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The chaos-makers

June 26, 2014


The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

THE melodramatic events witnessed this week brought out a characteristic of anarchy in an advanced stage: the difficulty in determining as to who among the chaos-makers is more to blame.

Whatever Tahirul Qadri’s motives for challenging the government at present may be, his right to do so is protected by democratic convention. His ability to collect a horde of devotees to join long marches or for confrontations with state agencies at the barricades seems to have persuaded him to show off simply for the thrill of it. He might go on doing this until he exhausts his resources or his followers get tired of marching to nowhere.

He is also on safe ground while he takes the Punjab government to task for the way the attack on his castle was carried out and the senseless killing of his supporters.

However, his call for regime change is unlikely to be backed by democratic elements. The government derives its legitimacy from the popular mandate it received last year. The allegations of manipulation of the 2013 vote count cannot be exploited by him because he did not join the contest. Nor is his rejection of the Election Commission of Pakistan or the political system of much help to him because his campaign on these issues did not dissuade a majority of people from queuing up at polling stations.

It is doubtful whether the people will endorse Qadri’s agenda for a crypto-theocracy.

Dr Qadri may not be wrong in censuring the government for what he thinks are its failures or shortcomings. But no final verdict can be passed on a government that has barely completed the first year of its five-year term unless its continuance in power can be proved to be contrary to independently verifiable national interest.

The foregoing arguments do not apply to a revolutionary upsurge but it is doubtful whether the people of Pakistan have lost their capacity to make enlightened choices and whether they will endorse Qadri’s agenda for a crypto-theocracy. He does not realise that he is offering comfort to the Taliban, whom he claims to oppose, and showing other clergy-led forces the way to create disorder.

While one can understand the play of outsized ambition on Dr Qadri’s mind, quite incomprehensible is the decision of several political parties to pamper him. Solidarity with the Pakistan Awami Tehreek over the Model Town police brutality was alright but joining its political platform only betrays an extra-democratic craving for the crumbs of power.

On the other side, the government blundered on and on when faced with the Qadri challenge. The operation carried out by the Punjab authorities at his party office in Lahore betrayed a degree of arrogance of power totally incompatible with civilised governance. And the government’s panicky response to Qadri’s arrival on Monday was both inept and suicidal.

Pakistan’s traditionally myopic establishment has often strengthened protest action against it by trying to suppress it with force. It was unnecessary and undue use of violence to quell political protest that started the East Bengal people’s alienation from the state. The tendency to meet political threat through use of brute force has survived, especially in Punjab, despite the success of alternative methods of crowd management.

A memorable instance of the latter tactic was the way the Zia-Junejo administration tackled the unprecedented crowd that had converged on the Lahore airport to welcome Benazir Bhutto on her return from exile in 1986. In the same category fell the previous government’s management of the Qadri long march early last year. By contrast, the Musharraf regime paid the price for subjecting lawyers to violence, and its failure to protect Benazir Bhutto twice has cost the country dear.

The government should seriously ponder whether it was impossible to safely manage the Qadri procession on Monday. What could have happened if Qadri had been allowed to land at Islamabad and proceed to have lunch with the veteran powerbrokers in Gujrat? The plea that the government wanted to protect Qadri against terrorist attacks cuts no ice with anyone. Such excuses have seldom convinced the people. If the government’s fears had a basis in fact, it could have sought support for its strategy by sharing the relevant informative with Qadri and the opposition.

The government left the information minister alone to fend for it and explain away its lack of forethought. Towards the end of the drama in Islamabad the railways minister tried to run his locomotive without a track. The interior minister was not heard of at all though his ministry was mentioned for restricting police violence to the use of batons, and that decision was welcome. Throughout the stand-off at Islamabad and Lahore airports, the government did not realise the risk it was taking by causing loss and annoyance to a friendly airline. Eventually, the denouement at Lahore showed the authorities to be a poor loser.

The crisis the government is facing is much bigger than the pressure from Dr Qadri. That the democratic polity is again being threatened by its traditional detractors is no secret. Indeed there is reason to believe that the various sorties against the government are parts of a single, grand expedition. The government will not be able to win the day by relying solely on its legitimacy, despite the fact that the disastrous consequences of a relapse into extra-constitutional rule can easily be imagined. Any disruption of the democratic system will push Pakistan back to square one, further undermine the federation, and jeopardise economic revival.

In this critical situation the government must seek strength from a broad democratic alliance under which the country’s political parties, at least a majority of them, can join hands to see off the anti-democratic challengers. This is precisely what Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s sensible call means. Nothing less than this will underwrite the survival of the democratic system. Further, nobody should have any doubt that the formula that may help the government ride the storm today will not retain its efficacy forever.

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2014