The Punjab government’s long delay in releasing the Lahore High Court’s report into the killing of at least nine people at the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) headquarters in Model Town in June 2014 has not brought the provincial administration any benefits. The holding back of the detailed report authored by Justice Baqar Najafi was, according to law minister Rana Sanaullah and other members of the government, necessary because it involved ‘sensitive issues’. There could have been no time more sensitive than now for the report to have been made public on court orders.
The document itself is somewhat ambiguous in precisely pinpointing where the blame lies within the Punjab administration and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN). However, it does nothing to disguise the fact that it believes the provincial government, Sanaullah and possibly Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif himself, were behind those police officials involved in opening fire on the protestors gathered at the Minhajul Quran building in Lahore.
The report makes it obvious that the Punjab administration was responsible, although it leaves it up to individual readers to determine how the sequence of events unfolded or who issued orders to the police to engage with the protestors in a violent fashion. It is of course for this reason that the government thought it necessary to come up with a ‘counter-report’ authored by Justice Khalilur Rehman that essentially focuses on flaws within the Najafi report, including contradictions in the number of people killed and the direction from which the first shots were fired.
These, however, are minor matters in the overall scheme of things. In legal terms, it is up to the courts to now determine what they derive from the findings of Justice Najafi. The report itself lays no direct blame and it can be argued that in this respect it sidesteps what should have been its most basic function. In political terms, however, the release of the report and its content is extremely significant. It could not have come at a more awkward time for the PMLN.
The party is already surrounded by a web of problems and the revival of the Model Town incident adds another strand to this web, threatening to draw the main players closer to the fatal centre of the trap. To add to this, the findings have, as would be expected, been taken up with venom by the PAT chief who is now speaking of another round of protests in the weeks ahead. This of course would come right after the debacle in Islamabad of the previous sit-in by a Barelvi mob led by a mullah, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, that ended with total defeat for the government. At this point, the PMLN cannot really afford more problems.
It is true Shehbaz Sharif has escaped from the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case that has hung over the Sharif family for the last 17 years.
Recent judicial rulings mean he is now set to go head to head with Imran Khan in a clash that will be the centre of attention in the next election.
But it is still possible the Model Town affair could prove to be a deadly blow to his hopes and to those in his government. Even if nothing decisive has been said in the report, the failures of the government and the inadequacies that led to the tragedy are something that will inevitably figure as the election campaign for the 2018 polls gets underway. The ghosts of Model Town, it appears, have come back to haunt Shehbaz Sharif, his family and the Punjab government as it prepares for this significant exercise in gaining support from the people.
This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.