Chak de Phatte

Commentary | July 03, 2014

Writing for The Express Tribune​, EWI's Ikram Sehgal discusses the nuances of Pakistani politics.

Ikram Sehgal is an EWI board member, chairman of the Pathfinder Group and served for many years in Pakistan's army. Writing for The Express Tribune, Mr. Sehgal disucsses the nuances of Pakistani politics and the division of territory within the country.

Read the full article here.


Waging guerilla warfare against the Mughals in the 18th century, the Khalsa Sikhs would cross the canals in the Punjab over temporary wooden bridges to launch surprise attacks, while retreating they would quickly dismantle these bridges by uprooting (Chak De) the wooden planks (Phatte) to prevent being chased. The phrase "Chak De Phatte" is commonly used now to describe "Bring the house down!" The Sikhs ruled Punjab using Lahore as their capital for about 50 years till 1849, coincidentally a little over 150 years later the Sharif family rules Pakistan in all but name from their family base in Lahore.

Outraged at the perceived disloyalty of his former friend and appointee, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett, a bitter King Henry II supposedly cried, “who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four of his knights obliged, hacking Beckett to death on Dec 29, 1170 in the cathedral in Canterbury. While certainly no Thomas Beckett, Maulana Tahirul Qadri was once close to the Sharifs, being sponsored by them. They (alongwith quite a few others) now view the Pakistan Awami Tehrik leader as quite “mad” rather than “meddlesome”. There is remarkable similarity with Henry’s knights and the more-loyal-than-the-king Punjab police opening fire at point blank range in Model Town, Lahore on Jan 17, 2014, killing 8 of Qadri’s followers outright (3 died later) including two women, one of them pregnant.  

Shahbaz Sharif claims “out of the loop” innocence about the murder and mayhem let loose by his autocratic governance structure notwithstanding, the cover-up for the Chief Minister Punjab will take some doing. Known PML (N) activist Gullu Butt was seen live on TV running amok smashing dozens of cars while the police looked on smilingly, even embracing him publicly like the favourite son he is. Not exactly Jallianwala Bagh as some claim but remember the Tunisian cart vendor Mohammad Bouazizi sparking the “Arab Spring” with his death on Jan 4, 2011. Model Town and Gullu Butt will not disappear, those wanting to “Chak De Phatte” Sharif Inc will exploit this to the hilt.

Some Punjab PPP leaders are inclined to disobey Zardari and take the Sharifs on.  His “selection and maintenance of aim” (Clausewitz’ first principle of war) fixated on making money, Zardari does not want any “Chak De” sorts to rock the boat. Because of expired leases and doubtful ownership, a massive land grab is ongoing in Karachi. Any guesses why Malik Riaz has suddenly discovered this metropolitan port city? Which may not be a bad thing by itself, what Malik Riaz builds he builds well.   Sindh’s Revenue Dept could not satisfy the Supreme Court (SC) about recovering only 2864 acres out of the 59703 “officially counted” as illegally grabbed. Deaf, dumb and blind to all this, one wonders why the Federal Govt sees no evil and hears no evil about Sindh and Zardari?  

Intent upon bringing the “House of Pakistan” down, the mixed bag of our ill-wishers want to defang us of our nuclear assets. Offsetting the overwhelming numerical advantage of conventional threats this is vital for us.  Those wanting to Balkan-ize Pakistan (short of war) first target emasculating ISI’s effectiveness, that being our first line of defence.  Some in politics and the media within Pakistan are ganging up with our foreign detractors out of crass motivated interest.

Less said about PML (N)’s tacit support for the obnoxious media tirade and innuendos against the Army and the ISI the better. Read between the lines the Army Chief’s confidence about being “prepared to fight the entire spectrum of threats pertaining to national security” conveying marked frustration among the rank and file with the politicians’ attempting to humble their former chief with the ongoing treason case (and its consequent adverse media coverage).  The widely held public perception, the real Sharif agenda is to cut the Army down to size. Things could get worse, Musharraf’s counsel opened a Pandora’s Box by resorting to chess’ “Sicilian Defence”, combative in nature it shuns equality for advantage.  Qadri may be their creation, politically the Sharifs are a creation of the khakis. Skeletons will be dragged out of the cupboard!

The Sharifs have a lot going for them. China is pouring in money in multiple projects, Russia is seeing us for the first time through Chinese eyes and there could be possible lessening of tensions with India.  While still in the doldrums, the economy is picking up. With creditable book-building by a first class privatization team led by Zubair Omer, foreign money buying Pakistani public assets at a good price is a major success. Pick an honest man with capability and he will give you results, very much like Capt Shujaat Azeem has started to deliver for PIA. It would be nice if similarly others not related to the Sharif family are trusted in potent governance positions.

With the vacuum created by US troops pulling out of Afghanistan, we will remain under pressure. Syria, Iraq, Libya, etc are in a mess, the much vaunted Gen Petraeus-trained Iraqi army crumbling before the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) militia changes the geo-political equation. One guess what will happen to the Afghan security forces post-2014? Despite our problems and US reservations, the Pakistan Army remains the best bet in the region.

Islamabad’s D Chowk may not be Tahrir Square but any incident similar to the Model Town excess and all bets are off in this summer’s heat.  If the Sharifs remain hell-bent creating problems for themselves politically, matters may well spill out of control in the streets. Public perceptions notwithstanding, the Army will not use that as an excuse to throw the Sharifs out.  When (and if) the people decide enough is enough, the Army may simply stand by and not bail them out.

Letting Musharraf fly off into oblivion and restraining Pervez Rashid from taking them down the road to perdition, the Sharifs must control their recurring suicidal urge for “Chak De Patte”, bringing their own house down.