Imran’s ‘Pirni’: A weapon Pakistan Army has never faced before – Deccan Herald

The road that leads to the Army Corps Commander’s home in Lahore is not only manned and monitored at every point, every car is thoroughly searched by sentries guarding access to the road and to the plush residence. More so, when they know an Indian journalist is in the vehicle!
One of the lingering mysteries of the events of May 9 is, therefore, how a lone woman was able to saunter past a seemingly unmanned guard house and into the sprawling lawns and enter the home of the Lahore Corps Commander, Lt Gen Salman Fayyaz Ghanni.
Following her were a motley crew of men and women carrying sticks and petrol bombs who forced their way into the Corps Commander’s house, Jinnah House, while the serving general and his family were at home. The Corps Commander managed to get his family to safety, escaping through a back door.
Read | Imran Khan accuses govt of trying to score ‘technical knockout’ against him and eliminate his party
As the mob went on a rampage that day and the next in garrison towns across the country, torching the Frontiers Corps in Peshawar, a captured Indian Air Force fighter jet from the 1965 war on the outskirts of Lahore, and other symbols of the Army’s power, including a Martyrs Memorial in Sialkot, the object of their ire was clear – it was the Pakistani military that had dragged their leader, Imran Khan, out of a court premises and kept him in custody until the Chief Justice of Pakistan declared his arrest illegal and granted him bail.
Imran’s nine-hour-long incarceration at the Islamabad High Court on May 12 even after he got bail, even as the streets erupted in protests that seemed suspiciously stage-managed by elements close to the government, was a signal that an undeclared war between the judiciary and the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on the one side, and between the Pakistan Army and Imran on the other, was now a grim reality; as is the far more dangerous portend of a growing schism within the army.
Consider the contradictory reports on the storming of Lt Gen Ghanni’s home. Initial reports had indicated that the General had deliberately stayed away as he had prior knowledge of plans by followers of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party to torch the city. But a video clip shot by one of the mobsters shows the General, dressed in civvies, pleading with the men and women not to trash their house. That’s not all. Insiders now say that the Corps Commander, related by marriage to the Chief Justice of Pakistan Ata Umar Bandial, and whose wife reportedly backs Imran Khan, had deliberately given all but a handful of guards the day off.  
And in a further twist to the tale, officials say that two of the women filmed in the video, allegedly inciting the mob, are Imran Khan’s sisters, alongside his nephew Hassan Niazi, who is also the PTI chief’s legal eagle. As police surrounded Imran’s house in upscale Zaman Park in Lahore late on Wednesday evening, they were demanding the handover of not just the 30-40 rioters who have taken refuge in his house but of his sisters and nephew. The Shehbaz government has thus made it a personal fight for Imran.
Backing Shehbaz is Pakistan’s military leadership, which has through the years stage-managed coups, intimidated opponents, running many out of the country and, as in the case of Imran, propped up political proteges by fostering rigged elections. But a confrontation of this scale, size or magnitude has not been seen before.
The Pakistan Democratic Movement alliance, which includes the Punjab-centric Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto-Zardaris that draws its strength from Sindh and southern Punjab, and the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam, led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, which has a huge following in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, came together in 2018 to thwart Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party. The PTI had no presence in any of these provinces for over 20 years. It was the Army that helped forge it into a formidable political force through sustained street protests to create the larger-than-life image of Imran Khan, the suave 70-year-old cricketer-turned-politician, to bring these very politicians to their knees.  
Today, the tables have turned. When former army chief Gen Bajwa found Imran, his handpicked Prime Minister, refusing to go along with his plans, either on appointments in the military or on nurturing alliances with the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — and far more significantly, on forging peace with India so that he could throw all his military resources to tackle an insurgency on the Afghan-Pakistan border — Imran was unceremoniously removed from the top job.
It has to be seen whether the PDM government, led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, can weather this storm, given that former President and PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari and his son, the foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, are unwilling to take Imran on in the streets, given the Pathan workforce that dominates Karachi and other provinces. Moreover, the top rungs of the judiciary have thrown a protective ring around Imran, giving him bail in the 125 cases he is charged with, until May 31.  
For Pakistan Army Chief Gen Syed Asim Munir, the rift in the ranks of the armed forces over Imran is an unforeseen menace, the threat within. While all 12 Corps Commanders met on Tuesday and made it known that they backed the Sharif government on the use of the Army Act and the Official Secrets Act, which could put Imran away for years together, Lt Gen Ghanni may not be an aberration. He is the norm; one of hundreds of officers in the army who quietly support Imran, who, since he was dislodged from office in April 2022, has shown himself to be adept at fanning the fires within.
His circle of support is insidious, and runs deep. The Lahore Corps Commander’s wife, insiders say, is one of many in the closed club of wives of Generals, bureaucrats and judges and other powerful influencers who have been cultivated by Imran Khan’s third wife Boushra Bibi, who has played a huge role in giving Imran – and herself, the ‘Pirni’ — an almost cult-like status. Boushra’s appearance in court, wrapped in a hijab and covered in white, was, her followers insist, an appeal to the Almighty to ensure she would get instant relief! She did!
Lt Gen Ghanni has since been sacked by Gen Munir and replaced by Lt Gen Fayyaz Hussein Shah, who took over as Lahore Corps Commander on Thursday. But that’s no more than a salve. How will Gen Munir staunch the greater bleeding wound of divided loyalties within the ranks. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the all-powerful Pakistan Army, adept at directing political musical chairs, has been outplayed by a man who has used a cocktail of populism, tribalism and religion to mock and undermine not just the army but the entire political class, too.
Whether it is jail or bail for Imran, it’s Gen Munir who will have to navigate Pakistan’s perilous road ahead. And the challenge posed by this perfidious ‘Pirni.’
(The writer is a senior journalist and former Foreign Affairs Editor of Gulf News who has reported from various hotspots in South Asia and the Middle East)
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