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Siege of Islamabad: what next?

September 06, 2014
The author teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The author teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

THOUSANDS of fanatical followers, led by the cleric-cricketer combination of Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan, hold Islamabad hostage. A year ago such a possibility seemed remote. What of the future? In the years ahead, this pair may become irrelevant.

But with the dangerous precedent they have established, hard-line clerics disaffected with the army’s betrayal, and operations such as Zarb-i-Azb, may give the call to occupy. The marching orders could also come from Caliph Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS or some other radical leader; their literature is already being circulated around. Thereafter, from the hundreds of madressahs in and around the city, charged mobs armed to the teeth will pour out to fulfil their holy duty. Nuclear Pakistan would have the world sitting on edge.

Speculation? Perhaps, but not without cause. Islamabad’s vulnerability now stands twice exposed. The first time was in 2007 when the Lal Masjid clerics went on a rampage, declared rebellion against the state, and imposed their brand of Sharia on Islamabad. It took the lives of a dozen Pakistan Army commandos to defeat them. Hundreds, including children, died. More significantly, it began a new era of suicide attacks on marketplaces, public squares, police stations, and army installations. Since the time, around 30,000 lives have been lost.


People have wisely refused to support the violent destruction of the government.


Back to the present: the Khan-Qadri duo has brought a new level of instability to Pakistan. Hapless citizens, glued to their television sets, watched Pakistan’s heavily fortified capital fall to protesters. Privately hired cranes tossed aside concrete barriers and shipping containers, while razor wire was cut through by professionals. A demoralised police was initially too afraid to follow attack orders.

From the shadows, the Pakistan Army — an institution known all too well to the Baloch and Bengalis — has, with uncharacteristic calm, watched Pakistan’s state institutions taken over by violent thugs. But rather than restore law and order, it chose to confer legitimacy on the insurgents by advocating negotiations. The brief takeover of Pakistan Television by PAT/PTI agitators did not result in any subsequent punitive action; the occupiers left shouting “Pak fauj zindabad”.

What’s the game plan here? Cricketer Khan’s is clear enough: create enough chaos so that the elected government can be forcibly overthrown. Subsequently, it will not be difficult to find a pliant Supreme Court judge who would favour mid-term elections. Then, perhaps with a little reverse rigging, he would be hurled towards what he sees as his rightful destiny — becoming the prime minister of Pakistan. The goals of the mercurial Holy Man from Canada are less clear; keeping the pot vigorously stirred is all that we’ve seen so far.

Now for the good news: the people of Pakistan wisely refuse to support this violent destruction of government. Popular opinion today roots for stability and calm. In an unprecedented display of unity, the PML-N and PPP, Pakistan’s two largest political parties, announced they are on the same page. You know a national consensus has emerged when the right-wing JUI party of Maulana Fazlur Rahman and the Jamaat-i-Islami share the same bottom line as the left-wing Awami Workers Party and Women’s Action Forum.

Of course, the consensus goes no further. Justifiably, there is criticism of Nawaz Sharif’s naked nepotism and the appointment of his family members to important posts. Justifiably, people dislike the Sharif brothers’ style of personalised governance. And, justifiably, there is a call for electoral reform, as well as to protest last year’s partially rigged elections.

On rigging: haven’t these allegations been vastly amplified by the losers? When did Pakistan last see fully free and fair elections? International, and most domestic, observers saw nothing extraordinary. Nor did I, while standing in line to vote. Moreover, the outcome was consistent with pre-election polls. But this clearly did not flatter the cricketer’s super-sized ego. He had hoped for more than just a KP government. Now, through means fair or foul, he wishes to capitalise upon the army’s distaste for Nawaz Sharif and refuses to take his chances at the ballot box four years away.

It shall be a grim day for Pakistan should Cricketer Khan become Prime Minister Khan. Khan had openly supported the Taliban even under the brutal occupation of Swat in 2009, and refused to condemn them when they shot 14-year old Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting to go to school. Khan went into a frenzied fit after the killing of TTP supremo Hakeemullah Mehsud by a US drone, making it clear that he would rather shoot at drones than terrorists. Whether out of a serious perceptual disorder or political ambition or to atone for his playboy past, year after year he has sided with those who have been blowing up our children’s schools, killing Pakistan’s citizens, police, and soldiers. This is why the Taliban wanted him as one of their representatives in the failed peace talks, and why he carries the nickname of Taliban Khan.

Pakistan’s two wannabe messiahs promise a new Pakistan, and their gullible followers have swallowed it. Protesters interviewed on TV channels speak of a Naya Pakistan where electricity is free and plentiful, and where all have jobs of choice. They do not ask how. In actual fact, governance in KP is no better after the PTI’s year-long stint in power.

Worse yet, Khan has had nothing to say about the horrific targeting of Pakistan’s religious minorities, or the use of the blasphemy law to terrify them. Pakistan’s Christians cannot forget his callous remarks after the Peshawar church bombing one year ago. While the Model Town tragedy is to be roundly condemned, the Khan-Qadri duo is silent about the hundreds who have either gone missing in Balochistan, or were later found in mass graves.

The duo’s circus has gone too far in disrupting the capital’s life. It appears to be petering out but if not then it is time to end it. If persuasion does not work, the use of an absolute minimum amount of force will be entirely legitimate. Islamabad’s citizens have rights which the agitators are violating, and which the state is obliged to protect.

The author teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, September 6th , 2014