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The myth about lesser workers

June 27, 2014
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

IN a revealing moment in some obscure corner of Lahore you might still run into the person who was once hailed as the epitome of the committed political worker. The jiyala, the man and of course the woman, associated with the PPP was once considered to have no match in the country. The jiyalas would be there unflinchingly, emotionally standing by their party in the bad times that routinely confronted it. The other parties and groups would be painted as being bereft of bravado, courage and selflessness. The rest paled in comparison.

Maybe the PPP jiyala is still around. If that is the case, it seems even this much-celebrated and ‘little-rewarded’ species can be of little practical use when both the leadership and the popular support are absent. The myth of some parties not having the kind of committed cadres, meanwhile, continues to be invoked in aid of simplified understanding.

The latest fit of the theory are those who have in recent days been spotted waving the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) flags. They are the fresh batch of the meek who according to the dominant explanation cannot be trusted to go beyond too many hurdles in their way. Scare them and they will soon disperse is the mantra that has been applied one more time, without any consideration for the umpteen instances when this strategy has failed.

The chorus that casts the PAT workers in this weak role draws some of its verve and substance from how their leader is perceived generally by those who criticise his person and his politics. Dr Tahirul Qadri, initially to everyone’s relief and then to everyone’s amusement, gives in too easily, to whoever is in power. He demands and commands revolution but then settles for a ride with Governor Muhammad Sarwar. With such an accommodating man as their leader, it can safely be presumed that his workers would also yield to gentle pushing around. That is not how it turned out in Model Town one bloody afternoon.

The crowds that answer Dr Qadri’s call comprise people who are faithful disciples submitting to whatever their pir deems fit for them.

The operation on June 17 — whether it was an act to remove encroachments or a planned police attack — was aimed at putting PAT workers on the defensive, reminding them just who the boss was here. Whoever masterminded it was apparently working on the assumption that this action would deter Dr Qadri’s stick-wielding force from getting any fancy ideas in their heads. Notwithstanding the legal aspects, the same thought could be behind the large-scale booking of PAT workers when policemen exposed to the advance of Qadri followers in Rawalpindi on the morning of June 23 were attacked and injured in large numbers.

There have since been some reports of Governor Sarwar leading a government approach to Dr Qadri geared towards a dialogue between the two sides. There is even talk that the government might rise above the small matter of a publicised attack on the policemen in Rawalpindi in the greater interest of the country and could withdraw the cases against the assaulting PAT workers. Whatever may happen next on this count, the perception about the Allama’s workers in any way lacking the mettle that sets the jiyala apart from the ordinary follower of a cause or a personality has been shattered.

Pakistani politicians have often been accused of commanding mureed-like obedience from their supporters. Dr Qadri’s case is different: he is actually a pir, a guilt-cleanser with a large following and a provider of solace to souls, indulging in a bit of politics of his own. Just as the leader could be pursuing a role bigger than that of a ruler, that of a patron of rulers, the crowds that answer his call comprise people who are not plain political workers but faithful disciples submitting without question to whatever their pir deems fit for them.

This is dangerous — even though against the violent Pakistani backdrop and to the credit of Dr Qadri there could have been a more dire manifestation of this combination of leadership and manpower. The relationship between the captain and his crew is all the more reason for those trying to control the PAT challenge to show utmost care in their handling of this bunch of ‘revolutionaries’. The old notions that encourage the use of force to frighten away protesters have to give way to a subtler, more informed and realistic tackling of the issue. It could well have been advisable that the rulers tried to find out what it was that was actually bothering such a large group of people — only, the PAT activists themselves do not appear to know too much about what was irking them and what they were looking to achieve. In the true pir-and-mureed tradition they seem ready to take Dr Qadri’s word about their afflictions and the remedies.

The PAT workers have shown they are ready to die for the cause they, actually people by and large, know little about. But the PAT workers are not the only factor that brings out the fallacy of the old, convenient belief that encourages governments to view a group of protesters as a pushover. Despite the backfiring campaigns of the past, in recent years the same ‘technique’ of ridiculing and intimidating has been tried on Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf workers, with a lot of benefit going to the PTI. Imran Khan has since been able to garner a few million votes in a general election and he has held big public rallies all around the country, yet the echoes of the assault which painted him as an ex-playboy leading a band of disillusioned, anti-politics minority continues to be heard to this day.

As Dr Qadri gets similar treatment from his powerful opponents this is as unfortunate a case of self-deception as there ever could be.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2014