February Issue 2015
The Dawning of the Dharna Age
A 72-year-old man, along with a handful of women and children marched for 2,000 kilometres and arrived in Islamabad in February last year. Mama Qadeer and his comrades had set off from Quetta and after a few days stopover in Karachi, started walking towards Islamabad. They carried portraits of martyred and missing Baloch. They were protesting against Pakistan’s intelligence agencies’ undeclared war in Balochistan.
Thousands of political activists have been kidnapped, many have turned up tortured and dead on roadsides, hundreds remain missing. Despite the Pakistan Supreme Court’s seasonal cajoling, intelligence agencies refuse to come clean. Mama Qadeer’s long march was the longest in the history of long marches in the subcontinent, beating Gandhi’s 80-year-old Salt March. When Qadeer arrived in Islamabad, the city’s citizens didn’t come out to join him. A few young political activists greeted him; he was invited to appear on one television show and was able to address a press conference at Islamabad Press Club, where one patriotic journalist asked him: Why are you bringing your filth to the country’s capital? The longest and probably the most dignified protest in Pakistan’s history failed to find a few inches of column space in the national dailies.
A few months later when Imran Khan, the only real challenger to Nawaz Sharif’s throne, marched on Islamabad along with his more well organised and more dubious political cousin Tahirul Qadri, the nation was riveted. For weeks on end there was 24/7 coverage; the TV pundits put us to sleep every night with reassurances that tomorrow there would be a new order across the land.
Clearly Pakistanis had discovered the power of protest. But they also discovered the limits of this power. These protests didn’t erupt overnight. A million protesting voices have been gathering momentum in Pakistan over the years. And with the advent of satellite TV channels and Internet, these voices are getting amplified.
Press clubs across the country are the preferred sites for some of the most sustained protests. These places are also graveyards of doomed causes: old women protesting for their missing sons, pensioners demanding what pensioners demand — their pensions, government school teachers wanting their jobs made permanent, nurses demanding their back pay. Many of these protesters have been thrashed heartily by the police and Daewoo’s water canons have been tested on them. You don’t really have to belong to a trade union or any organised aggrieved group to protest. There are always individuals with their handwritten protest banners, raising their voice against a brutal police officer, a greedy landlord and sometimes even against their own families.
Why do they turn up at press clubs? Because there is a deep-rooted belief that if you can somehow grab the media’s attention, if a cameraman captures your face with your banner, if you get 30 seconds on TV news, somehow your voice will be heard in quarters that are otherwise not very concerned and somehow, someone somewhere will be forced to do something and relieve you of your misery.
It was against this backdrop that Imran Khan took centrestage in Islamabad. There were cameras mounted on cranes and there were miles of cables and electricity generators to ensure live broadcasts. Even when Imran Khan didn’t say anything, simply climbed on to the roof of the container, the nation sat in its living rooms and watched him pace up and down the container as if it was a preamble to an impending revolution. And when he started to speak, all TV channels, even the ones who detested him, were forced to carry every single word that he uttered. To the viewers at home it was part rock concert, part picnic and part protest. With Imran Khan issuing a deadline every day, the whole thing acquired the aura of a thriller unfolding in daily episodes. Was there going to be blood on the streets? Was the army going to come in marching? When Imran Khan said the umpire was going to raise his finger, media pundits went into a frenzy, speculating about who the umpire might be and why he was taking so long showing the government the finger.
But in the end, a protest powered by cable television and Internet memes wasn’t enough to dislodge the Sharif government. It took the brutal attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School for Imran Khan to call off his sit-in. And while he may not have achieved what he set out to achieve, he has inspired a whole generation of potential protestors.
In the wake of the Peshawar attacks it wasn’t the political parties that came out on the streets, it was that elusive entity, civil society, with its insistence on staying apolitical — and with its flair for flowers and candlelight vigils — that gathered at city squares and tried to reclaim public spaces. It was a brave but doomed effort. Candlelight vigils are cathartic, we can turn up and express our anguish, protesters’ faces are always bathed in a soft glow, but in the end, without any mass political activity to sustain them, everyone goes home feeling only slightly more civil.
Pakistanis have developed a taste for street protest, but they are still not sure whether taking over the streets for a few hours can ensure that they own the streets.
As the year drew to a close, Mama Qadeer was back outside the Karachi Press Club with his gallery of the martyrs and the missing. He has been protesting for more than 1,850 days. He still can’t find justice, or any significant news coverage that might lead to justice. Many turn up to protest their own causes in front of the press club. Even these protestors ignore Mama Qadeer’s protest. Pakistanis might have learnt the art of protest, but they are still to learn the politics of solidarity.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.