9th May 2023 is one of the darkest days in Pakistan’s history. No doubt about it. Let me explain why.
According to reports from the Punjab government, some 3400 citizens of Lahore attacked what is considered a symbol of military power in Central Punjab, the Corps Commander’s residence located in the secure environment of Lahore Cantt. Similarly, attacks on military cantonments took place in other cities including Mianwali, Rawalpindi and Sargodha – the three cities which can be described as the heartland of the Pakistan military’s recruitment drives. GHQ was attacked, PAF bases were attacked and some other installations of the military came under attack in what is Central, Northern and Western Punjab.
The first impression one gets after watching video clips on social media was that the PTI local leadership was successful in turning the popular reaction against Imran Khan’s arrest into a chain of violent protests against the military establishment. Protesters destroying the military’s emblem at the gates of GHQ and an angry mob entering the Corps Commander’s residence confirmed that impression. Later, Punjab government officials told the media that it was a protest in which only workers of one party participated and there was no popular presence in any of these protests. For the military, it was clearly an “act of war”—where purely military assets came under attack. Under standard operating procedures, the military was supposed to react with force in the case of attacks on military assets and installations, whether the attack came from outside the borders or from within the country’s borders is immaterial. Remember that this is a military which is fighting two insurgencies within the country’s territory, and in one of these insurgencies, the insurgents have demonstrated their capability right into the center of gravity of military power in the country.
It is truly astonishing that a political party, who rose to power with the help and assistance of the military and its intelligence agencies – a fact that is now well-documented – succeeded in gathering such a large mob of supporters from these cities to attack military installations.
If the Punjab government’s figures are correct, then 3400 protestors forcibly entering the Corps Commander’s residence in Lahore was a sizable number. We don’t know yet how many protestors attacked the main gate of GHQ. Remember that these are not ordinary protestors – they were from Lahore and Rawalpindi. I am 56 years old – I was born and brought up in this land, and in my 32-year long career in journalism, I have always been based in the vicinity of these two cities. My early years were spent in the streets and bazaars of these cities. The people of these cities have what can be described as almost a romantic relationship with the military. Since the 1990s, when the military’s involvement in politics became overt, there grew a sizable segment of society in these cities which was opposed to the military’s involvement in politics. But even this segment didn’t stop romanticizing and mythologizing the military and the men who don its uniform. Lahoris are famous for their romantic attitude towards the military. I have seen Lahoris from the Walled City standing on their rooftops and raising slogans in support of the Air Force pilots who flew over their localities during the 2002 and 2008 military tensions with India. During 1965, war groups of Lahoris armed with batons and Enfield rifles turned up at the border to support their troops. In Rawalpindi, every other family has a member or a relative serving in the military.
It is truly astonishing that a political party, who rose to power with the help and assistance of the military and its intelligence agencies – a fact that is now well-documented – succeeded in gathering such a large mob of supporters from these cities to attack military installations. I think this is not a moment to prosecute the attackers or to avenge the attack; this is a moment to ponder. How did a political party, whose support base is Punjab’s urban classes, succeed in gathering a large number of people with their anger directed towards the military’s installations. At present, military leaders appear to be creating a deterrent against any future possibility of similar attacks. Police and the coercive machinery of the state are meticulously rounding up and preparing foolproof legal cases against those involved in attacking and planning the attacks. The military leadership, through carefully crafted statements, is conveying its resolve not to allow any such attack in the future. There must be a practical need for creating this deterrence in the face of growing political unrest in the country, especially when the military leadership considers these attacks as an act of war.
More than meeting immediate practical needs, these events call for understanding the dynamics, social, political and psychological causes behind the decision-making process of PTI leaders, who according to the military’s official position, planned and executed the attacks. It is clear that the PTI leadership didn’t decide to carry out these attacks in isolation – they were deeply cognizant of the prevailing political conditions and public opinion in Central Punjab and urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; the PTI planned and carried out these attacks on the basis of extremely heightened levels of anti-military sentiment that had been stoked in these areas prior to these attacks. They were expecting that this kind of reaction to Imran Khan’s arrest would be acceptable to the general public in the kind of mood that was prevailing in this region.
Imran Khan’s narrative and rhetoric have been well received by the Punjabi and Pushtun urban middle classes since his ouster from power. But the state and its machinery are quite well entrenched in these areas, and they have some popular themes to play up when they need to turn the tables on their rivals. The spectacle of burning the building of the Corps Commander’s residence and breaking the GHQ gate’s emblem by an angry mob in Rawalpindi has perhaps shattered Imran Khan’s and PTI’s image. We will have to wait till the October parliamentary elections to see how the counter narrative of the state has influenced public opinion in these areas. But one indication has come already, in the form of PTI stalwarts like Amir Kiani, from Rawalindi and Malik Amin Aslam, from Attock, another military recruitment center, parting company with the PTI. Only a receding tide of PTI popularity would compel these committed party leaders to quit. Pressure from the state machinery is usually not enough in these cases.
Is Imran Khan the new center of gravity? The probable answer in the mind of the median middle class supporter of PTI is that yes, he is – more so because Imran Khan defied all state authorities’ attempts to round him up in spectacles and daily showdowns that were telecast live on news channels.
The second explanation for why such large crowds attacked military installations on May 9 could be that the special relationship that the military enjoyed with these cities and their people is patently an old story now, a story which holds no relevance in explaining the character of these cities in Northern, Central and Western Punjab. There is a probability that the military no longer has an organic relationship with the upwardly mobile urban middle class and elites in these cities; that these cities and their societies have grown out of the magical spell of the military’s propaganda machine. We can’t be sure about this probability, unless we make a serious academic attempt to understand Imran Khan’s influence on the middle classes of Punjab and urban Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In this study, we cannot ignore the fact that Imran Khan started his political rise as a protégé of military spymasters; a large number of retired military officials have remained in his corner since. Imran Khan himself recently started targeting General Asim Munir as a bad guy, and simultaneously claimed ownership of the military as an institution. All this is enough to confuse the middle-class man in Punjab’s urban areas about where the center of gravity exists.
Is Imran Khan the new center of gravity? The probable answer in the mind of the median middle class supporter of PTI is that yes, he is – more so because Imran Khan defied all state authorities’ attempts to round him up in spectacles and daily showdowns that were telecast live on news channels. This is where the military’s myth of omnipotence took a hit and was damaged. Remember that Pakistan is a deeply power oriented, hierarchical society. People here not only romanticize power for power’s sake, they also romanticize those who defy power.
The Pakistan military’s strength in such a situation is simply constructed around its dominance of power structures, which is not a much-adored reality as far as the emergent Pakistani middle classes are concerned.
What we are now looking at on our screens is the military’s attempt to reconstruct its image as the most powerful institution in the country. In this attempt, they appear to be ignoring the fact that societies around them are changing rather fast. Reports and visuals both confirm that the mob that attacked military installations consisted mostly of disaffected youth enchanted by Imran Khan and the PTI’s propaganda machine.
This is where the military’s problem lies. In 2021, Pakistan’s population growth rate was 1.9%, second only to Nigeria. Owing to this, Pakistan has a large young population where about 37% and 67% of the population is less than or equal to 14 and 30 years, respectively. This age group is not at all familiar with the traditional biases and prejudices which the military’s narrative relies on for its strength. For instance, recently I asked a group of young people aged 14-16 years a question over how many times Pakistan had gone to war with India. None had any idea. They were not even aware of the Kargil conflict. If you are not aware of the wars between Pakistan and India, you are likely to be in complete ignorance of all the biases and prejudices that emanate from the stories of these conflicts.
The Pakistan military’s strength in such a situation is simply constructed around its dominance of power structures, which is not a much-adored reality as far as the emergent Pakistani middle classes are concerned. I think the Pakistan military is paying the price for being overly visible and clearly dominant in the country’s political system.
“The people of these cities have what can be described as almost a romantic relationship with the military.”
This and the long passage you write qualifying the love of these core cities for military including rifling up at the border – isn’t that the problem why the Paksitani state cannot evolve or mature… cannot hold itself? You’re a journalist, so perhaps you cam across a certain Mahir Ali’s commentary today at his dig about your loving military. Worth a read.
Dear Umer Farooq
Your article has good intentions but you are prejudiced when you wrote: It is truly astonishing that a political party engineered by the military and its intelligence agencies managed to turn on its benefactors and gathered a riotous mob that attacked military installations. The military has ended up paying the price of its hyper-visibility in the country’s politics.
PTI was not established by the military but it is the hard work of 27 years by its founder Imran Khan. Anyone who know Khan can tel you that he declined favours from both Zia and Musharraf. PTI and Khan have suffered at the hands of some generals and not the institution. So, be fair in your analysis even if you have tried to hide the sins of real beneficiaries of the military, namely PML-N.
Such a shallow bad analysis. Throughout the article I kept finding reason of why author called May 9th a black day. None is given anywhere in this article. May 9th was a day for military to know they can’t be all omnipotent probably. What’s black about it, Mr author?
Looks like the army actually facilitated the mob to easily enter army installations.
Where were the dozens of soldiers who guard these facilities. Did they simply run away from a mob carrying sticks.
Please stop treating the average citizen as an idiot.