All the pandemonium that reigned in Lahore on Friday – from scattered rallies clashing with deployed troops, to the gaggles of protestors being summarily arrested and whisked away – was focused on one singular point; the arrival of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz at the airport. Their journey was documented in intermittent intervals by the journalists that accompanied them on the flight, and displayed across TV screens that tracked the flight’s tortuously slow progression towards the capital of Punjab. However, as the moment of truth arrived the screens were silent; inside the heavily guarded airport no camera was allowed, and one of the most anticipated moments in this democratic term’s history went without coverage.
However, the journalists on board, armed with the mobile phone cameras a voice recorders managed to get a rushed, blurry picture of the events out to the world. What those images – now freely available on the internet – reveal is quite concerning.
To arrest one man and his daughter, who had voluntarily returned to the country to face incarceration, the caretaker government had deployed what seemed like a whole battalion of troops. As the plane touched the tarmac, it was surrounded, boarded and the pair escorted out under heavy security. The lines upon lines of soldiers, forming human chains by interlocking their arms to surround the returning politicians, are surely iconic images; ones that speaks volumes about the prevailing political situation in the country today.
This was overkill, to say the least. Nawaz and Maryam were not going to abscond; the large deployment was not needed. Perhaps giving the pair the impression that their arrest is permanent and carried out by a determined and mobilized force – whoever they may be – was more important. However, it is difficult to see that this is the image that was actually conveyed.
By preemptively arresting Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) who might lead rallies from parts of Punjab, blocking all access the city and cutting telephone signals, and searching cars passing through checkpoints for cameras, the caretaker government has betrayed a sense of fear. A fear that left to their own devices, PML-N would be able to stage a triumphant welcome for their returning leader and win an important moment in the upcoming elections.
However, by repressing and using overwhelming military and paramilitary forces, the caretaker government has perhaps shot itself in the foot. PML-N’s narrative is all the stronger; the governments excesses and biases all the more apparent. And the image of Maryam Nawaz’s white headscarf alone in a sea of dark military uniforms speaks for itself.