Imran – Between Hardliners And A Hard Place

It used to be hockey once upon a time, it is now cricket. Winning a cricket match against India, after all the mutual war cries on the battlefield and cricket ground, has been the best thing to happen, in a long time, to Pakistan’s cricketing hero-turned-politician, Prime Minister Imran Khan.

A true Pathan, he may keep his handsome chin up. But he is currently besieged from all sides, and analysts at home and abroad have begun to say that he may not complete his term, now into its third year.

He has goofed his way through his first-ever stint in political power, changing ministers and special assistants to man his government with a record that can better that of Donald Trump. He gained office, albeit through an election, but essentially because the all-powerful army, decided to anoint him after being disillusioned with the two earlier options, the Pakistan Peoples’ party and the Pakistan Muslim League of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

He has angered his benefactors, first by messing up governance. At this time last year, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) of opposition parties was, for the first time, attacking the armed forces and even mentioning the top brass by name at protest rallies. The movement frittered away this year because of their own competing ambitions and mutual contradictions. The military mainly, but Imran, at least partially, must get credit for this.

But the movement is back, when the military sees him as ‘interfering’ in its working. He has shown preference for Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the Director General, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is the most powerful wing of the powerful army. Hameed’s visiting Kabul, allegedly at Imran’s behest, and speaking to media, a tea mug in hand, has upset the Chief, Gen. Qaiser Javed Bajwa.

The talk in the Army GHQ, reports say, is that it is one thing to guide the whole strategy and operation that brought the Taliban back to power in Afghanistan, but it is quite another for the ISI chief, albeit a key man in it, to be seen as a peacemaker among the quarrelling Taliban helping them to form their interim government. Also, his alleged role in ensuring key posts in that government for the Haqqani family that runs a dreaded network of fighters that is proscribed by the United Nations, has upset the United States. Seething over the way it was made to evacuate from Afghanistan and looking for scapegoats, the US, holding all the aces at global financial bodies, could get bloody-minded and along with the Taliban, punish Pakistan as well.

ALSO READ: Pakistan-Taliban Ties Won’t Be Easy

Getting funds from friends has been iffy. Saudi Arabia, which took back two billion it loaned last year, has just agreed to $3billion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) wants to impose severe preconditions that Islamabad is loath to accept because of their adverse impact on the domestic front, last week sent back Finance Minister Shaukat Tareen without a pact.

Bajwa transferred Hameed out of the ISI, and had an official announcement made. After a huge public debate for three weeks, Imran has surrendered in this turf war with the army. The tussle shows him up as less trust-worthy by the men in khaki, also vulnerable to his political opponents, ready to pounce upon him. The PDM has revived, this time to protest rising prices of essential commodities.

Like the opposition parties, Imran has a tough time dealing with the Islamists. Some of them have joined the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP)’s “Long March” from Lahore to Islamabad. In a way, Imran is getting the dose of the same medicine he served his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, laying a siege that lasted several weeks and was called off, again, on a telephone call from the Army GHQs.

The TLP’s demands make scary reading for Imran and his government. Besides release of its chief who has been in and out of jail, it wants the government to expel the French envoy in Islamabad because of France’s action against its radical Muslims. The diplomatic fallout of any such action could impact Pakistan’s relations, with not just France, but the entire Western world that is fearful of rising militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  

As the long marchers broke through security cordons last week, the government did the only thing it has been used to – talk with an organization it has banned, and release hundreds of marchers and their key leaders. It is readying to talk also to its own Taliban of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Although many Muslims across the globe are upset with what they perceive as Islamophobia of the West, only in Pakistan, perhaps, thousands take to the streets on this issue and some even die of police bullets.

To return to the Afghanistan developments, they give Pakistan a distinct geo-political advantage over all other stake holders. But Imran cannot rejoice at this victory that is so far proving to be Pyrrhic. The Islamists at home have become bolder and the TLP march is just one indicator. The Taliban rule has resolved nothing in Pakistan’s relations with Kabul, nor within Afghanistan. This has meant more refugees crossing over the Khyber Pass. Pakistan already hosts half-a-million, some for the last four decades. The socio-economic impact of all this is negative.

ALSO READ: Taliban’s Victory Puts Pakistan In A Spot

The US wants to retain more than just a foot-hold in the region and is pressuring Islamabad to allow air operations facilities. Imran Khan has vociferously refused it, but may have to yield, angering the Taliban in Kabul who have warned of ‘consequences’. These are difficult choices and Imran Khan is no Churchill or De Gaulle.

Lastly, the India factor. In the last two decades, despite frequent upheavals, successive governments on both sides have brought phases of understanding and relative peace. But Narendra Modi believes in giving-it-back. He did pay a surprise visit to Lahore to attend a wedding in Nawaz Sharif’s family. But he has simply ignored Imran Khan, when not calling him “Mr Niazi”, an allusion to the general who surrendered to the Indian forces in Dhaka 50 years ago. Pakistan under Imran has become part of his party’s electoral arithmetic.

Khan has lost both ways. He wished for Modi’s success in the 2019 Indian elections, and when that happened, he has been attacking Modi and his government of ‘fascism’ and what not. His anti-India pitch has not worked even after Modi Government’s most provocative action against Pakistan, of dissolving the very entity of the disputed State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Facing all these woes, at home, abroad and with India, Imran Khan and his “men in green” deserve winning the cricket match.

The writer can be reached at

Charlie Hebdo And The Laxman Rekha

A cartoon is “a simple drawing showing the features of its subjects in a humorously exaggerated way, especially a satirical one in a newspaper or magazine.” And a caricature is “a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.”

One must be naïve to dwell on dictionary meanings of the two, trying to know why and how religion and politics, crusade versus jihad, blasphemy and blood-letting have intruded into what should be a medium of amusing enlightenment.

This naivety seems misplaced in a world that is divided between the Macrons who want unrestrained freedom to draw and write at the risk of hurting sentiments and the Mahathirs who want to avenge that, even with violence.

Macron’s France is on edge after the republication in early September of cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH) by the Charlie Hebdo weekly, which was followed by an attack outside its former offices, the beheading of a teacher and an attack on a church in Nice that left three dead. The chain of violence and protests continues, worldwide.

While Macron now ‘understands’ and ‘respects’ the anger his calling the perpetrators of violence ‘terrorists’ has aroused among the Muslim protestors, he resolutely defends the “freedom of expression.” Malaysia’s former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who advocated “moderate Islam” in the last century, now says his call for “killing of millions of Frenchmen” was “quoted out of context.”

ALSO READ: Muslims Have Right To Kill French: Mahathir

For them all, the devil lies in the printed/spoken word, and in the cartoons – or is it the mind at work in these highly polarized times?

Mercifully, some moderate views are also coming forth. Canada’s Justin Trudeau defends freedom of expression but says it is “not without limits” and should not “arbitrarily and needlessly hurt certain communities.” But this was met with violence in Quebec.  

Now, Macron, too, says: “We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.” Though belated, wise words indeed.

This brings me to India and Indians – warts and all. Muslims in some cities have protested – so also have Bollywood biggies like Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah, angering many from their community.

Don’t go by the current phase, or past aberrations — Indians are generally tolerant, even complacent, and do not respond easily, even to something wrong and unjust. For good or otherwise, this explains why so many who do not belong have made it their home.

The government of Narendra Modi, often accused of dividing people, has rightly condemned violence against the cartoons’ publication, but without condoning their controversial content. The underlying message is: why drag in religion (read ‘others’ religion) to show how free a society you are?

I wish all of them observed the “Laxman Rekha.”  Referred to in Hindu epic Ramayana as an impregnable line Lakshmana draws asking elder brother Rama’s wife Seeta not to cross it while he goes searching for Rama. But she crosses that, and is abducted by Ravana. In modern Indian parlance, it refers to a strict convention or a rule, never to be broken.

I am not referring to Ramayana’s red line, but to the modern Indian one that, never really drawn, but was practiced and enunciated by renowned cartoonist R K Laxman.

His lines were indeed, the proverbial “Laxman Rekhas” that told you what is rational. The humour was intrinsic. It stung your mind, but gently. They wove a spider’s web that even the intended target would shrug off. They were not like beehive that a bee-lover or even a bee-keeper would dread to go close to.

They were soft and were minimal – indeed, a few strokes, and it did not require any effort to know which character was being drawn and what was the message.

Press in India has for over two centuries been embellished by numerous cartoonists and caricaturists.     Indeed, Indian cartooning tradition is a positive one, saying the damnedest thing without being venomous. Abu Abraham, O V Vijayan, Shankar and so many others made scathing comments without hurting.

But, arguably though, none has surpassed Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Laxman. Born on October 2, 1921, he died, aged 93, on January 26, 2015.

ALSO READ: Manto’s Relevance In Freedom Of Expression

For over six decades, five of them spent at the Times of India newspaper, Laxman gave those in power a little rap on the knuckles that was no more than a call to correction. It was never a reprimand.

He spoke through his mascot, the battered and bewildered “common man”.  Whatever the changes India has undergone, the “common man” continues to symbolise the quintessential Indian.

Anthropologist Ritu G. Khanduri notes, “R. K. Laxman structures his cartoon-news through a plot about corruption and a set of characters. This news is visualized and circulates through the recurring figures of the mantri (minister), the Common Man and the trope of modernity symbolized by the airplane.”

Friend and former colleague Arun Vardhan says the lines he drew were soft and light and composite in nature. They reflected a southern Indian mind evolved over millennia, at once secular and humane.

That ethos Laxman contributed to is under grave threat. He thrived when the society was not this polarized.  Intolerance has grown, and it is not politics and politicians alone. Social media has ‘democratized’ opinion – indeed, everyone has an opinion — to express and to defend. It has provided a perceived net of anonymity for the person/s to spew venom or hatred. 

Dr Mrinal Chatterjee, Director, Eastern India Centre of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) regularly surveys the media scene, particularly the burgeoning one in several Indian languages. He is pained at the scene all-around but assures me that by and large, the cartooning scene has stayed above the toxicity.  But we both wonder, worryingly, for how long?

People are getting tired. Viral on the social media these days is a collage of old Laxman cartoons wherein the “Common man” and his spouse are asking: why have stopped laughing?

Laxman and his era may be past, but each society needs to draw its own “Lakshman Rekha” if it has to survive and leave something good for the posterity.

The writer can be reached at