The Pakistani military dispensation may attempt to divert attention from the country's fragile state by either increasing tensions along the Line of Control or carrying out terrorist attacks within India

Imran Khan’s arrest on 9 May 2023 was not the first time that a former prime minister in Pakistan has been arrested. In fact, the first prime minister to be arrested was Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in 1962, prime minister ZA Bhutto was arrested in 1977 and thereafter executed for murder by General Zia ul Haq. More recently Asif Ali Zardari a former president and leader of the PPP, which is now part of the ruling coalition was also in custody for many years as was the current prime minister Shehbaz Sharif and his brother Nawaz Sharif.

In fact, Pakistan has a long history of former presidents and prime ministers being arrested, placed under house arrest or being forced to reside abroad to evade arrest. Imran Khan, the former prime minister, was arrested by the Rangers a paramilitary force that does not answer to civilian authorities, which is again not considered abnormal in Pakistan but what has come as a shock is the reaction of the populace to his arrest.

There are numerous videos and voice messages flooding social media with images of the Corps Commander’s house in Lahore being ransacked and of arson by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters doing the rounds. These images include protestors walking away with ‘mutton korma’ and displaying a Ping ‘golf driver.’

PPP leader and former president Asif Ali Zardari said in a statement that after the arrest of Imran Khan, riots in the cities were regrettable and shameful. He said he was in jail for 14 years but never allowed party workers to take the law into their hands. “The acts of harming public property and spreading chaos will not be tolerated,” he added.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Wednesday vowed to treat rioters with iron hands, as the government deployed troops in Islamabad, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to maintain law and order following violent protests that erupted across the country after the arrest.

“These terrorist and anti-state elements are being warned to desist from taking the law into their hands, otherwise they will be dealt with iron hands. Safeguarding the motherland and its ideology is more precious than their lives. We will not let their nefarious designs succeed,” the prime minister said in an address to the nation.

While Imran Khan had indeed been increasingly confrontational against the present dispensation, was arresting him the only way to ensure peace? The arrest only seems to have reinforced the perception that yet another civilian government has joined hands with unelected powers to ‘take out’ a popular political leader simply because they threaten their individual interests.

There is no doubt angst exists against the ruling establishment in Pakistan, the fault lines existing in the country are many. It hoped that a pliable Taliban in Afghanistan would be in its interests but that has not happened and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is still actively operating from safe havens there and at the same time the economy is battered and the debt is rising. The arrest of Imran Khan led to a further slide in the Pakistan rupee which touched Rs 300 against the US dollar. Food, fertilizer and fuel are all at lifetime highs and slowly getting out of the grasp of a majority of the population. It is now increasingly difficult for the economy to survive this heightened political instability.

However, in spite of Imran Khan’s popularity, it is unlikely that his supporters can literally walk into the Corps Commander’s house in Lahore which naturally will be protected by armed guards and rip out its belongings. The possibilities of this happening to the official residence of 4 Corps Commander which has 10 and 11 Infantry Division under him are well-nigh impossible unless the army itself is divided or the riots are being instigated and stage managed by the establishment.

In a twist to the ongoing events, the Supreme Court of Pakistan nullified the arrest of Imran Khan in the Al-Qadir Trust case on the evening of 11 May and ordered that he be released. The three-member bench that passed the orders on Thursday included the Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial. The apex court then sent him to the Police Lines Guest House in Islamabad and ordered that he be presented in the lower court again the next day. The Islamabad High Court on Friday granted the for,mer prime minister broad protection from arrest in multiple legal cases against him. The options now are that he is either released or re-arrested in some other case which could even be inciting violence.

However, Pakistan has a history where the credibility of even the chief justice has been questioned. The role of the army, the power centre of Pakistan will now be under scrutiny. If the judgement is accepted and fresh elections are announced then it will no doubt be an emphatic victory for Imran Khan and the PTI. Will General Asim Munir who had taken over from General Qamar Javed Bajwa in November 2022 and had earlier been removed as the ISI chief by Imran Khan in June 2019 now assert himself or is there a divide in the army. There are also rumours regarding the role of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Sahir Shamshad Mirza who may emerge as the man in control of the levers of power.

The scenarios hence range from one extreme to the other: Imran Khan walks out free and fresh elections are ordered but happy endings have been rare in Pakistan as it seems headed into greater disorder or Imran Khan is rearrested as he faces a multitude of charges and is branded as anti–national and staus quo remains as far as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) is concerned. They remain in place with the backing of the army. The protest movement that has signs of being stage managed takes a shape of its own and there is widespread arson and looting a sharp division of opinions in the polity and unrest on the streets, this leads to the Army deciding to step in and impose martial law once again. To compound all these scenarios is the role of the President of Pakistan Arif Alvi belongs who belongs to the PTI and the judiciary which sees itself as being independent.

There is no doubt that the degree of popularity enjoyed by Imran Khan be it due to his cricketing background or personal charisma is very high. The ruling dispensation feels that by branding him and his supporters as anti-national elements this support will reduce and the case to ban him from contesting elections will be watertight.

As far as India is concerned, the issues of the implosion of Pakistan have been discussed by several analysts over the years. The simplest answer is to let Pakistan proceed on its downward spiral. To quote Sun Tzu: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Without a doubt, civil war and the breakup of Pakistan will have serious security implications as there is always a fear that the ruling dispensation which in this case is the military will try and divert attention by either increasing the tensions along the Line of Control or by carrying out certain terrorist strikes within India which can result in cascading escalatory steps.

It is therefore important for India to guard itself against any such possibilities by keeping the LoC secure and intact and this will demonstrate to the international community that it is a responsible power.