REWIND to 2007: seminary students at the Lal Masjid-affiliated Jamia Hafsa in Islamabad, occupy the children’s library next door, and then attack video shops and beauty parlours. They also rough up several police constables.
Musharraf’s government looks on passively for months as Lal Masjid students, reinforced by armed militants, escalate their campaign under the leadership of the two clerics Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The brothers declare that Pakistan army soldiers who die fighting the Taliban will not be entitled to Muslim burials.
Finally, after months of inaction, the government decides to clear the mosque, and in the process, scores of militants and seminary students, as well as several soldiers, are killed. The media goes berserk, accusing the government of a massacre.
Does any of this sound familiar? Today we have a situation where a couple of demagogues have been encouraging their supporters to defy the state and take the law into their own hands. They have incited mobs who have beaten up policemen, broken into the state TV’s offices and vandalised and stole equipment, and invaded the premises of parliament.
The PM has adopted a policy of masterly inactivity.
During this entire episode, the government has acted with a restraint bordering on apathy. True, Imran Khan and Qadri have been craving martyrs to put further pressure on Nawaz Sharif, but by turning the cheek to every provocation, the government has sent out a dangerous signal of weakness.
Not even the most liberal democracy permits symbols of the state to be attacked by rampaging mobs. While the freedom of assembly is a fundamental democratic right, the working of the executive and the judiciary cannot be hampered by unruly protesters. And yet this is what was happening in Islamabad on a daily basis.
Recently, one photograph that appeared in the media around the world summed it up: four thugs in Islamabad armed with batons beating up a uniformed policeman who is on the ground with his arms around his head. This image underlines the weakness of the Pakistani state, and the threat to the system posed by Imran Khan and Qadri.
Next came the news that a senior police officer had been badly injured by PTI-PAT supporters. Then we saw images of a mob breaking into the PTV office. And the anti-Geo campaign has been a constant feature of the entire protest, culminating in an attack on its staff and office.
All these bizarre happenings are difficult for the rest of the world to digest: people abroad just cannot understand why the government does not act firmly to prevent this insanity. Nobody can comprehend Nawaz Sharif’s laid-back attitude in the face of this effort to remove him and destabilise the system.
Despite all this violence, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a PTI leader, absolved his party of any illegal acts while addressing a joint session of parliament. But he and his leader, Imran Khan, have constantly been inciting their supporters, as has Qadri. For them to now disclaim responsibility is hypocritical and dishonest.
But if the joint session did nothing else, it did show how isolated Imran Khan has become politically. Qadri has no parliamentary seats, but the PTI is the third largest party in the National Assembly, and does have a stake in the system. While ordering his party members to resign their seats, Imran Khan cannily hung on to the KP Assembly where he has a majority. A bird in the hand…
Unable to gain any support from other parties, and faced with the prospect of dwindling numbers waiting to hear his daily diatribe, the PTI leader appeared to pin all his hopes on his supporters in the army. But even they must have been appalled by his sheer irresponsibility and brinkmanship.
Nawaz Sharif, meanwhile, is hanging on by his fingernails. In the face of pressure, he has adopted a policy of masterly inactivity. He is counting on the army’s reluctance to intervene directly, and the country’s growing fatigue with the antics of the clowns at the Islamabad circus.
But by appearing ineffective, he has become a lame-duck prime minister. This is similar to Musharraf’s slide following the Lal Masjid crisis. Then, too, his unwillingness to uphold the rule of law in the face of provocation from the clerics and their followers sent out a message of weakness.
What this sorry episode has done is to confirm the image of politicians as jokers in the eyes of the military. As it is, the officer class is indoctrinated with an unflattering view of civilians. But when politicians engage in their periodic tussles for power, they only make themselves look ridiculous to the army, as well as to the people they represent. Small wonder opinion polls repeatedly show the low level of respect enjoyed by our ruling elites.
Imran Khan prides himself on being internationally known. But by behaving as he has done of late, he is finally being exposed for what he is: an authoritarian figure with little respect for democracy.
Published in Dawn, September 6th , 2014