Why is Pakistan so Obsessed with Imran Khan?
After the threat of his arrest sparked widespread unrest in Lahore and Islamabad, B J Sadiq explores the complicated appeal of Imran Khan to Pakistani voters.
It felt the most likely setting for what could possibly be the beginning of a bloody civil war; something tragic pervaded the atmosphere on the 14 March 2023. The venue was Lahore’s Zaman Park, a leafy locality commonly calm and intensely serene with a sooty stream in the vicinity, and palatial, old-fashioned houses made of early nineteenth century brickwork.
As the evening fast decayed into a darkening night, it was deafeningly loud, as all around, throngs of Imran Khan supporters pullulated with white fury, flinging stones, heavy stumps of old oak trees, or anything capable of inflicting physical injury at the armed policemen, who responded with tear-gas shelling, water cannons and even bullets.
The 70-year-old Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister and legendary former cricketer, enjoys astronomical popularity and star appeal, and is once more in the spotlight. His residence in Zaman Park presented a warlike scene, with smoke clinging to the trees and stones and pellets strewn about the streets. Hostilities arose for miles around in a confused profusion; roads were blocked with containers, civilian traffic diverted, and such was the urgency among the police that one almost thought that a terrorist of Bin Laden’s stature had slipped out of their control. The entire city shook with horror. Among the wounded were ordinary civilians, targeted remorselessly – old men and women included – all gasping for air.
Moments before the unrest, an unruffled, confident Khan, sporting a black t-shirt as though he’d just returned from a quick run, had tweeted a stirring video message, saying that the police had arrived at his door with arrest warrants. ‘They may send me to jail, or even kill me, but your struggle for a free Pakistan must carry on, with or without me.’ Thousands of supporters reacted emotionally to his call, pouring into Zaman Park, not just from different parts of the city, but from all over the country.
Khan at present is fighting more than six dozen cases in the courts of Lahore and Islamabad, and even though he was given protective bail, the ruling regime sent the police to arrest him. His party’s leadership protested the move, concerned for Khan’s safety; their concerns are grounded in November 2022’s tragic episode, when Khan narrowly escaped an assassination attempt during a protest rally held in Wazirabad, a small hamlet in eastern Punjab. Khan’s right leg was badly wounded, the effects of which persist in the form of a limping gait.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Byline Supplement to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.