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A little dissent, please

December 09, 2017

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WHETHER or not the mainstreaming project was approved by the government, it seems to be steaming ahead with concessions being made to groups espousing extremist and intolerant causes.

It was several months back that retired Lt-Gen Amjad Shoaib, who informally speaks for the security establishment, disclosed in a TV interview that the then DG ISI, Lt-Gen Rizwan Akhtar, had proposed to the PML-N government to mainstream militant religious organisations.

This mainstreaming proposal had two strands; the first encouraged and facilitated the participation of these groups in the country’s electoral politics, the second proposed the recruitment of the militants belonging to these organisations in the security forces. The retired general’s disclosure spurred considerable media excitement about the merits and demerits of such a mainstreaming project particularly when at no point was it made apparent what sort of de-radicalisation programme the militants would have to attend before their induction into the security setup.

Peaceful dissent is vital for society. Each time we have forgotten this, the consequences have been disastrous.

The general complained then about a lack of response from the government to the proposal. The problem with making too many assumptions is that one or more could be wrong. But with no transparency at all about this so-called mainstreaming, a number of doubts emerge.

The first and foremost is the speed with which political mainstreaming is proceedings with Ahle Hadith, and possibly Deobandi, groups being nudged into electoral politics; now even militant strands of the Barelvi movement are being pushed into the fray.

It is easier to see the political strand of the project being executed as its manifestations are public. Nobody has any idea if similar progress is being made in the militants’ induction into the police and paramilitary forces or whether that is on hold or if any de-radicalisation programme has at all been initiated.

My major issue with such policy rollout is that the lack of debate does not allow either the protagonists or the opponents of such a plan to explore the range of likely repercussions. Thus, far-reaching decisions are taken in an environment which can be likened to Alice in Wonderland — ie, where those rolling it out are so committed and enthusiastic about the correctness and the wisdom of their decision that they don’t pause for a moment to consider any adverse scenario.

Sadly, in the current political situation in the country, with next year’s elections approaching fast, other compulsions seem to be coming into play with more than hints that all kinds of strange bedfellows are being ushered in in the quest for ‘desired’ results.

PTI leader Imran Khan’s electoral alliance with JUI-S leader Maulana Samiul Haq; PPP leader Asif Zardari’s U-turn on the policy announced by his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to oppose any extra-constitutional measures to effect change of government and many other pieces fit into the same jigsaw.

Mr Zardari has now gone ahead and endorsed any street agitation by Dr Tahirul Qadri to topple the government. Who knows if the new bonhomie between the two leaders, who were photographed by the media holding hands, could also lead to an electoral adjustment between PAT and the PPP?

If Mr Zardari believes his going along with Tahirul Qadri will net the party some Barelvi votes outside of Sindh (where his once-federal party now finds itself restricted), he may feel his political opportunism is worth it.

Of course, the PPP will need to calculate the loss suffered by the party’s credibility against any gains made due to Tahirul Qadri’s possible support if the two were to go together in any agitation to cut short the PML-N’s tenure and then in any subsequent election.

If the by-elections in Punjab and also KP are any indicator, the PPP’s votes coupled with those accruing to a possible deal with PAT won’t better the Zardari-led party’s chances in any significant measure.

Many of these chess moves, the outcome of which is far from certain, are being played mainly with a view to eroding the vote bank of the PML-N particularly in Punjab and KP.

If you ask my honest opinion, I’d say all these machinations are not needed as the PML-N in-fight involving the doves and the hawks is debilitating enough for the party, and any outside tinkering with the process is wholly unnecessary.

You have doubts about this? Just go and search for the TV interviews of the Punjab government spokesman Malik Mohammad Ahmad Khan in the aftermath of the military and intelligence-brokered agreement which saw the TLYRA lockdown of Islamabad end.

The spokesman was categorical in not blaming anyone but the federal government for the fiasco and watching him holding forth it was difficult to believe that the administrations in the province and at the centre belonged to the same party.

God help the PML-N if the same dichotomy presents itself in the run-up to the elections, in the selection of candidates and the election campaign, despite huge swathes of support for the party in Punjab.

In the fast-emerging political dynamics of Pakistan, my major concern is that the space for expression of any liberal thought or dissent that is seen as hostile by the establishment is leading to disappearances and others repressive measures.

Politically engineer all you want, but for God’s sake do not stamp out dissent by disappearing bloggers, social media activists and political workers. Peaceful dissent is vital for the well-being of any society. Each time we have forgotten this, the consequences have been disastrous.

This week another Lahore-based activist who slammed the Faizabad accord facilitated by the ISI has gone missing. I have no means of saying definitively who is responsible. But the track record of state institutions can perhaps guide us.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2017