High drama in Islamabad

Updated 19 Nov 2020

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I. A. Rehman
I. A. Rehman

THE Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) decided to teach the French, via their embassy, a more fitting lesson than the one delivered by the government, and sought passage through Islamabad. The government chose to deny their request. They retaliated by starting a sit-in, and the residents of the capital city and all those who wished to visit it began to be punished. This punishment acquired a more serious form when the group was allowed to capture the Faizabad bridge and entry into Islamabad was restricted. Mobile services were suspended and you couldn’t inform the office of the reason for non-appearance or ask the doctor to change the drug that was creating adverse side effects.

The sit-in paralysed life in Islamabad. A half-hearted attempt by the police to push back the protesters failed. Meanwhile, travel from and to Islamabad became impossible. Those trying to leave Islamabad and Rawalpindi for Lahore found access to the Motorway and GT Road blocked. No policeman or traffic warden was visible to indicate the authorities’ interest in clearing the traffic. In the absence of mobile services, the people had no means of reaching the authorities.

Most of the ministers were busy at the TV station celebrating the PTI’s victory in the Gilgit-Baltistan elections and the ‘defeat of Nawaz Sharif’s narrative’. They had no time for ordinary citizens’ travail. All of a sudden, the prime minister realised something was wrong and recalled that he had a religious affairs’ minister in his cabinet. But the minister concerned was cooling his heels about 300 kilometres from the trouble spot. Allah be praised for the prime minister’s memory that he thought of the religious affairs’ minister and asked him to negotiate a settlement with the TLP. The whole thing depended on the prime minister’s initiative and one was convinced of the benefits of one-man rule.

At this point, the narrative takes a sudden turn. The earlier narrative suggested that the religious affairs’ minister, Noorul Haq Qadri, met Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP chief, and the latter agreed to call off the agitation. Later on, it was revealed that the government had signed an agreement with the TLP similar to the one signed after the 2017 dharna. Indeed, the TLP chief declared that the government conceded all of their demands. Even if this interpretation is not shared by the government, the feeling of elation in the TLP means it has rightly identified the areas of the government’s vulnerability and will soon return because it is playing for high stakes.

It is time the government considered the desirability of pursuing the Quaid’s ideal of a democratic polity.

Perhaps the government did not fully appreciate the TLP plan of action. The party was enlarging its area of operations by staging a political manoeuvre under a religious banner. It must have known that the government would not allow it to march on the French embassy and one wonders whether it seriously wanted to go that far. All it probably wanted to demonstrate was the inadequacy by its reckoning of the government’s response to the French provocation and use this incident to challenge the government’s bona fides in its claim to be working for the establishment of an Islamic state.

The inescapable fact is that the government’s own rhetoric about establishing an ideal Islamic state by discarding the model set by the first four caliphs has emboldened quite a few elements to chart new paths to the Muslim people’s glory. Already a few of these elements are asserting their privilege to define their version of true Islam on the strength of arms in their possession. Although the government’s inclusion of people’s welfare in its definition of an Islamic state sets it apart from the advocates of traditional Muslim politics, it lacks the backing of sufficient scholars to be able to hold its ground against attacks from the traditionalists.

It is therefore time the government seriously considered the desirability of pursuing Quaid-i-Azam’s ideal of a democratic polity and allowed all citizens to adopt and practise whatever religious belief appeals to their mind. Any other course will put the state at risk of dangerous attacks from what in fact are seekers of political power in religious garb.

Pakistan’s politicians have often been warned against playing on the religious parties’ turf because of the latter’s ability to interpret religio-political texts to their advantage. The way they have succeeded in popularising their interpretation of the Objectives Resolution is an example. The policy of appeasing the conservative religious lobby followed by successive governments has made the task of regaining ground for democratic politics more difficult, but the larger interests of the state and the people prohibit any other course.

The unnecessary and hazardous pursuit of populist politics has played no small part in persuading Pakistan’s politicians to pander to the citizens’ religious sensibilities that are often allowed high premium. The small percentage of votes received by purely faith-based platforms in successive elections establishes the people’s preference for an egalitarian order. The obvious lesson for politicians is to avoid giving exaggerated space to belief in political matters.

Pakistan needs to take a critical look at the movement in Muslim states from religious orientation towards nationalism, a course that has many pitfalls. Further, there is, for instance, a school of thought that challenges the very expression ‘Islamic state’ as being at variance with the spirit of Islam which puts a high premium on voluntary choice of faith. This is being said only to underline the possibility that the state of Pakistan might be seeking accommodation with a traditional version of belief at a time when such adjustments are perceived as obsolete. Thus the government’s accord with TLP might appear as an attempt to recreate a past that is distant.

Tailpiece: The Gilgit-Baltistan electorate has a tradition of voting for the party in power in Islamabad. Judged from this perspective the result of last Sunday’s election should cause anxiety among the PTI high command instead of jubilation. The success of as many independent candidates as PTI ticket holders does not reveal as much of PTI’s sway over the GB population as government spokesmen are claiming. However, the right of party activists to interpret facts as they wish is deeply entrenched in Pakistan politics.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2020