Government in Retreat
The siege of Islamabad, that had disrupted normal life in the capital for three weeks and brought the federal government to its knees, has exposed the government’s incapacity to withstand any pressure from any well-backed religious outfit. But if anyone were to take the story line to a film producer it may be rejected outright on the ground of relying on improbabilities to an extent that even a Pakistani audience might find difficult to swallow.
The agitation was begun by a new organisation, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), believed to have been formed by supporters of Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged for Governor Salmaan Taseer’s murder. The group surprised political pundits by polling more votes than the Jamaat-e-Islami candidate in the by-election to the National Assembly from NA 120 (Lahore).
The agitation and sit-in was against the deletion from this year’s Election Act of provisions that allegedly affected the Prophet’s (PBUH) status as the last of Allah’s messengers. The government, at first, argued that the change was not material, that the revised text did not affect belief in the finality of prophethood and that the status of Ahmadis had not been changed.
The TLY group was joined by other religious parties and collectively they rejected the government’s explanation. The government deemed it prudent to uphold the religious groups’ contention by restoring the original text of the relevant portions in the new Act. But the agitators were not satisfied. After a modest protest in Lahore, during which its leaders were briefly detained, a march on Islamabad was organised and its leadership was assumed by the wider and better known organisation, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The rally was allowed to enter the Islamabad capital territory. It overturned the government plans to allow a dharna at a place assigned by it and instead, chose to occupy a strategic spot that commanded traffic between Islamabad and Rawalpindi and which, perhaps, only an expert could have suggested. They had only one demand: that Law Minister Zahid Hamid should be sacked.
The government launched a media campaign to convince the people at large that nobody could match it in upholding the principle of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, but its efforts to negotiate a settlement did not bear fruit. As the sit-in entered the second week and the hardships of the people of the twin cities multiplied, and the time required to reach the airport from Islamabad increased beyond reasonable margins, the pressure on the government to end the dharna also increased. The protesters, on their part, realised they had the government by its throat. They dug in at the strategic Faizabad cross-section, put up tents and were able to ensure ample supplies of eatables. Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal ruled out use of force to end the sit-in, stating that the agitators were armed and any such action could result in the loss of life.
However, the government hand seems to have been forced by the superior courts. A judge of the Islamabad High Court described the dharna as a “terrorist act” and ordered the administration to end the sit-in within three days. The Supreme Court, too, told the government to secure an end to the citizens’ ordeal. The government says it could not ignore the court orders and an operation was launched against the dharna participants on November 25. The operation failed and the government was driven to despair by the TV channels’ live coverage of the action. Some of them repeatedly highlighted a few of the protesters being dragged and beaten up by policemen. Unfortunately a wrong decision was taken in a state of panic: all, except PTV, were ordered off the air by PEMRA.
Before the administration could mount a second attack, Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Bajwa, intervened. He advised Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi to find a peaceful solution to the matters raised by the protesters. Later the two held a crucial meeting. The PM accepted the Army Chief’s advice to lift the ban on TV channels and allow them to work within the PEMRA guidelines. When the government sought the army’s help in bringing the situation under control, the COAS agreed to release some troops to guard key installations in Islamabad, but ruled out use of the army to force the protesters to end the sit-in.
General Bajwa was reported as saying that the army should not be used against the citizens of the state; a stand that deserves to be hailed by the entire population of our conflict-weary country. However, the army chief’s decision to put the protesters challenging the writ of the state under a religious banner on a different pedestal than those groups of Pakistanis who are the target of Operation Radd-al-Fasad could be misconstrued by the religio-political lobby as a carte blanche to do as they please. It also underlines the source of the religio-political elements’ capacity to hold the state to ransom.
On Sunday night most people, especially in Punjab, went to sleep with the fear of what the next morning might bring. A large number of people were stuck on various roads. Groups of students who had gone northwards for studies or sightseeing were held up on the motorway, hungry, thirsty and uncomfortable. A train had been detained at Gujranwala. The city of Lahore was divided into two parts, one of which was locked down, as a newspaper headline proclaimed, but the other was open to traffic. The Gulberg markets, known for obeying the religious parties’ calls, were welcoming customers with more than usual enthusiasm. Those who attended the music conference on Saturday night woke up late on Sunday morning. And the incorrigible punters, who had gone to the Sunday races were wending their way back home, counting their losses and gains.
But anxiety had gripped the more conscious citizens. A wheel-jam strike for two days had been called by the dharna parties, the stock of petrol was nearly exhausted and only a few petrol stations were selling the fuel at exorbitant prices. There was little hope that the stalemate in Islamabad was going to end anytime soon. While the army had taken up positions at several places in Islamabad, incidentally away from the Faizabad battleground, it was said to have pointed out to the government its mistakes during Saturday’s operation and its failure to read properly the observations of the Supreme Court and the Islamabad High Court.
The Ulema’s demands, as carried on the social media at the time, seemed beyond anybody’s capacity to fulfil. These demands allegedly included: dissolution of the government and the assemblies, framing of a new constitution for khilafat by an interim government; a ban on women appearing on TV without a veil; a ban on co-education, closure of cinema and theatre halls, and immediate execution of all blasphemy convicts.
But by Monday morning, the buzzwords were: khul ja sim sim. The Law Minister had resigned, the leaders of the ASWJ and the government had signed an accord and thanked the army chief and his representative, who also had signed the agreement, for facilitating a compromise. Even a casual look at the agreement text was enough to show that the deal was one-sided. The protestors promised nothing except that they would not issue a fatwa against the deposed minister. The only party that yielded ground was the government, and it alone remains in the dock. The people were said to have heaved a sigh of relief. But several disturbing questions lingered on.
The latest dharna could have serious long-term implications. First, the army’s role in determining what is right and what is wrong is likely to be formalised. It alone can contain the religious militants’ ambitions (up to a certain point, perhaps). Instead of the army sharing the page with the elected government – that was supposed to be the equation between the Big Two so far – now the government may have to seek a place on the military’s page. To that extent, the situation has been further clarified.
The government has been exposed as a toothless, blundering caucus, incapable of appreciating not only what is in the public interest, but also what its own interest demands. The goodwill earned by Prime Minister Abbasi, by bringing some semblance of order to the cabinet’s workings and doing his protocol duties on time, seems to have been wasted. And the government may come under greater pressure in the weeks to come.
The rebirth of ASWJ as a militant force, at a time when the state is under pressure to clip the powers of the Deobandi militants, raises distressing questions. What will happen if the two parties, to what may be a sectarian conflict, decide to capture the state as rivals or as allies? What is clear is that the religious groups have been given a signal to harass the government with fresh demands.
The impact on the fortunes of PML-N is quite obvious. Whether this was the intended result or whether it is an unintended outcome of the dharna, will be debated for long. The party is under assault and the pressure on it might become unbearable by the end of February 2018.
The Rise of the Religious Right
How does one explain the rise of the religious right to its present strength?
There is considerable weight in the view that the roots of religio-political defiance of the state lie in the religious basis of the demand for Pakistan. But while the Quaid-i-Azam envisioned Pakistan as a Muslim, liberal democratic state, the dominant group among his close associates had different ideas. They tried to censor the Quaid’s speech of August 11, 1947 and within six months of his death defined two objectives of the state vide the Objectives Resolution – one upheld liberal democratic values and the other provided for a theocratic dispensation.
It just so happened that successive governments failed to establish a democratic order and did not offer good governance either. They chose to view religious belief as the only instrument of guarding the unity and integrity of the state. Thus, the orthodoxy was appeased by Liaquat Ali khan (Objectives Resolution),Mohammad Ali Bogra and Ch Mohammad Ali (the 1956 constitution of the Islamic Republic), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (the second amendment, the Islamic summit, both of 1974, Article 2 of the constitution of 1973, and the oaths of office), Zia-ul-Haq, (Articles 2-A) 62 and 63 (amended), of the constitution, and the creation of religious courts), Nawaz Sharif (efforts to impose sharia). Ayub Khan dropped the words ‘Islamic Republic of “ from the country’s name but restored them after a short while. He also cleared the space for religious parties by putting political parties out of action.
The result is that now any group flying the flag of religion can threaten the government as no other group of citizens can. The present issue was undoubtedly extraordinarily sensitive, and if the crisis had been prolonged further, the consequences could have been extremely grave.
Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.