A MARKED increase in incidents of intolerance and conservative elements’ display of strength and arrogance is quite obviously the result of the government’s failure to present a coherent reply to the challenge from the religious right. Worse, Islamabad does not seem to be aware of the risks to the state its flabbiness is creating.
The government’s decision to avoid a clash with the conservative religious lobby on the issue of the Penal Code section 295-C could be justified only as a tactical change of ground. There is no justification for its abdication of responsibilities to enforce the law out of fear of the forces of intolerance. The impression that the government is afraid of checking any transgression of the law committed under the cover of belief has produced extremely deleterious effects all around. The state functionaries are losing the will to uphold the law and the people are seeking safety in indifference to violations of the rights of the vulnerable, such as the minorities and women.
The government increased its difficulties by choosing to underplay the absolutely heinous murder of Salman Taseer and denying the holder of one of the key constitutional offices normal posthumous honours. It seems the late governor was being deliberately disowned. The message to the people was that the establishment itself was not taking as serious a view of the murder as was warranted and therefore it did not care if the killer was lionised.
One result of this costly lapse was that the government failed to find for quite some time a prosecutor to represent the state at the trial of the governor’s assassin. No responsible authority can afford to be complacent over its humiliation of this order, particularly when it has a large army of counsels that it pays huge amounts to month after month. Indeed, the way the state’s law officers have proliferated and sinecures created for the favourites of the federal and provincial governments is quite a scandal and the establishment has more lawyers on its payroll than it probably needs. Yet the government has difficulty in finding a lawyer to take up its case. The only conclusion is that the state’s writ does not even run within the administration, that it cannot discipline its own minions.
Naturally, all those who privately sympathised with the murderer have been emboldened to do so in public. At the same time all those whose stock in trade is abuse of the people’s belief for political gains are led to believe that the government is on the run and therefore the siege around it ought to be tightened. Their first option is to increase their following by stepping up their campaign to target members of the minority communities.
A latest example of harassment for belief has been reported from Dunyapur town, in the Lodhran district of the southern Punjab. A young couple decided to invest all the money they had earned abroad in education. They began by establishing a small college and it showed good results in the very first year of its opening. Then they built a school which was due to start from Feb 1, 2011. The local clerics and their allies among shopkeepers have launched a campaign against the institutions on the ground that they are owned by Ahmedis. When the beleaguered promoters of education approached the police for protection they were told to pack up and leave as their security could not be guaranteed. The police are reported as saying that they do not wish to intervene as that might invite a backlash.
At the same time, the government’s pusillanimity has emboldened the extremists to exploit any issue. Speaking at a rally against Raymond Davis the head of the students’ wing of a political party is reported to have said that if the government provided a safe passage to Raymond, they would take the law into their hands and kill every American present in the US consulate. And the organisation is not afraid of putting this news report on its website as proof of its commitment to promote terrorism.
Unfortunately, the government is not able to distinguish between consensus and capitulation and it cannot see the injustice it is doing to the people and the coming generations by trying to accommodate hard-core obscurantists at all costs. It is not only yielding political space to a grossly overrated cabal that has done nothing to claim ordinary citizens’ loyalty, it is also guilty of legitimising the extremists’ version of Islam.
It should be understood that abject surrender to extremists or the use of force against them are not the only options available to the government. In fact, neither of these courses is safe. While violence and instigation to violence must be put down with as much strength as our dilapidated state can muster, there is an urgent need to mobilise the people’s intellectual and moral resources for defeating the twin monsters of bigotry and intolerance.
What is happening in Pakistan today is that belief is being exploited to persuade the people to surrender the state to militants and their cohorts wearing different labels.
The people are not being offered a choice between Islam and heathenism, as some of the militants would like the people to believe, the issue is between democracy and theocratic anarchy. While the latter forces are visible in different parts of the country, the democratic forces are yet to join the struggle. One of the reasons for their dormancy could be their fear that their objective, which is much loftier than a defence of the present version of imperfect democracy, might be misunderstood.
But if they wish to guarantee their children a genuinely democratic dispensation they have to hack their way through the cobwebs of fear and join the battle which is not going to be fought in the hills and plains of Pakistan but in the minds of its people. Of course, the period of this struggle can be shortened if the custodians of the state’s resources care to play their due role, but political parties and other civil society organisations cannot afford to wait for the ruling elite to wake up. For them the time to act is now.