Following the dramatic arrest last week of former Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, Thursday saw more arrests of PTI supporters, with a clear message: that there would be no more tolerance of any criticism of state institutions, especially the military and the judiciary (or in Mr Chaudhry’s case, the quasi-judiciary such as the Election Commission). In the first arrest since his, former Interior Minister Sh Rashid Ahmed has been arrested, as has ex-Parliamentary Secretary Shandana Gulzar and TV journalist Imran Riaz Khan. The charge against Sh Rashid related the claim her made that PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari was planning to kill PTI chief Imran Khan. His arrest was particularly significant, for he had made no bones about his close contacts with the establishment. Sh Rashid’s arrest is evidence that the establishment will not give its favourites the kind of protection, or rather immunity from arrest, that they had enjoyed until the removal last Aprill of the Imran Khan government. While other PTI stalwarts enjoyed Mr Khan’s reflected immunity, Sh Rashid had his own relations with the establishment. His arrest may well show that the previous immunity does not apply.
One of the problems with the present wave of arrests is that there seems to be a multiple standard at work, with Mr Khan apparently free to call the military whatever he likes, and to mention individuals disparagingly by name, but his followers are not allowed to cross an unknown red line. The military says it has stopped interfering and is now strictly neutral. However, it seems that it wants to be liked for its restraint. This is not going to happen, because in politics, winning is more important than being right or polite. When the PTI itself was in office, opponents of the establishment were swiftly punished by similar humiliations, as were opponents of the party. The justice system does not permit successful prosecutions of libel suits or defamation cases. The problem is that though neutrality has been declared, the privileges of interference are not being given up. That is something politicians must look after.
The problem seems to be that the realization that persistent interference has led to problems has not been accompanied by the development of a thick skin which could dismiss criticism as misguided. When an institution becomes neutral, it must be ready for the law and the Constitution to rule supreme, not itself.