New Delhi: A major crisis is brewing in Pakistan, with the police in the Sindh province putting up a determined fight against the all-powerful military for “abducting” its chief, Inspector General Mushtaq Mahar, and forcibly getting his signature on the arrest warrant of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law Captain Safdar Awan (retd).
The situation is so tense that Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa had to step in and order an inquiry to prevent the Sindh police from going on mass protest leave.
Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on Pakistan’s military affairs, told ThePrint that the Sindh police was finally tired of excessive intervention by the military.
“I would say the Sindh police got tired, but then the Sindh government may have encouraged the police to take this stand,” Siddiqa said. The Sindh government is ruled by the opposition Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
This is one of the rare occasions in Pakistan when the military has been challenged. Sushant Sareen, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in India, said the kind of protest seen from the Sindh police is unprecedented.
“Nobody expected this. Also, Bajwa’s announcement of an inquiry either reveals a complete breakdown of the Army’s chain of command, or that it is looking for a scapegoat,” Sareen said.
Former Indian envoy to Pakistan T.C.A. Raghavan said it is unclear what happened on the night when the IG is said to have been abducted.
“But it shows that Nawaz Sharif’s fiery rhetoric against the chief of army staff and generals has brought to the surface a certain latent hostility that is always there in Pakistan against Army high-handedness,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Vinod Bhatia (retd), India’s former director general of military operations, added that the Pakistan Army has become too overbearing in terms of domestic and international politics, as well as economics.
“Gen. Bajwa has been dictating all Pakistan policies, including when Imran Khan went to the US. I think this controversy will die down, but the simmering sentiments regarding the Army’s behaviour will remain. The Sindh police’s actions reveal a major fault line between law enforcement and the Pakistan Army,” he said.
How the crisis escalated
A political crisis has been looming in Pakistan over the last several days, with former PM Nawaz Sharif launching an all-out attack against the army’s top brass — army chief Gen. Bajwa and ISI chief Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed — from London.
Sharif addressed the first public rally of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a newly-formed opposition alliance, in Gujranwala via video link from London on 17 October, accusing the generals of rigging elections, removing his government, muzzling the media, pressurising the judiciary, and victimising opposition politicians.
This soon translated into massive protests against the Imran Khan government. The protests intensified in Karachi, with Sharif’s daughter Maryam and PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari coming together.
Then, Maryam Nawaz’s husband Safdar Awan, a retired army captain, was arrested from a hotel room in Karachi Sunday when the Pakistani Rangers — the country’s equivalent of India’s Border Security Force — barged into their hotel room at night.
Safdar’s arrest came a day after he raised slogans at Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum, which allegedly hurt the sanctity of the ‘holy’ place. According to the FIR obtained by Dawn newspaper, he was charged under sections of the Quaid-i-Azam’s Mazar (Protection and Maintenance) Ordinance, 1971. The FIR was also lodged against Maryam Nawaz Sharif and 200 others who were present at the mausoleum.
On Monday, Maryam alleged that the police “barged” into their hotel room in Karachi while she was sleeping, and tweeted a video of a broken door handle.
I was in the room, sleeping, when they barged in. https://t.co/1gMEHHUnPx
— Maryam Nawaz Sharif (@MaryamNSharif) October 19, 2020
Ali Zaidi, a minister in Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, responded by saying: “Maryam [is] once again lying that the hotel door was broken.”
A message for all those chanting slogans for the sanctity of vote:
Character, behavior & morality defines the sanctity of vote. Criminals chanting empty slogans will not protect the vote neither the rights of voters. This nation will not tolerate corrupt politicians any more.
— Ali Haider Zaidi (@AliHZaidiPTI) October 19, 2020
However, after Safdar’s arrest, a purported voice recording of former Sindh governor Muhammad Zubair surfaced, alleging that the Sindh police chief was kidnapped by the Rangers and forced to register an FIR against Safdar, Maryam and others. The recording was circulated by a journalist, reported Dawn.
In a statement Monday, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari condemned the arrest and said he was shocked to hear about the incident. He added that the manner in which the arrest was made went against the traditions of Sindh.
Though Safdar was released on bail Monday, there was public outrage over the abduction of the Sindh police chief by Pakistan Rangers.
Maryam told the media: “The police chief’s phones were seized. He was taken to the sector commander’s office and asked to sign the arrest orders.”
Police officers apply for leave, Army chief steps in
The IG, Mushtaq Mahar, went on a protest leave, and at least two additional inspectors general, seven deputy inspectors general and six senior superintendents of Sindh police also applied for leave Tuesday in order to “come out of… shock” caused by the “episode of registration of FIR against Capt (R) Safdar”, Dawn reported.
We request for due Respect, Justice and Fair Play with Police.
Without that police can’t perform up to the expectations of people of Pakistan. #SindhPolice @sindhpolicedmc @OfficialDPRPP pic.twitter.com/I92o4mlg3G
— Addl. IGP Dr. Jamil Ahmed PSP, PPM (@jahmed95) October 20, 2020
— Suhai Aziz (@SuhaiAziz) October 20, 2020
'All senior ranks' of the Sindh Police including the IG to go on leave following the recent situation pertaining to the arrest of Capt. Safdar which they say has left the force 'demoralized and shocked'#Karachi #Pakistan pic.twitter.com/MgDK3aQU16
— Yusra Askari (@YusraSAskari) October 20, 2020
Following this spate of leave applications, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of late former PM Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Ali Zardari, spoke to both Gen. Bajwa and Lt. Gen. Hameed, asking them to probe the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Safdar, and “investigate your institution [and] how it is operating in this province”.
The military’s propaganda arm ISPR then issued a statement saying Gen. Bajwa had taken notice of the “Karachi incident” and ordered an immediate inquiry.
Following this, in a late night statement Tuesday, Sindh IG Mahar decided to defer his own leave and ordered his officers to set aside their applications for ten days “in the larger national interest”, and pending the inquiry into how Safdar was arrested.
10 days? pic.twitter.com/3iXRTwhbim
— Mariana Baabar (@MarianaBaabar) October 21, 2020
The Sindh police also said it was grateful to PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Sindh CM Murad Ali Shah “for coming to the IG House and showing solidarity with the police leadership”.
which he has also assured will be impartial in order to restore the prestige of Sindh police. Sindh Police is also grateful to the chairman of the PPP Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the honourable CM Sindh for coming to the IG House and showing solidarity with the police leadership.
— Sindh Police (@sindhpolicedmc) October 20, 2020