Protesting in Pakistan

Published January 12, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

Ya Rab wo na samjhe hain na samjhenge meri baat
De aur dil un ko jo na de mujh ko zabaan aur— Ghalib

TO an English-medium brat who studied Urdu during the regime of Ziaul Haq, Urdu poetry was introduced through the words of Ghalib or Mir Taqi Mir — Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the giant who today is quoted by the entire political range, was a no-no back then — and viewed as simply romantic stuff. We giggled over Mir’s cheesy ‘patta patta, boota boota haal humara jaane…’ and swooned over Ghalib’s ‘ussi ko dekh ke jeete hain jis qatil par dum nikle’. Between the class and glimpses of Gulzar’s television series on Ghalib, it was hard to see much else in his poetry. But the past week changed this.

The intransigence, the intemperate language used, useless quibbling over when the prime minister’s visit would be made to a people whose suffering in the past decade or so has become a burden on the Pakistani soul — it seemed as if Ghalib was writing of this very indifferent and distant ruler and state.

Even sorrow acknowledged by all is not enough to move a ruler who has been forced to take notice.

There is a sense of a constancy in his words — as if in the relationship, again and again the same offence or hurt is repeated and so is the complaint, with no change and no relief. Thus for the Hazara who take again and again to the roads with their dead to protest the brutality visited upon them. And though their pain and loss have taken on biblical proportions, they are not alone in adopting this form of protest.

In Pakistan, with its multitude of problems, the ordinary citizen has little else in his or her arsenal and no option but to take to the streets. Little else catches the attention of those at the helm. The senseless killing of Usama Satti may not have got the attention it did if his father had not also blocked Srinagar Highway in protest. Taking to the roads, causing the flow of big expensive cars to slow down and inconveniencing the powerful is the only way to get apni baat or one’s voice heard.

If this wasn’t so, small groups of protesters who gather outside the press club momentarily and then melt away into the silence and anonymity too would be remembered. But they are not. The ground outside the Islamabad Press Club has — before the pandemic — always housed such protests by travellers to the capital from distant regions but they are rarely noticed by those who drive by. Now if they spilled on to the adjacent road, it would be a different story.

But what we learnt this past week was that even sorrow acknowledged by all is not enough to move a ruler who has been forced to take notice. For it is not for the public to impose conditions on the powerful; only the powerful can impose conditions on the powerful as did the PTI in 2014 when it made its dharna conditional on the then prime minister’s resignation, or the PDM can make its protests conditional on the present one’s resignation. Apparently, the PDM’s show of power and a ghettoised minority sitting with their loved ones’ remains on the roads seem rather similar in the eyes of those inhabiting Constitution Avenue.

The only difference perhaps is that the powerless demonstrating on the roads can usually be convinced to give up their protest within days. And then be lectured about the grand conspiracies and regional power games responsible for their loss and misery.

This is perhaps unique to Pakistan; and I don’t mean the lecturing to the weak, though that too is a national malaise. What is more intriguing is that our rulers see a crisis, recognise it as a crisis and then refuse to defuse it quickly and urgently because they ‘know’ there is a foreign, enemy role in it. (There are entirely domestic situations also where governments have let a crisis deepen because of the internal khalai, or ‘alien’, role in it but let’s leave that for another day.)

So, it was this past week. No one denied the tragedy of the 11 miners who had been killed, the suffering of the Hazaras and their systematic killing over the years, or their right to protest. But apparently, the role played by ‘others’ who are manipulating them and creating instability is reason enough to play hard ball. Hence, let’s point out the larger, regional great games, let’s raise questions about those who were delaying the agreement reached and signed, and hint at the identity and affiliations of those who were stopping the poor families who were ready to bury their loved ones.

Because apparently doing all this is easier than the prime minister reaching out immediately, ending the protest and the crisis — which in turn would not allow ill-meaning foreign hands the space to make mischief.

But then such logic evades more than just the prime minister. There was another such protest three years ago, which too began with one death in an extrajudicial killing in Karachi. It led to protests and marches and turned into a movement for the rights of a people who feel they have been served a raw deal.

However, here too, the efforts to defuse it are often marred by the obsession with the foreign hand. And because they are greater in number than the Hazara, coercion is at play. There are information blackouts, strong-arm tactics such as arrests and FIRs, and now an elected member is at risk of losing his seat. And no one to ask if these measures will resolve the problem more quickly than defusing the crisis by reaching out. Because somehow for the Pakistani state, including those elected to power, crises are only worth defusing and people to be soothed if there is not a whiff of any manipulation or ill intent fuelled by outsiders.

For this to change, we have to wait — for the miracle that Ghalib had written about years ago.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2021

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