Has the state bungled the Islamabad operation?

Our analysts weigh in.
Published November 25, 2017

After nearly three weeks of agitation, the federal government this morning decided to forcefully disperse protesters who had been occupying the capital city's Faizabad Interchange and demanding the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid over his alleged role in the amendment of the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat oath in the Elections Act 2017.

Dawn.com reached out to its experts for their take on the merits and demerits of the government's strategy in dealing with the crisis.

The government itself is responsible for the situation

By Zahid Hussain

Did the government wait too long to take action against the protesters?

Yes, I think they waited too long. They should have dealt with them sooner. For 20 days, the protesters have been sitting there; their numbers have grown, and they have been able to mobilise some support in other cities of Punjab.

The government created the problem by also trying to appease the protesters — and that was the worst thing to do. The situation should have been dealt with at the local administration level.

What could the government have done to prevent the situation from reaching this point?

The protesters should not have been allowed to sit there in the first place. They came from other cities and the Punjab government knew that. They should have been stopped there and it should have been made very clear.

The police were very much capable of dealing with it, but since the government waited for so long, the police morale was affected. When they were finally asked to clear the area, the police were ill-prepared.

Why did the government wait for so long?

First, the government was not very sure of itself. Second, they were actually divided on the issue.

Even before the demand came from the protesters, Shahbaz Sharif had said that the minister responsible for the amendment should be sacked. They had set up a committee led by Raja Zafarul Haq, who said that there was a conspiracy to remove that clause from the election bill.

We have seen contradictory statements being issued by different ministers, and Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law himself made an inflammatory speech [that supported the protesters' viewpoint] in parliament. They then started talking about a conspiracy, but even if there was a conspiracy, it could have been dealt with a lot better.

The government itself is responsible for the situation.

What will be the consequences for the government for taking the police action today, especially with the elections coming up?

This has put the government on the defensive, but I don’t think it will have much effect on the elections. The protesters do have political motives — that much is very clear. It’s not just a religious issue and religion is being used for political purposes.

The Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah has already participated in two by-elections — one in Lahore and the other in Peshawar — and they have now announced their participation in the general elections. This is linked to that: they want to whip and exploit the religious sentiment for their own political objectives.

I am really doubtful that Labbaik will ever become a substantial force

By Tahir Mehdi

Could the government have undertaken the clearance operation earlier?

The elections are near and the Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah has shown that it can create a dent in the PML-N vote bank. This is probably why the government has taken so long, because they had to give it a thought: would a crackdown help Labbaik gain more and consolidate their vote?

What will be the fallout for the government?

This issue is one where nobody can dare take even a slightly different stance. It has been turned into such a high-voltage issue. People can differ and take different positions in private, but when it comes to the public sphere, they will always say the same things that Khadim Hussain Rizvi has been saying, though not in his language.

But at the same time, let’s see how the situation develops. Sometimes issues are turned into sensitive issues. In terms of its popular appeal — and, if you’re talking about elections, whether it’s an electoral issue — I am really doubtful that Labbaik can become a substantial force.

In the public sphere, everyone will say the same thing — they’re all criticising Rizvi on his language, not on his stance — but many things are blown out of proportion rhetorically. Sometimes, when elections take place, it turns out that these things don't have the same value.

How comfortable will the government be in the coming days?

I don’t think the government can sit comfortably until the Eid Milad un Nabi. For Muharram, we all know that it is treated as a security event, but 12th Rabiul Awwal was never that kind of an occasion. But now, it will be treated in the same manner.

What I find utterly hypocritical is the attitude of some news channels

By Zarrar Khuhro

Was the government too slow in taking action against the protesters?

I think the government was caught in a Catch-22. If they take action and violence ensues and there are deaths, what then? I think Ahsan Iqbal articulated that fear very well, that violence is what the protesters want, and with 12th Rabiul Awwal coming up, it would have become a call to arms.

I would argue that the responsibility lies with the Government of Punjab, which allowed these rallies to reach Islamabad. You can look at it from a conspiratorial angle, if you wish, or you could look at it from the angle of ‘Oh, it won’t be our problem anymore; it’ll be somebody else’s.’

If you look at the timeline, it starts with the manufactured controversy over that election bill. You had Sheikh Rashid taking the charge and politicians from across party lines taking part in this witch-hunt. You even had Captain Safdar, so it’s not as if the mythical ‘one page’ the party is supposed to be on exists.

What I find utterly hypocritical is the attitude of some news channels. They start the day with cursing the government and end with sort of a prayer that the government must go. Anything the government does, they hate it.

These are the same guys who, despite the Supreme Court’s orders, were supporting the protestors. They castigate Nawaz — sometimes rightly — for waffling on court orders but, at the same time, they’re in support of the protesters violating what the court has ordered. How do you reconcile that? They are cheerleading the protesters.

The kind of language the protesters have been using against the chief justice and other members of the higher judiciary; if I were to repeat even a fraction of the syllable of what they’ve said, I’d be behind bars. Yet, these protesters are untouchable.

Could the government have done better in diffusing the situation?

They have acted with restraint vis-à-vis the protesters. Of course, they have acted with their typical carelessness as well, such as closing the channels today. The government should have issued a directive to the news channels and had they been in violation of them, they could have penalised them. But that’s not how we roll.

Lastly, the COAS’s oddly worded message will only embolden the protesters and one must ask why he chose to say such a thing at this time.