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One escape too many

Updated November 09, 2018

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THE reports late Wednesday that Aasia Bibi might have been sent abroad after her recent acquittal by the Supreme Court revived fears about more protests erupting in the country.

Among the groups that could return with another series of demonstrations the most prominent is the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) that has learnt how to get the attention of the state, even when some of us continue to debate just how many concessions it has actually been able to extract.

Take a look: Another surrender

It has certainly made the lives of the incumbents difficult by adopting crude ways rather than deft tactics that others in the arena have been unable to apply for one reason or another.

A day after Khadim Rizvi wrapped up his dharna at Charing Cross in Lahore, another set of protesters from outside his group persisted with their sit-in in the vicinity of Data Darbar in the city. This second group went around with a name similar to that of Khadim Rizvi’s group. Their demands were identical, too, but the slogans that they had been raising didn’t appear to have that much of an effect on the government.

The Data Darbar show was not taken too seriously because its organisers had failed to properly showcase their prowess.

After the Charing Cross dharna was wound up as a result of an agreement between the state and Khadim Rizvi & co, the government vowed again and again to punish the rioters who had vandalised public and private property. The TLP on its part recognised the government’s right to go after the vandals, yet beneath these civil exchanges one truth stood out: the efficacy of violence as a vehicle for conveying the message across the country was proven once again.

Read: Is TLP here to stay?

The Data Darbar show was not taken too seriously because its organisers had failed to properly showcase their prowess and demonstrate that they were an outfit capable of forcing the issue through street power — through violence if need be. The Labbaik group at the Darbar, led by Asif Ashraf Jalali, appeared very conservative, and hence, by local standards of significance, could be officially ignored.

It was violence, first of language, then of the usual, physical kind, that caused the split actually. They were one entity not too long ago — the Labbaik protesters are now divided into two camps in Lahore.

Finally, the moment came when Khadim Rizvi decided to branch off in a big way, the bang created by his statement of intent heard far and wide. He wanted action, and was fully committed to stirring up things on his own. He employed language that was foul, but which got his target audience listening. By then, it had been known for some time that the state, or government, didn’t pay heed until threatened with violence.

There are many examples of how those at the helm in Pakistan can ignore the noise, even in areas that others might consider worthy of tackling on an urgent basis. It has been mentioned a few times how some peaceful lobbyists and campaigners have failed to catch the eye of the rulers in Islamabad.

The prime example is that of Allama Tahirul Qadri, who continues till this day to be made fun of for his tendency to strike compromises rather than being able to extend and expand his dharnas. He is a character who gives us so much comfort — and not only because he doesn’t retaliate to our brute assessment of more than how genuine or not his demands are. He is fit to be dismissed as an impostor because of his seeming inability to push for his cause with the requisite force.

Consequently, his calls for justice for the Model Town deaths are ignored, not only by those in power but also by those outside the government who exercise some influence in society.

The dangerous habit of not paying any heed to non-violent campaigners is not limited to the respective governments’ handling of ‘religious elements’. The discriminatory attitude is present in the rulers’ dealing with all kind of protesters, campaigners and lobbyists.

There are a few lucky ones around — individuals — who manage to somehow bring their case to the notice of a powerful functionary through a freak route. But not everyone can be as fortunate as the retired scientist who recently managed to save his lifetime savings in the bank by approaching the chief justice of Pakistan. There are countless others who have been unsuccessful because they are not rowdy enough. Or they do not appear menacing enough, in which case they might be resigned to the fact that nobody is going to as much as even discuss the issue of redress with them.

For instance, laid-off workers of a business are told by a senior person in the government — a minister, no less — that he cannot intervene in their case. He tells them that theirs is a problem related to the false model their industry was working on and there was little that the government could do in the matter. Up against a more violence-prone crowd, this ministerial logic could hardly have stood a chance.

There are surely other aspects to it too, which kind of predetermine the fate of a protest in the making. But in the ultimate analysis, perhaps nothing can beat our reliance on the explanation which says that groups such as the TLP are beyond the focus of our discussion since we believe they are controlled by hidden hands that we recognise all too clearly and see all too frequently. What is the extent of the involvement of these hidden patrons in the TLP’s affairs and, indeed, do these masters still control the TLP like many of us think they do?

These are questions that we dare not ask since that would block our favourite refuge from reality — blaming it on these hidden patrons and then expecting the same hidden hands to take us out of the hole. For our part, we refuse to leave the safety of the escape routes that we have built for ourselves.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2018

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