Rawalpindi [selectively] cracks the whip on rioters behind the burning of churches in Pakistan

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churches attacked in pakistan
One of the burned churches in Jaranwala (Photo: Social media)

In his farewell speech last year, former Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa expressed concern regarding burgeoning domestic criticism of the Pakistan Army, and opined that “… the reason for this is the constant meddling by the Army in politics for the last 70 years, which is unconstitutional.” He followed this extremely bold admission by stating that “… since February last year, the military has decided they will not interfere in any political matter.”

While incurable optimists and the unversed took Gen Bajwa’s assurances seriously, the majority who belong to the ‘leopard can’t change its spots’ school of thought, didn’t and their reservations were well founded. By talking about “development of national consensus by all stakeholders to sail through the confronted challenges of economy and terrorism,” within just a few days of his taking over as the Pakistan Army chief, Gen Bajwa’s successor Gen Syed Asim Munir has made it clear that Pakistan continues to remain an Army with a country!

Doubts to the contrary that may have still persisted were quickly dispelled after the May 9 protests that saw widespread damage to and destruction of military assets by supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan after he was whisked away by Rangers from Islamabad High Court premises while appearing for another case.

On May 15, a special corps commanders’ conference was held at Rawalpindi after which Pakistan Army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] in its press release stated that “The forum expressed firm resolve that those involved in these heinous crimes against the military installations and personal/equipment will be brought to justice through trials under relevant laws of Pakistan, including Pakistan Army Act and Official Secret Act.”

Given the severity of the anti-army protests, Rawalpindi’s exasperation is understandable. However, by unilaterally decreeing that the May 9 protesters would be tried under Pakistan Army Act, Gen Munir has explicitly conveyed the message that he is very much in the country’s driving seat.  

The very next day, the National Security Committee [NSC] got into a huddle and decided exactly what the corps commanders had already resolved a day earlier. The Federal Cabinet approved the NSC’s decision the following day, and this unusual chain of events leaves no room for doubt that contrary to Gen Bajwa’s assurance about Pakistan Army being “strictly adamant” about keeping away from politics, Rawalpindi continues to rule Pakistan as hitherto fore!

After the burning down of several churches and the dwellings of Christians as well as desecration of their graveyard by mobs in the Jaranwala area of Pakistan’s Faisalabad district on May 16, Gen Munir said that the “Jaranwala incident is extremely tragic and totally intolerable.” His condemnation of targeted violence against the minority Christian community is certainly a welcome step. However, by adding that “… those culpable of committing such crimes will be brought before the court of justice, [Emphasis added], Gen Munir transgressed into the domain of the legislature, law enforcing agencies and judiciary, making it clear to everyone that he’s the one who runs the entire show.  

Besides relevant sections of the Pakistan Penal Code, the August 16 arsonists have also been charged under various sections pertaining to “punishment for acts of terrorism” of the country’s Anti -Terrorism Act, 1997. While this incident definitely calls for stringent action against the guilty, there’s nothing in the media reports to suggest that this horrific incident has any terrorism angle.

However, caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq has been quoted as saying that this incident was a “planned conspiracy” to “light a fire in the country and sabotage its peace.” Gen Munir has also expressed concerns and highlighted “efforts of inimical forces towards creating and fomenting fissures, intolerance, mistrust and violent behaviour among the people to spread anarchy and unrest in the country.” If what Haq and Gen Munir are claiming is indeed true, then invoking the Anti-Terrorist Act is justified, but there are no indications that the August 16 arsonists will be tried by military courts.

According to Islamabad, Wednesday’s communally charged incident of arson has a strikingly similarity with the violent anti-military protest of May 9, as both are allegedly ‘planned conspiracies’ orchestrated by “inimical forces” to drive a ‘wedge’ in Pakistani society- between the Army and people in the former case, and amongst the Muslim and Christian communities in the latter incident. Most importantly, Islamabad has classified both incidents as acts of terrorism.

With so many common denominators, there can be no doubt that just like the accused in the May 9 riots, those blamed for the August 16 Jaranwala incident should also be tried under Pakistan Army Act. If this happens, then it’s well and good, but if it doesn’t, then Gen Munir has  some really serious explaining to do, because while the targets of mobs in both cases may have been different, the intent and object was the same!

Despite working overtime to give the Army’s ruling of invoking the Pakistan Army Act and trying those accused in the May 9 riots by Army courts, ISPR has failed to give this contentious decision even a modicum of acceptability. Au contraire, this atypical move is largely being seen as an expedient tool being used by Rawalpindi [which former Prime Minister Imran Khan referred to as the ‘establishment’]to ‘legally’ intimidate PTI supporters.

While numerous arrests have been made, Dawn has reported that in one of the criminal complaints lodged with the police, eight people who led a mob have been identified and amongst these, one is affiliated with the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat and another with the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan [TLP].

TLP is the same far-right Islamic extremist political party that had paralysed Islamabad for three weeks by blocking roads in 2017 and called off the sit-in only after the Pakistan Army brokered an agreement with the government. Readers would recall that after the protest ended, a two star Pakistan Army General was caught on tape not only handing out envelopes containing cash to protesters but also telling them, “Aren’t we with you too?” [Emphasis added]. In an obvious reference to arrested protesters, the General also gave the unusual assurance that “God willing, we’ll get all of them released.”

Hence, not trying those involved in the August 16 anti-Christian violence under the Pakistan Army Act will only further buttress two palpably pervasive apprehensions- one, that Rawalpindi has a ‘soft-spot’ for TLP, and two, that there’s definitely a lot of merit in Khan’s accusation that he and his supporters are being victimised by Rawalpindi only because he stood up for Pakistan and its people instead of toeing the Pakistan Army’s line!

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