The substance in a protest

Published August 8, 2014
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Ultimately, the essence of a protest is how sensibly and responsibly it is reacted to by those it is aimed at. In Pakistan protests have lost their effect.

The Hazaras sat in vigil for days in Quetta, refusing to bury their dead until the state made its presence felt. The government did finally oblige and one or two ministers were sent to placate the mourners. That’s how far the redress went.

The Baloch set up a hunger strike camp in Karachi and then in Islamabad. They marched through the country seeking to draw the attention towards those who go missing all too easily and frequently. There was little response generally, the most conscientious of the civilians simply confessing that an intervention, let alone attempt at redress, was beyond them.

Inside the more visible Pakistan, a lawyer went down defending a blasphemy accused in Multan. The incident was followed by cries of anguish. It’s been three months and little headway has been made in the investigation, just as, days after a mob attacked homes belonging to Ahmadis in Gujranwala, no suspects are on the radar.


A more earnest discussion right from the start of what issues he had could perhaps have avoided the isolation Imran revels in right now


Sometime ago, doctors were out on the streets in Lahore demanding improvements in their service structures. Their daily demonstrations went unheeded. They next stopped work in selected departments in public hospitals, but still they were ignored.

It took some more extreme actions at the hospitals before the government showed signs that it was prepared to at least hear the protesters out. Even now, while the government claims to have addressed and solved the problem, tension simmers in the ranks of young doctors who think they have yet not been given a fair deal.

There is a pattern to these examples that lays the blame at the doorstep of a state which is either disinterested or which no more has the capacity to even appear concerned at the issues faced by its citizens. In the absence of a responsive, responsible state, the protesters lose their purpose and are expected to fade way after ‘due’ projection on the television screen.

The media itself is a painful picture of frustration and desperation. It highlights issues by the minute but very few of them ever get the government’s attention. The media avoids implosion and releases pent-up energy by replacing the old group of protesters with a new set every now and then. The old ones must now resign themselves to fate and to the non-resolution of their grievances.

This is the state of official unresponsiveness in Pakistan where people in a group — or two groups — are now pressing for a resolution of their problem. They — the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek — have been able to come thus far purely on the strength of their numbers and by overcoming indifference that bordered on ridicule. A smaller group would have just been ignored, disregarding noises being an official policy that seems to have found its most avid practitioners in Mian Nawaz Sharif and his associates.

Equally alarming is the increased or enhanced presence outside the state apparatus of those who must, initially if not all through, dismiss the challenges of a serious nature by resorting to trivialising the challenger. They complement the state’s habit of not taking the protesters too seriously in the interest of keeping things light — too light for our collective good.

The initial dominant response that came to the fore through the media against Tahirul Qadri was one which tried to make fun of him. The tendency remains at this late stage, when a disruptive protest under the allama’s command looms large.

Similarly, Imran Khan, having inspired his share of the jokes, continues to be routinely dismissed as a headstrong individual with little knowledge of politics. But it is precisely this un-thought-out response that sustains him, sets him apart from the rest of the Pakistani politicians and endears him to large numbers pressing for the supremacy of their brand of politics.

The harder they assert themselves, the louder are the taunts that brand the PTI cadres as a bunch of apolitical, misguided souls with nowhere in particular to go. This is the best defence some amongst us have been able to put up against a group whose politics we are, maybe, too afraid to acknowledge let alone discuss earnestly.

If Imran Khan was alien to the country’s politics, the government and his dismissive fun-making critics have aided in further alienating him from the stream here. He was considered someone not quite deserving of serious engagement, the ‘majority’ confronting him secure in their own perceptions of what serious politics in Pakistan is all about.

He was labelled as an outsider and as naïve, and however dangerous his trajectory may seem to the other side now, he has used the situation well to gather a strong, menacing force of the naïve and the outsiders around him And it is only now that the old-timers, the veterans of the system, are feeling the urge to call up each other and discuss ways to deal with the real threat that he poses.

A more earnest discussion right from the start of what issues he had could perhaps have avoided the isolation that Imran revels in right now. So much so that while so many of the wise and the knowledgeable now consider him worthy of urgent placation, there is practically no prominent name around which could be confidently employed as an emissary to the PTI chief.

This is the price you pay for disregarding one protest too many — for pretending for so long that you were only up against a comic character you could use for some cheap entertainment.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2014

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