Bigotry and democracy

November 06, 2019


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THERE may be no storming of the citadel, but as yet there are few signs of the Islamabad dharna ending with a whimper. While JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman is not able to claim the scalp he came for, he has forced the PTI government to get off its high horse and come to the negotiating table. The terms for pulling back from the brink are not known yet; there will, however, be no clear winner in this game of thrones.

The JUI-F dharna is yet another episode of the seemingly never-ending soap opera being played out on the Pakistani political stage at regular intervals over the last one decade. It is characterised by monotony — we have a mob marching into the capital and threatening to bring down a newly stalled government. The only difference is the actors switching their roles; even the script remains unchanged and the finale predictable.

It has indeed been an impressive show of political strength by a political party which had virtually been written off after its humiliating defeat in the last elections. It was a solo show by the JUI-F, with the PML-N and the PPP trying to piggyback on it. The efforts that have gone into organising the march clearly showed that it was a well-planned move.

Despite its shrinking electoral support base, the JUI-F has the organisational capacity and ability to mobilise crowds drawn mainly from religious seminaries. It was largely hard-core party followers who turned out in big numbers. The participation of both the PML-N and the PPP was marginal. It was certainly not a mass public mobilisation that could have presented a major threat to the system. But it was big enough to bring an ineffectual government under pressure.

There are no clear answers why a wily politician like the maulana would take such a plunge.

Still, there are no clear answers why a wily politician like the maulana would take such a plunge; it was clear from the outset that neither the PML-N nor the PPP would go to the extent of disrupting the political process. There has never been any ambiguity about these parties not being willing to burn their boats despite being victimised by the government.

The maulana came with a maximalist demand for the prime minister’s resignation. He even threatened to storm the Red Zone. His tone has certainly softened indicating a step back. He knows well that the government can be shaken, but that it is not easy to oust it through mob action.

He should have taken some lessons from the PTI’s sit-in in 2014 that failed to remove the Nawaz Sharif government, despite having paralysed the capital for four months and getting the tacit support of a section of the security establishment. Surely, it was parliament that fully stood behind the Sharif government foiling any adventurism. But there were also other factors that caused Imran Khan’s move to fail at that time. The maulana is emulating the wrong example.

There is no mass protest movement across the country that could support the JUI-F march. There is certainly growing public disenchantment with the Imran Khan government for its baffling incompetence and the rising cost of living. Yet there is no groundswell of support for any mass movement against the government. Both the major opposition political parties know that and have kept themselves out of dharna politics. The maulana’s suggestion that the opposition resign from parliament also has no takers.

It is apparent that the JUI-F whose support base is limited to certain regions does not have the mass appeal needed to bring people out on the streets across the country on its own. The party can create law-and-order problems in some parts of the country, but cannot bring down the government. Surely, both the JUI-F and the government need a way out of the situation. But it’s not clear what the maulana would be willing to settle for.

Indeed, the opposition parties have every right to protest and struggle for their rights, but any attempt to overthrow a government through undemocratic means only strengthens the nonelected powers. We have seen it happening many times in the past. The 2014 PTI dharna, though it failed in its objective, hugely weakened the democratic process in the country, allowing the security establishment greater space.

More worrisome is the religion card being used by the JUI-F leaders in order to whip up public sentiments. Democracy is a cover, and the movement has been largely built around religious issues. In his speeches, the JUI-F leader declared that the dharna had foiled the Jewish and Ahmadi ‘conspiracies’.

There was the constant refrain about a so-called conspiracy to ‘change the blasphemy and other Islamic laws enshrined in the Constitution’. The remarks made by some senior JUI-F leaders in TV talk shows were more vitriolic. How can a movement be called democratic if it preaches religious hatred and intolerance?

It is true that Imran Khan too has used religious bigotry in his politics. How can one forget the PTI’s role in the controversy over changes to an oath that was exploited by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan to whip up religious sentiments? But that must not be a justification for supporting what amounts to the JUI-F’s politics of religious hatred. The confluence of religious bigotry and politics has created a very dangerous situation which is spreading intolerance in society.

Indeed, the opposition protest has opened up various fault lines, impeding democratic process in the country. Imran Khan’s arrogance, his authoritarian ways, and his government’s failure to deliver have also been a major cause for the opposition taking to the streets. The PTI government is mainly responsible for rendering parliament ineffective, forcing the opposition to use undemocratic means.

Such a situation has further strengthened the hold of unelected institutions. Democratic space has shrunk and the PTI’s politics of vendetta presents the biggest threat to democracy. There is a need for strengthening the democratic struggle and resisting the trend of rising authoritarianism in the country. But resorting to undemocratic means and using the religion card is extremely harmful.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2019