It was a bizarre spectacle on the roads of Islamabad in the early morning of November 27. The rabble that had held Pakistan’s capital city hostage for a full three weeks was ecstatic with frenzied joy, while partisans of the government were ducking for cover in embarrassment.
It all started on November 6 when Islamabad was laid siege to by thousands of aficionados of a newly-minted religious movement dedicated, as per its claim, to preserving the sanctity of Prophet Muhammad’s finality.
Under Pakistan’s constitution, the Prophet’s finality is a pre-requisite for ones being classified as a Muslim. A deviant sect of Pakistani Muslims, known as Ahmadis or Qadianis, had been declared non-Muslims through a constitutional amendment brought in by no less a ‘liberal’ than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1974.
The government of the day had itself to blame for bringing the wrath of obscurantist and fanatic religious rabble upon it because it made a grossly botched effort to water down the 1974 law. The tactic backfired when its mischief was quickly discovered by the fascist clergy, which raised the alarm putting the government on the back-foot and forcing it to recant the error.
For the fanatical religious brigade, however, the recant was too little too late. They smelled the rat and trashed the government’s tongue-in-cheek confession that it was a typo error that had changed the wording of the oath, mandatory for anyone running for election, swearing allegiance to the Prophet’s finality.
In what’s rapidly becoming a typical modus operandi for protestors—for any cause under the sun—in Pakistan, the fanatical hordes swooped down on the capital and paralysed it by occupying key highway intersections leading into Islamabad.
They call it a dharna, or sit-in, with followers of this or that political party or pressure-group laying siege to key points of a city of their choosing. It’d started two years ago with the charismatic Imran Khan deploying it, in Islamabad, to press home his demand for the removal of a corrupt and crony-driven Nawaz regime. Imran’s trailblazing effort has since snowballed into a typical pressure tactic.
The government could’ve easily defused the situation and averted its snowballing into a full-blown crisis if it’d only conceded the rabble’s demand for Law Minister Zahid Hamid to resign and accept culpability in the matter. But the government dithered, which only emboldened the rabble to raise the ante; neither seemed to have any concern for the toll the sit-in was exacting on Islamabad’s besieged denizens and those of its twin-city, Rawalpindi.
The country’s apex court, with its seat in Islamabad, took suo motu notice of the dharna and asked the government to resolve it. On November 23, the Islamabad High Court ordered disbanding of the dharna, with force, if necessary, but without recourse to lethal weapons, within 24 hours. The court couldn’t be more specific. But the government still dragged its feet to the court’s annoyance; the court struck back hauling the interior minister for contempt.
When the police finally moved in, on November 25, to tackle the raucous and rowdy rabble, it was at best a botched and half-hearted attempt to vacate the sit-in. The religious terrorists were not only well dug in but had ample arsenal of their own to hit back at the police. They had gas masks to parry tear gas, helmets to foil rubber bullets and tear gas canisters of their own to hurl back at the riot police. In short, they were amply supplied with logistics to take on the law enforcers on a level field. But who could be their munificent benefactor?
A frustrated government then, belatedly beseeched GHQ to come to its rescue on November 26. The army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, on an official visit to the UAE, cut it short and rushed back home. But he wouldn’t deploy his troops to crush the trouble-makers. Instead, he advised the government to sue for peace with the brigade and defuse an anarchic situation gently. But what the government negotiated with the rabble was nothing short of a surrender, a palpable capitulation, of the most abject kind, which rightly triggered jubilation in the fanatics’ camp.
In the six-point agreement— dubbed “gut-wrenching” by most commentators—it signed with the rabble, the government has conceded each and every demand, including the firing of the culpable law minister. It pins down the government to set free all the fascist goons who lorded over Islamabad with impunity and trashed its civic amenities; fixing the damage will be government’s responsibility. So annoying to common sense are the terms of this ignoble agreement that it has enraged Pakistan’s intelligentsia, civic society and free news media from one end to another.
The government has not only ended with mud on its face but the precedent this abject surrender sets for the future is nauseating to think of. Religious fascism has Pakistan by its tail. It’s not going to stop at this one battle won against the government’s writ. It knows that blackmail in the name of religion works and pays handsome dividends.
Curiously, the agreement carries the signatures of a major-general as its guarantor, which clearly points to the military brass not merely mediating the deal between the rabble and the civilian government but also breathing down the latter’s neck to sign on the dotted lines.
The military’s meddling in politics is old hat in Pakistan. But this sordid episode oozes a stench hard to stomach. The chief justice of Islamabad High Court, incensed by GHQ’s crass intervention, has questioned its credentials in a rare and unprecedented outburst in so many words. “Who is the army to adopt a mediator’s role; where does the law assign this role to a major general?” the judge asked.
Pakistan is a long way from answering this thorny question. But in a tiny span of just three days, the country has slid many a miles on the road to a precipice. Earlier, on November 24, the notorious Hafiz Saeed, head honcho of the UN-sanctioned Jamaat-ud Dawaa (JuD) was set free, prompting an irate White House to call it “a step in the wrong direction”. India, too, may feel rightly enraged at this rabble-rouser’s freedom.
What it all boils down to is that Pakistan seems unprepared to learn from its own mistakes. It’s frightening, to say the least.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat