IT does not get any better. Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi has held out a warning to the TLP leaders, threatening to put his arms around them and locking them in a rib-cracking bear hug, for there is no other way to view his remarks that he will embrace and engage them.
After Prime Minister Imran Khan’s tough warning to the lawbreakers, following Aasia Bibi’s acquittal by the Supreme Court, to not take on the might of the state as they will be crushed, Mr Afridi had predictably echoed his leader’s sentiments.
With his tall, broad and imposing frame and a daunting stare, he is known to inspire awe in his opponents. This, coupled with a wagging finger, can melt away the resolve of any adversary within a matter of seconds.
Long-held positions are not abandoned at the drop of a hat, even when they don’t appear to be as expedient as they were earlier.
Therefore, those critical of the minister’s words and saying his Senate statement most definitely marks the complete capitulation of the PTI government to the street power of the TLP must be making him the most misunderstood, misinterpreted man in the country.
All of the above would have been true had Shehryar Afridi not gone on to elaborate what he meant. He says he showed to the TLP the video clips of protesters who were involved in arson, assault, loot and plunder but the party had apparently disavowed any connection with the lawbreakers.
The minister is a keen sleuth too. Perhaps the prime minister was aware of his extraordinary capabilities and allotted him a position best suited to his skills, as he went on to blame workers of the opposition PML-N and PPP for being actually involved in violent street protests.
This statement was a bit unexpected as several senior members of the PTI, including Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who otherwise seems to have been assigned the task of attacking the opposition by his leader, had gone on record to appreciate the opposition’s support on the issue.
I use the word a ‘bit’ unexpected for a reason. Try and zoom out of the prime minister’s much-lauded address, decrying the protest leaders some of whom were raising very incendiary slogans with the potential to create chasms in state institutions where unity is vital, and what do you see.
Well, my mind goes back to similar pre-election protests on the issue of an oath of office of elected officials where it was alleged that there had been an attempt made to appease a minority community and move away from the established position on Khatm-i-Nabuwat.
What fell on deaf ears was the view of many respected legal figures that this was not the factual position and that the spirit and the meaning of the oath remained unchanged. Street agitation erupted. Since, this was in the final days of the PML-N’s term, the PTI joined in, almost as if on cue.
At one point Imran Khan said his own party workers were desirous of joining the protesters. As for himself, he did join and address a conference convened to focus on that latest perceived assault on our faith by the government of the day.
Therefore, the dramatic change of heart on coming to power as was initially witnessed had to be a bit of a mirage. Long-held positions are not abandoned at the drop of a hat even when they don’t appear to be as expedient as they were earlier.
One really wishes all political parties and state institutions in the country had the vision to support the PML-N on this single-point agenda and had said ‘no’ to blackmail through street violence, rather than viewing it as an opportunity to destabilise the government and a party that had fallen out of favour.
Now, dealing with any such situation is going to be demonstrably more difficult even if is not absolutely impossible. And there are a number of reasons for this. Civilian politicians and uniformed decision-makers are equally to blame for the current state of play in the country.
State institutions have taken heart from the strategy deployed to crush the MQM in Karachi. They are seen as using the same means in dealing with opposition politicians and the media, and have not even spared bloggers on social media by targeting them via relentless intimidation and even employing the blatant use of force.
While these tactics are used to silence critics of the excesses of the security state and to overwhelm all dissent, there is a publicly expressed reluctance to apply any similar means to those openly questioning the writ of the state.
Worse still, a free pass appears to have been handed over to those who are trying to foment unrest and causing divisions not only in society but also within sensitive institutions where disunity cannot be countenanced. One must wonder in which direction the Islamic Republic is headed.
For their part, successive civilian governments have done little to upgrade the crowd-control capabilities of the riot police force. And even where there are upright police leaders determined to uphold the rule of law, there is now uncertainty and confusion, a problem of low morale.
Arbitrary transfers of respected top police officials on purely political considerations have left some of their finest senior subordinates in leadership roles that are tentative at best. Communication with a few ASPs, SPs and assistant commissioners in Punjab who were assigned to maintain peace in different towns in the province painted a painful picture.
These highly motivated young officers appeared firm that they would perform their job to the best of their abilities to keep intercity roads open and push back the protesters. At the same time, they were also mindful of what they called ‘U-turns’ and ‘Model Town’ type incidents that have cast a shadow over their careers.
Given these drawbacks and the ambivalence demonstrated at different tiers of what constitutes the state, and despite being feeling angry and let down, I would say that the Minister of State Shehryar Afridi was pragmatic. For now, a crushing bear hug is all he could have deployed.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2018