Perhaps this is getting a little ahead of the game, but it’s worth saying nonetheless. There is a good chance that we are witnessing a turning point in our recent history. A series of developments in the recent past indicate that the country is being steered in a direction that leads away from a growing role for religious forces in public life, and towards a conception of state and society that we might call ‘liberal’.
The cynics amongst us say no such thing is happening, that the developments are superficial, and more driven by more pragmatic considerations rather than a deeper change of heart at the top. They may be right, but thus far both sides — those allowing themselves a modicum of optimism and those pouring cold water on the idea — are only surmising. They’re connecting the dots differently from each other rather than presenting any clinching evidence to substantiate their position.
Examine: The tightening noose
Here’s why I’m allowing myself some optimism.
There are reasons to believe that the changes we are seeing on the surface have deeper roots.
The civilian leadership has recently surprised us with a few moves. The prime minister (and his team) has stood up to two of his core constituencies, and has remained steadfast in the face of a third constituency that was never his but was always one he was fearful of.
The two core constituencies are the traders and the ulema. The non-core constituency is public-sector labour unions. The government has remained on track against the trader community with its efforts to get them to file their returns, even if it has worked to try and come to an understanding with them first by developing a voluntary tax compliance scheme. If the scheme fails, which it will in all likelihood, the withholding tax on bank transactions by non-filers is likely to remain because it has acquired a momentum of its own now that it has proven itself to be a decent revenue earner as well.
The other core constituency is the ulema, who have been left complaining loudly about the women’s protection bill passed by the Punjab Assembly, as well as the stricter enforcement of laws against hate speech. Long before the ruckus around the women’s protection bill, Maulana ‘Diesel’ was already on the warpath, saying madressahs were being targeted under NAP, mosques were coming under surveillance, and congregation leaders were being picked up for giving sermons described as ‘hate speech’ by the Punjab government.
Thus far, the government has stood its ground in both cases. This newfound will on the part of the government to defy its core constituents is something new and could presage a change in its electoral strategy altogether.
In the third case, the government has withstood the challenge from PIA workers in an unusually strong way. The previous Nawaz Sharif government was famous for its fear of the public-sector unions and their nuisance power on the street, to the point that those appointed to lead the drive towards privatisation grew visibly frustrated at being told to soften their approach to the point of becoming ineffectual.
Much of the legislation required for privatisation was passed successfully in those days, but when it came to reforming the entities themselves, the real meat of the privatisation process, they used to demur.
So it is with some interest that I’ve watched the government take an unbending stand against all three constituencies. All three are groups that in the past the Sharif brothers have either been fearful of, or sought to embrace. So when they defy or shun them today, and remain steadfast in that posture for months on end, turning a deaf ear to the bleats of protest coming from these camps, part of me does wonder whether something fundamental has changed.
There is another reason to believe that the changes we are seeing on the surface have deeper roots.
Consider this: most officers in the army of the rank of general have had at least some sort of direct experience of operations in the fight against militants. The lower officer corps has been one step further. They have had direct combat experience against the militants. They have watched their fellow officers die in battle in large numbers.
Then there’s the tragedy at the Army Public School.
Direct experience has a way of teaching you things that no amount of reasoning, cajoling and tempting can. Couple this with the growing Chinese embrace, which has a material dimension to it. Pakistan’s relationship with China is no longer just a rhetorical partnership restricted to supporting each other’s position in the UN. Now there are facts on the ground, growing economic stakes, a long-term vision unfolding and even more importantly, a growing military partnership that is largely hidden from public view.
What is not hidden from public view, however, is the disdain the Chinese have for religious militancy, and the deep concern with which they view the prospects of instability in Afghanistan spilling over into their backyard in Central Asia. This concern is revealed in their participation in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, amongst other places.
So we’re seeing unusual things happen across the board. In arenas from economic, to military to cultural, something big is changing. There is a new willingness to take on those who thought themselves beyond the rules laid down by the state. It’s true that the tightening of the noose remains selective. Malik Ishaq and Qadri are gone. Abdul Aziz and Masood Azhar are still around. But doesn’t it in fact make sense to prioritise rather than open all fronts at the same time?
Those who have taken up arms against you come first. Those who have taken up the loudspeaker against you can have a few more days under the sun. It might be too soon to say that things are changing for sure, but today we have more signs pointing in that direction than we have ever seen before. Let’s give history a chance before making up our minds.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2016