THERE has hardly been an instance where the state has capitulated so humiliatingly to a group of extremists holding the nation’s capital hostage. The six-point agreement brokered by the military leadership is virtually a document of surrender. A beleaguered civilian administration has signed on the dotted line conceding all the demands of clerics named in what is described as the Fourth Schedule of the police department, or the extremist watch list.
Not only has the law minister been forced to resign, those involved in attacks on the law-enforcement agencies and engaged in unlawful activities are also to be compensated. While the cases against the rioters are withdrawn the government has agreed to investigate the action taken by the law-enforcement agencies that were following court orders. The cleric leading the protesters claims the administration has promised to do more than what has been stipulated in the agreement.
All claims about the rule of law and authority of the state were cast to the wind in order to appease a few thousand zealots. Those behind the casualties suffered by the police during the operation are forgiven. Most intriguing is that a senior ISI officer is also a signatory to the sordid deal along with the interior minister. It is hard to recall another instance of an intelligence official involved in brokering a deal between the government and extremists challenging the writ of the state here.
This policy of appeasement may have serious repercussions for the country’s stability.
Not surprisingly, the clerics went back home triumphant, after paying rich tribute to the army chief for his arbitration. The footage widely telecast on private TV channels of the Punjab Rangers chief distributing cash to the protesters and allowing them to take selfies with him was nauseating. It seemed the zealots were being rewarded for their act of violence when they attacked civilian law enforcers and destroyed public property.
What message was being sent to the millions of people who suffered during the three-week sit-in? The authority of the state has seldom been so compromised. It was not just appeasement but abject submission to the lawbreakers and the non-state actors that has undermined the legitimacy of the civil administration. The whole episode has further empowered radical clerics like Khadim Hussain Rizvi who led the Islamabad protests.
Indeed, the deal has ended the protests that had swept across the country but it has also exposed various fault lines that are worsening the existential crisis the state faces. While a weak and bitterly divided civilian government is mainly responsible for the mess, the civil-military conflict and various centres of power working against each other compounded the crisis.
It is evident that the Punjab government facilitated the march on Islamabad as part of an agreement with Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) thus throwing the problem to the central government. The protesters initially numbering under 1,000 were allowed to block the main highway. No action was taken for days by the administration fearful of a backlash in Punjab. Instead, the government engaged in prolonged negotiations with the TLYRA leaders who remained firm, exploiting the divisions within the government and the PML-N.
It was apparent that the so-called anti-blasphemy protests were well planned and had clear political motives. It was only on the Islamabad High Court’s orders that the administration launched a half-hearted and ill-coordinated police action that was bound to fail with the protesters fully braced to take on a demoralised force. The statement by the interior minister distancing himself from the operation demonstrated the prevailing disarray in the government; no one was willing to take ownership of the action.
A botched operation inexorably emboldened the radical clerics fuelling the protests across the country. Taking advantage of the paralysis of the administration, the protesters went on a rampage blocking the main highways and hindering cross-country transport. The situation was worse in Punjab where the homes of ministers and leaders of the ruling party were attacked. It all seemed well orchestrated.
It was obvious that the military leadership was not willing to use force to clear the protesters in Islamabad, leaving the civilian administration with no choice but to resume negotiations with the protesters, this time with the ISI playing the role of arbiter. The military’s decision to stay neutral in the crisis also seemed to have worked in favour of the violent protesters.
Not surprisingly, the agreement has completely endorsed the TLYRA’s position, with the military’s arbitration. That explains why the clerics leading the protests have been so grateful to the army chief. Indeed, the army’s intervention has helped defuse the stand-off and restore normalcy in the country, but this policy of appeasement may have serious repercussions for the country’s stability.
The sense of victory has given further stridency to a rising Barelvi militancy. The emergence of the TLYRA as a political force and the anti-blasphemy protests have dealt a huge political blow to the PML-N and have brought divisions within the party into the open. Predictably, some legislators have parted ways with the party and publicly supported the protesters.
A major worry for the party leadership is that its support among the Barelvi voters may split undermining its prospects in the coming general elections. The protests and its aftermath may also affect Nawaz Sharif’s plan to address public rallies to mobilise public support in Punjab. It remains to be seen how quickly the party comes out of is shock and is able to successfully address the differences within its ranks.
The shameful capitulation has further reinforced the perception of Pakistan becoming hostage to violent extremists. The events of last week may encourage other extremist groups to bring the government under pressure. Parliament being rendered irrelevant and democratic forces divided may give greater space to non-elected groups and other institutions of the state. What is most perturbing is the stance of the military leadership staying neutral in the crisis. It is not just the government but the state that is being challenged by the extremist forces.
Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2017