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Imran Khan is promising Islamic utopia to Pakistanis. It might compel the military to return

The Pakistani military has excellent reasons to avoid staging a coup against Imran Khan. But chances are that soon it will be compelled to exercise its authority.

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The Donkey of Kasur, who protestors employed to represent then Pakistan Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin, was paraded through the lanes, ridden by an effigy of foreign minister Muhammad Zafarullah Khan. Scandalous words and slander were hurled at Mirza Bashiruddin, the second caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Elegant theocratic arguments had given way to Lahore’s famously-colourful vernacular, the judicial investigation report of 1953 riot noted.

Exactly 70 years ago this month, and long before Twitter memes were invented, Islamist-led populism and the political élite of the fledgling republic were locked in a battle to decide whether Pakistan should be led by rural grandees, whiskey-sipping Generals, or the country’s clerics. Dozens died in mob violence and police firing in 1953, the report  would later determine before the first military rule was imposed.

Five years later, the crisis led to Field Marshal Ayub Khan staging Pakistan’s first coup d’état in 1958. And the war for the idea of Pakistan continues uninterrupted. Fresh from winning the Battle of Zaman Park—the botched police effort to compel Imran Khan to appear in court—the former prime minister is planning fresh rallies at the historic Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore.

Since 2008, the country has operated on a kind of hybrid political order, with chosen political proxies of the military being secured in charge of the government. Imran, helped to power by the Generals, was ignominiously evicted by them last year. He is fighting back, though, by seeking to force elections that many believe he is certain to win—and in the process exposing the country to grave dangers at a time of deep economic and ideological crisis.


Also read: Imran saga shows Pakistan’s hybrid govt is deeply flawed. It only adds to his confidence

The anti-Ahmadiyya movement

From 1950 on, communal violence grew across Pakistan’s Punjab province—this time targeting the heterodox Ahmadi minority. Ahmadi preachers and religious gatherings were assaulted in Okara district by armed mobs. The community’s mosque in Samundri was burned down. There were calls to deny Ahmadis access to drinking water, and even space in graveyards. Large mobs turned out in Gujranwala to stage mock funerals for Pakistan’s suave foreign minister, an Ahmadi, and rewards were announced for his assassination.

The movement also saw growing anger against the élite, which had created Pakistan. The Sargodha cleric Ahmad Khan, the judicial investigation recorded, even lashed out at military officers for spending their time dancing and drinking.

Led by the Majlis-e-Ahrar—which had opposed Partition and the creation of Pakistan—the movement of 1950 was a reassertion of power by the clerics who wielded power in the streets and neighbourhoods of northern India. They promised a new kind of regime, which would reconstruct the imagined Islamic utopia of Prophet Muhammad.

The country’s proto-constitution, the objectives resolution of 1949, passed under Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, ceded at least some of these demands. The resolution promised freedom of faith, but also insisted that public life would be governed in accordance with Islam, and asserted that “sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Allah.”

For an Islamic State

Leaders of the Majlis-e-Ahrar claimed the objectives resolution was an incomplete manifesto. The organisation wanted that the Ahmadis be declared apostates, but there was more. Figures like Maulana Aleem Illahi demanded an Islamic state, with the Sharia—not nationalism—as its basis. Laws and the constitution themselves needed clerical authorship. The clerics who deposed to the commission were divided on most issues, but the core of their argument was the demand for a theological state.

Fearing the emergence of wide opposition, the Punjab government dithered in response to the crisis. The province sought to toss the issue to the centre, asking it to discuss these demands with the cleric. The central government, in turn, demanded Punjab impose order—an end it tried, somewhat ineffectually, to achieve by bribing large numbers of local newspapers with funds purloined from the adult education budget.

The riot of 1953 that tore apart Lahore, though, forced the government to act. It ordered the imposition of martial law in several cities, and the clerical protests. The Islamist leader Syed Abul Ala Maududi was given a death sentence but it was later rescinded. The military, meanwhile, realised civilian leaders were ineffective and divided. And under Ayub Khan, simply seized power, establishing a praetorian order that still scars the country.

Each ruler, though, conceded the clerical cause. Ayub, though he sought to break the authority of the clerics, institutionalised Islam within the state to strengthen his authority. Former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto proscribed the Ahmadi faith, and vowed war-without-end over Kashmir. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq gave the clerics an institutional role in law-making.

Also read: Police led assault on my Zaman Park home in Lahore where ‘Begum is alone’, says Imran Khan

The New Medina

Imran’s core slogan of building a Riasat-e-Medina invokes the movement of 1953: A rebellion of the rural petty bourgeoisie and struggling informal-sector workers against the power of both landed wealth and the new English-speaking élite. The Pakistan Imran promises is a utopia where, as scholars Kainat Shakil and Ihsan Yilmaz argue, pious citizens will receive housing, healthcare and jobs. The former prime minister dramatically expanded religious education by the state, and supported the Taliban’s war on the West.

Facing this polemic, Imran’s opponents seem unable to argue for the idea of a secular, modern republic. Twitter battles on Pakistani politics, anthropologists Ghazal Asif Farrukhi and Natasha Raheja have perceptively noted, still involve communal invective. Imran has been represented as Shiva, and his most visible opponent, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, as Kali. Loss of religious legitimacy, clearly, comes with a high price.

Like in 1953, economist Uzair Younus has noted, a fractious and ineffective civilian order runs the country. The government has delayed implementing a desperately-needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, for fear of the harsh impacts it would have on citizens. This self-defeating strategy has compelled the Pakistan government to delay provincial elections in the face of Supreme Court orders.

Faced with the prospect that the military could saw down the branch on which it placed him, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is hurling patronage at the Generals. The military has been given a staggering 45,000 acres for a corporate farming project. The National Assembly has expanded the country’s draconian blasphemy laws, in a bid to placate their religious right. Foreign minister Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto has focussed his diplomatic energies on polemics about Kashmir.

The Pakistani military, facing an ever-growing insurgency from jihadists it helped nurture, has excellent reasons to avoid staging a coup. It has no solutions to the economic crisis, either. The chances are, however, that Imran’s demagogic population will soon compel them to exercise their authority—or make terms for their return.

Either way, it won’t solve Pakistan’s core problem. “As long as we rely on the hammer when a file is needed and press Islam into service to solve situations it was never intended to solve, frustration and disappointment must dog our steps,” wrote justices Muhammad Munir and MR Kayani, the judges who investigated the 1953 crisis.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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