ONE thought the moment had arrived. The judges had broken the ring of fear. The prime minister’s tough words reassured the nation. The civil-military leadership were said to be on the ‘same page’.
Yet, when crunch time came, the government capitulated. Surely, it was not the first time the state had been brought to its knees by rampaging zealots, but the terms of submission had never been so humiliating. And the ordeal of Aasia Bibi, despite her acquittal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, is far from over.
It is not just about the content of the agreement; in fact, what matters more is the government yielding to radical clerics who openly called for the killing of the judges and incited mutiny against the army chief. Their call for the overthrow of the civilian and military leadership can be seen as sedition. While the government claims that the accord has helped restore peace, its politics of appeasement has eroded the authority of the state and further empowered the religious right.
One cannot agree more with Shireen Mazari, the federal minister for human rights, that appeasement to “avoid bloodshed” sends a dangerous message to non-state actors, and undermines the very concept of democratic peaceful protest. She is among the few saner voices in the ruling party that is torn by its own contradictions. The division within became more pronounced during the handling of last week’s crisis.
Surely, the policy of appeasement does not seem to be working as the situation remains volatile with the TLP not backing down. The crackdown on rioters in the aftermath is not going to contain Khadim Rizvi and his followers who appear emboldened after the agreement that promises to bar Aasia from leaving the country. It is tantamount to signing her death warrant.
Even more alarming is that the issue has become a battle cry for all religious groups including the mainstream Islamic parties who are threatening to come out on the streets. The blasphemy law comes in handy to whip up public sentiments for Islamic parties of all hues, who had been swept aside in the elections. It is no more an issue restricted to hard-line Barelvi groups such as the TLP. The Aasia Bibi court judgement seems to have brought together squabbling sectarian groups, making it more difficult for the government to deal with the impending challenge.
Despite the warning, the administration had not taken any preventive measures to stop the violence.
What happened last week did not come as a surprise. The religious groups with the TLP in the lead had turned the case into a highly emotive issue. The matter was highlighted with the murder of Salmaan Taseer, the Punjab governor, by his security guard for defending the poor Christian woman. The execution of his assassin Mumtaz Qadri also led to the rise of Barelvi militancy that is represented by the TLP.
The movement is built entirely around the blasphemy question. Its followers not only come from the Barelvi madressahs spread across the country but also draw support among the less-educated, poorer sections of the urban and rural population mainly in Punjab. Notwithstanding the rise of religious extremism in the country, this new phenomenon is more dangerous as it evokes wider emotional appeal among the populace. The filthy language used by these clerics and the open incitement to violence has made the lives of not only members of minority religious communities but also moderate Muslims more vulnerable to mob violence.
Their siege of Islamabad last year contributed to the spectacular rise of the group. The capitulation by the state gave the group the boost it needed before elections. The widespread perception that the security agencies were behind the sit-in in the capital may have also been a factor in its meteoric rise on the political scene. Although the TLP may not have won a single National Assembly seat, it did have a significant impact on the elections securing more than two million votes across the country.
This newfound sense of power was manifested in the recent protests that almost brought the country to a halt and forced the government to sign a controversial, five-point agreement, the legality of which is questionable. Ceding to the demands of a group that refuses to accept the Supreme Court order will further weaken the authority of the government and state.
It was evident that despite the warning, the administration had not taken any preventive measures to stop the violence. There was no clear plan or strategy to deal with the situation. One of the reasons for this paralysis is the PTI’s own soft position on religious extremism. It was the only political party that justified the TLP’s Islamabad siege and supported the demand for the law minister to step down.
Some senior PTI leaders have also attended rallies of extremist sectarian groups and played the religious card in the elections. How can one forget the spectacle of the Punjab provincial information minister visiting the grave of Mumtaz Qadri and paying homage to a convicted murderer? So it was not just a question of the government’s capacity, but also the PTI’s own hidebound views that have been responsible.
It was certainly not a spontaneous movement that had paralysed the country. The TLP was well prepared for protests after the Supreme Court reserved its judgement in the case in early October. The violence spread like a prairie fire, taking law-enforcement agencies by surprise. The statement by the ISPR chief at the peak of the violence giving the impression that the military would not intervene added to the confusion. The statement was more surprising as the TLP leaders were inciting mutiny within army ranks.
Indeed, it is primarily the responsibility of the government to protect the rights of the people and uphold the rule of law. But the issue of violent extremism must also be the concern of the state as a whole, as well as other stakeholders in the democratic set-up.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2018