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Imran Khan and the history of political incarceration

Written by Syed Badrul Ahsan |

Pakistan’s police have been trying for days to take former Prime Minister Imran Khan into custody on the basis of judicial directives. They have attempted to serve him with summons issued by the court. They have failed to do that because thousands of Khan’s supporters have thrown a cordon around his home, determined to prevent the authorities from taking the former leader to prison or produce him in court.

Imran Khan and his followers have come forth with the rather ludicrous explanation that there are fears of the life of the former Premier being in danger if he submits to arrest. Khan has kept mentioning a few people, including Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and a senior army officer, who he believes were behind the assassination attempt on him a few months ago. Khan clearly is of the opinion that the same individuals will be a threat to his life if the police do indeed arrest him.

It is comedy being enacted in Pakistan by Imran Khan and his followers. And it is because it is one of those rare instances in South Asian history when a political leader, one who considers himself an important cog in the wheel of democratic politics, has deliberately taken shelter behind his followers. The police have thus been prevented from doing their job; and the judiciary has been placed in an embarrassing situation because its directives are being flouted by a politician who proclaims ad infinitum that Pakistan should go back to democracy and to the rule of law.

Khan’s action in shielding himself behind his supporters, who clearly have mutated into a mob, and refusing to have the law take its course is unprecedented in modern political history. The story of politics in the Indian subcontinent is replete with instances of prominent political figures submitting themselves to arrest. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, along with their colleagues in the Indian National Congress, never considered shielding themselves from arrest in pre-partition times and spent years in prison. 

In the years of the Emergency in India between 1975 and 1977, opposition leaders were carted off to prison. Once the Janata government took charge after the electoral defeat of the Congress in 1977, Indira Gandhi was placed under arrest and produced in court. She and her followers offered no resistance.

It is a hallmark of politicians of conviction to speak of injustices in society, of the need for democracy to triumph even at risk to their freedom to operate in society. Bangladesh’s history is a long tale of the innumerable times when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested, in the pre-1971 era, by the Pakistani authorities. It takes courage for politicians to wait for security forces to come to them and take them away to prison. 

It is an indelible part of history that in the minutes before the Pakistan army launched military operations against the Bengali population in March 1971, Bangabandhu refused to evade arrest by leaving Dhaka. Twice in his career, once in the Agartala Case and then at his secret trial before a military tribunal in Pakistan in 1971, Bangabandhu was faced with the threat of his life ending on the gallows. He did not flinch.

Bangabandhu’s political associates demonstrated similar political fortitude when the police or other security personnel came looking for them. Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam and others allowed themselves to be arrested and spent months and years in prison. Communist leaders such as Moni Singh stayed in prison for long periods and so did the politician-academic-scholar Sardar Fazlul Karim. For such brave souls, prison was an educative experience. Bangabandhu called prison his second home. 

In Pakistan itself, history speaks of the many times when political leaders were placed under arrest and then were compelled to spend long periods in jail. A number of Baloch leaders, men like Abdus Samad Achakzai, suffered under successive regimes in the country. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Khan Abdul Wali Khan were repeatedly arrested for their political convictions. None of these politicians encouraged their supporters to make it hard for the police to take them into custody.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arrested by the regime of his one-time mentor Ayub Khan in November 1968 and stayed in prison till February 1969. In September 1977, he was arrested by the Ziaul Haq regime and would never come out of incarceration alive. His execution in April did not end the agony of his family. 

Bhutto’s wife Nusrat and daughter Benazir were forced to spend time either in prison or under house arrest at home by the Zia regime. None of these individuals ever contemplated the possibility of evading arrest by calling on their followers to stand guard before their homes. 

Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif have been to jail, have faced judicial proceedings. The police came and in line with orders hauled them off to prison. General Pervez Musharraf, who died not long ago, also experienced life in prison after he lost power and attempted to make a comeback in politics. 

Imran Khan has broken with this long tradition of political incarceration in the subcontinent. He is bitter about the way he was removed from office, which is understandable. He is deeply angry at the way the army, which once raised him to high office, played a pivotal role in his fall. That too is a sentiment not to be overlooked.

But where a mature demonstration politics is the issue, Imran Khan has not risen to the heights. It is improbable that a mob of followers will day after day prevent law enforcers from making their entry into the home of one on whom court orders have been served. Yet that is precisely what has been happening with the fans of the cricketer-turned-politician in Pakistan. 

Imran Khan, whose speeches have been banned on Pakistani electronic media (which again is an act militating against free speech and democracy), would like to respond to the charges against him through video link. 

That would be impolitic on the part of an individual who has been Prime Minister and would like to be in power again. Indeed, by not restraining his followers and not responding to the law by turning himself over to the authorities, the former leader is hammering away at his own image.

In societies struggling for democracy to govern life, the story has always been one of politicians considered a threat to governments holding their heads high when security forces come looking for them, mounting a determined defence for themselves in court and earning their places in history.

Imran Khan has done nothing of the sort. That gives ammunition to the likes of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to denigrate him in public.