigrate Lt Gen Salman Ghani, then Imran Khan was also a part of it.
If Pakistan’s miltablishment and its powerful elite do not learn any lessons from May 9, then it is very likely that such dark days could visit the country again and again.
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