LAST night was a rare spectacle. For far too long we have watched our country’s leadership quake at the knees when confronting the forces of bigotry and hatred.
In most cases we watched in horror as rival political factions thought they could use these forces to put wind in their own sails. Nobody, it seemed, had the courage to call them what they really are: marginal voices in this country’s electoral landscape, using violence and virulence as strategies to assert themselves in the public space.
Last night Khan changed all that, hopefully. At least if the moment is to last and not run out of air soon. Last night he took an unequivocal and strong line against religious bigotry and hatred that we have not seen taken in almost two decades. The last time I recall a leader of this country being this clear in dismissing the politics of hate was in the early years of the Musharraf regime, and therein might lie a problem. Because Musharraf’s resolve fizzled out as the increasingly heavy burdens of rule weighed him down.
Last night, Imran Khan took an unequivocal and strong line against religious bigotry and hatred.
What the TLP leadership said in their speeches all day following the announcement of the verdict, joined in by Samiul Haq, was nothing short of incitement to rebel and mutiny within the armed forces, and calls for the violent overthrow of the sitting, democratically elected, government. In other words, some might say the words were truly treasonous, the real treason, not the treason of twitter trolls who bandy this word around like a toy gun.
This is among the most serious of crimes in any polity, and the cavalier manner in which they spoke their words, pronouncing defiance of the law, insurrection within the armed forces, tearing down of the government of the day, was nothing short of condemnable. All day we wondered whether this time would be different, whether this time somebody, somewhere, would find their courage and talk back to these people in a language that is both fitting for a leader, as well as being intelligible for this rabble.
When the announcement came that the prime minister would address the nation at 7:45 pm, there was some amount of trepidation that he would either take a weak line, or try to change the subject by pretending like none of this was happening. In a sense, this trepidation was fed by the experience of what transpired in the aftermath of the Economic Advisory Council fiasco where one of the world’s finest minds was forced to step down from an advisory role for the government because one of the mullahs who was on the warpath all day yesterday thought that the man’s faith was not the right one for public service.
That episode was one in a line of deep bows that the country’s successive leaderships have been taking towards these diminutive, but highly organised, forces of hate that infect our body politic. There was also the memory of the so-called Faizabad dharna still smouldering at the back of people’s minds, and the pathetic end to which it came.
Memories were also stoked of how the PTI used similar rhetoric and tactics against their own political opponents during the 2018 elections. But the stand Khan took at night kindles the hope that perhaps, just perhaps, he has learned a valuable lesson. ‘You reap what you sow’ many said during the day as the protests built up (though never reaching impressive proportions), and the hateful rhetoric poured forth from the leadership of this ragtag crew. Sure, but looks like Khan steeled himself for the harvest.
The judgement authored by Justice Khosa deserves equal praise. Here too, the judgement is ultimately weighed down by the baggage of the moment. The biggest such baggage is the sheer delay: Aasia Bibi had to spend eight years in prison before her conviction was finally overturned. Who will give her those years of her life back?
The judgement spoke basic common sense on top of its legal and religious underpinnings in granting Aasia her freedom. I don’t think it is wise for there to be widespread debate and discussion on broadcast TV about the issue of blasphemy, but the contents of this judgement need to be disseminated more widely.
Importantly, the lower judiciary needs to be made more effective in dealing with blasphemy cases, because a pattern has been in evidence over the last decade and a half or so, where the decision to overturn a conviction is being made higher and higher up in the judiciary.
This begins as a rhetorical battle, but soon it will morph into something far more real. There will need to be concrete steps against those who engaged in the kind of hate-mongering and incitement to rebellion and violence in the wake of the judgement announced yesterday.
After the concrete steps, it will be necessary to seal the equation up so this does not turn into a rolling, endless battle of wills. An example needs to be made, and heads need to be emptied of many delusions. The state needs to find its footing against bigotry, and move out of the reflex of targeting poets, intellectuals and other movement leaders who are working within the ambit of the Constitution.
What happened after the judgement showed what real treasonous language sounds like. It showed the true face of those the state needs to be fighting, dissuading and otherwise containing. Using these people as political pawns was always a bad idea, no matter the ends being pursued. So ultimately the right lessons need to be drawn so we don’t keep finding ourselves on the cusp of such battles.
This was Imran Khan’s finest hour, thus far, but he is in the game for much longer than an hour. Having found the right words, let’s hope he can find the right actions to put behind them.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2018