CHARLES Dickens may well have written the oft-quoted lines from his A Tale of Two Cities for Pakistan, for where else today would you find my chosen excerpt? “… [I]t was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …” fits like a glove.
Yes, it can be said with certainty I was not alone in feeling so, so elated and buoyant that Aasia Bibi’s long, nine-year nightmare was finally over as the review petition seeking the restitution of the death penalty against her was dismissed by the Supreme Court.
The review was filed after the Supreme Court had overturned the Christian farm worker’s death sentence by subordinate courts for blasphemy and also expressed anger and disappointment at the flimsy nature of the evidence and testimonies that led to her conviction in the first place.
Today, the PTI finds itself on the same page as other key institutions and sees that as its major source of strength. It is wrong.
Last October’s apex court verdict, freeing Aasia Bibi was followed by street protests notably by the Barelvi Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan led by Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi but the ferocity of even that TLP protest was considerably less intense than the one witnessed during the final days of the PML-N tenure.
It was a widely held view that the sudden rise of the TLP owed itself to powerful backers in the establishment as it seemed first deployed to destabilise the PML-N government and then to fragment the Sharif-led party’s electoral strength in last July’s elections.
One could argue it served both purposes rather well and seemed to be on its way to becoming a party with street power as well as useful electoral strength. However, the TLP leadership may have overestimated its own power and influence.
When the TLP protesters took to the streets after last October’s court verdict, some of the leaders made totally over-the-top speeches. Whereas till then their wrath had been reserved for the civilian rulers and judges, now they were castigating the military leaders and instigating the ranks to rebel.
At this stage, it was clear to many that the TLP’s days were numbered. The leadership was picked up a few days after a face-saving agreement that Aasia Bibi would not be allowed to leave the country till the Supreme Court had completed a review of its decision.
As the top leadership remains incarcerated, it is clear that further inroads have been made into the lower-tier leaders and possibly even the rank and file. The result? Hardly any noticeable protest as the court dismissed the review petition with stern remarks.
It would not be wrong to say all law-abiding citizens must have heaved a sigh of relief amid the renewed hope that Aasia Bibi and her family would now be free to restart their lives where they choose in safety and comfort, even if their stolen nine years can never be returned.
Even if on this occasion, there was a degree of efficiency among the faceless/nameless officials who dealt successfully with the TLP and burst its bubble, it must be said that the experiment of patronising such fanatical elements has mostly resulted in failure and cost us dearly in the past.
One need look no further than the long-drawn-out and bloody fight that our forces have fought in the erstwhile tribal areas to understand this. Calm is indeed returning there but one can’t imagine the pain of thousands of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives or limbs and of their families.
This, of course, is not counting the hellish existence the situation forced upon the civilian population there, and now when greater and better access is possible some of their painful stories are reaching us. We need to collectively listen to these Pakistanis and redress their grievances.
While so many friends have expressed dismay at how the state has reacted to the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, I remain optimistic that it will learn to deal with such voices of dissent better as even the forces are just emerging from a bitter war and will soon learn to relax and review their policies and conduct.
All of what has been written so far truly puts us in the spring of hope but we remain a tale of two cities and the winter of despair soon descends upon us. How else would you view the rather insidious attempt being made as we speak to coerce and control the media?
There can be no greater irony than an elected government proposing a law, whatever justifications being officially advanced for it, that will set up a one-size-fits-all media regulatory authority and will arm the regulator with nothing less than a shotgun to be used at will to silence the media.
The PTI’s stance that all stakeholders will be taken on board before any further move forward is ringing hollow as the stakeholders in the media have already rejected the draft approved by the cabinet last week and many have explained why they see it as a sinister ploy.
Today, the PTI finds itself on the same page as other key institutions and sees that as its major source of strength. It is wrong. Yes, key state institutions may have given its march to power a push but it was the media which was the major factor in its success.
Look at how large sections of the media first attacked the PPP, causing the party incalculable damage and then went after the PML-N government. At the same time, it continued to chronicle and hail each of the opposition PTI’s jalsas and its leader’s speeches.
Only in the age of foolishness will a party believe its rise to power is permanent and that it will never be in opposition again where a free media is its best friend. Even in power, a party with vision would see the media as a means of learning of and correcting its shortcomings. The army of sycophants that sprouts as a government begins its term never serves that purpose.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2019