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D-Chowk flash in the pan?

Updated April 02, 2016


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

So another D-Chowk protest sit-in, after causing losses to the tune of millions of rupees to the state and considerable anxiety to the citizens, ended with no more than a vague ‘verbal’ assurance to the protesters that their demands will be considered.

The PML-N government once again successfully followed the prototype developed by the PPP administration in dealing with capital sit-ins. Remember what happened when Tahirul Qadri, along with several thousand devotees, was allowed to set up camp in D-Chowk before the last elections.

Well, he was offered no resistance and thousands of his well-disciplined devotees which included men, women and children braved harsh cold winter showers under the open skies to hear their leader proclaim a revolution was round the corner.

Read: Red Zone sit-in by pro-Qadri demonstrators ends after successful negotiations

The military wasn’t about to throw the government to the wolves.

Eventually, they dispersed after an ‘agreement’ was concluded over issues including electoral reform with the question of ‘how’ and ‘when’ of the agreed changes left hanging in the air. It was of little concern to anybody that the Constitution did not provide for any such changes to be incorporated into the law without an amendment. Then of course the same manual was used when Imran Khan’s now fast-fading-from-memory dharna was staged in Islamabad.

On each of these occasions it was clear that the government felt it needn’t do anything radical which could inflame passions further. Time, it had been believed by the then PPP government, was on its side.

The PML-N sat out the challenge. In the end, having taken their campaign to a climax with the sit-in, its leaders had nowhere to go but back and their cause seemed to have suffered irreparable damage. Not least because later it transpired that these pressure tactics were being orchestrated by a section of the establishment with not-so-kosher motives.

Notwithstanding the justified anxiety of the many liberals who wanted the government to forcefully protect public property, uphold the law and hold to account the abusive, foul-mouthed protesters, the latest round wasn’t so easily or quickly attributed to the machination of the establishment.

In fact, if a weekly newspaper usually with solid sources in the PML-N and also the military/intelligence establishment is to be believed the army chief called Justice Asif Khosa, after the latter penned the landmark judgement dismissing Mumtaz Qadri’s appeal in the Salmaan Taseer murder case and upholding the murderer’s death sentence.

The COAS, according to the newspaper, thanked the revered jurist for standing steadfast and extended to him assurances of foolproof security, offering to assign commandos to his security team and providing an armour-plated car to travel in. The paper’s story wasn’t clear if the offer was actually accepted.

But what was clear was that the government’s decision to execute Qadri, which surprised many commentators who felt certain the man would be left in prison for the rest of his life so as not to stir the hornets’ nest, had the full backing of the military.

The military wasn’t about to throw the government to the wolves — in this case supporters of Qadri — after having endorsed and supported his execution. So what then were some of the dynamics at play?

Well, it is said, when the Barelvi organisers of Qadri’s chehlum approached the government they gave an undertaking they’d congregate at Liaquat Bagh, and disperse after their commemoration.

The assurance was extended, among others by the firebrand Maulvi Hanif Qureshi (do sample some of his virulent sermons on YouTube). He is the same man who had earlier submitted an affidavit to the trial court saying he didn’t ‘know any Mumtaz Qadri’ after he had been accused of radicalising Salmaan Taseer’s killer. However, the Barelvi leadership isn’t exactly monolithic. The leader of the Karachi-based Sunni Tehreek, the organisation that came to the fore back in 1992 when one of the first attempts to clip the MQM’s wings was made, had other ideas.

After receiving the establishment’s backing in its love-hate game with the MQM, as a counter to the ethnic-based party, and securing its foothold in several Karachi neighbourhoods with protection-extortion rackets to rival or complement those of other groups, the latest Rangers-led operation in Karachi was said to have also targeted and hurt the Sarwat Ijaz Qadri-led ST. So when the organisers seem­ingly tore up the agreement with the Rawalpindi administration of dispersing peacefully after prayers for Qadri, a group of leaders egged on by the ST chief started to marshal their supporters to march towards the capital.

Among those who marched to the capital were also the followers of Multan-based cleric Hamid Kazmi, whose Barelvi power base has come under threat over the past several years from apparently state-backed Deobandi groups. Mr Kazmi was a minister in the last PPP government and remained incarcerated for a long period at the Supreme Court’s orders after he was cited in a scandal involving misappropriation of funds earmarked for the Haj pilgrimage.

Although normality has now returned to the capital, it isn’t clear whether the cause célèbre provided by Qadri’s execution will continue to be an effective rallying cry for the majority Barelvi Sunni Muslims.

For years, they have watched from the sidelines as the minority Deobandi Sunni Muslims have received state and foreign (read Gulf) largesse and acquired extraordinary clout and power in return for providing the foot soldiers for jihad in such varied locations as Afghanistan and further afield in Central Asia and India-held Kashmir. At a time when the establishment-Deobandi relationship seems finally to have hit rock bottom, there will be no greater irony if the Barelvis decide to assert themselves. The consequences for Pakistan could be devastating.

Let’s just hope like other D-Chowk protests, the latest turns out to be a flash in the pan too.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2016