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Behind the mask

October 13, 2012

A man attacks a police vehicle during a protest in Karachi – AFP (File Photo)

The federal government is agitating against the judiciary, a province is agitating against the federal government, the people are fighting state oppression in a ‘remote’ province. These are but just a few examples of tiresome struggles that have failed to yield a logical ending: a dialogue. The economic conditions, inefficient governance and religious sentiment are available in abundance to bring a mob together. Their leaders are better crowd psychologists than they are perhaps politicians. They know where and when to show up and for how long and when to put on the disappearing act.

The recent power riots, especially the ones in Punjab, were said to have been spontaneous occurrences sprouting out of public anger and spreading without the care of a leadership. The impression fizzles out as soon as the agitated figure of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, addressing a rally in Lahore to protest against power suspensions emerges on the mind’s screen.

If the encouragement comes from government or its functionaries in one instance, at another place it is religion which plays the facilitator for the marauding unknown to vent their anger. Religion is the safest premise for violence and it gives the perpetrators a cover, a holy disguise. There have been incidents in Pakistan where the anonymous group acting on the basis of faith has later found a leader who is looking to gain quick fame. September 21 last is illustrative of this fact.

This was a national day of condemnation against a profane anti-Islam film. The government had announced a public holiday and small and big protests were held all over Pakistan. In Islamabad, a charged politician addressed his workers and after sending them on their fiery course, he simply disappeared from the scene. In Lahore, prominent religious scholars doubling as a political alternative to the western system were equally brash and provocative in their Friday sermons. As the processions marched, they, too, were not to be seen leading the angry and the irritated.

In another situation, say when a general election was not being as eagerly anticipated as it is now, these leaders who represent various shades of politics here could have opted for a different, more proactive role. It seems they were mindful not to be struck off the alternative-leadership list in this pre-election period. But of course it can be argued that even in cases where they want to, there are moments when they simply can’t.

Protest towards non-negotiation

Allegiance to an order — religious, political or social or economic — is the only identity that can be pinned on the rampaging anonymous. It is this identity which can then provide a basis for negotiation between the agitators and who they are agitating against. The protest must culminate in a dialogue and should bring the leaders on either side of the conference table.

In the case of the anti-Islam film, for a discourse with other countries, President Asif Zardari assumed the mantle of leadership. He called for law against the provocative stuff and did convey Pakistanis’ sentiment to the world at large. He called for a democratisation of the UN for a more effective discussion of issues. The president of America reacted with his own criticism of the film and thus a logical follow-up was achieved as a consequent of the mob violence.

The same link which could have attempted a logical follow-up to expressions of anger on the streets is sorely missing locally. The state is disintegrating and the opposition parties are a mirror image of the quandary that exists in the government. Power riots were a sad example. Ideally, some party should have claimed ownership of these rioters for purposes of negotiations with the state. Preferring the tacit over an open, visible involvement none from the political mainstream came forward to lead the rioters. This meant there was no logical next step to the emotional.

Whither central authority?

Similarly, the groups taking the destructive course on Yaum-i-Ishq-i-Rasool were either without leadership or their ranks were too fragmented to throw up a common negotiator from their side. The religious leaders who could control a few hundred madrassas with a wink are no more. Today’s satellite madrassas are not obliged to listen to one individual. The central respected head of a sect is gone. This lack of a central authority spawns mob activity of its own, and no dissimilar is the case of ‘non-religious’ groups such as the ones made up by professionals and political parties.

In the context of the argument put forward here, it is quite apt that political parties in this country are referred to more as cults than true political parties. The cult revolves around a single entity — individual, family, dynasty — and all others around are nameless, are anonymous. It was this anonymity which had promised to bring about a change — through the collective of the unknown voters.

But it is the shedding of the mask that can put Pakistan back on a course where it would look more like a country than an uneasy, heady and dangerous coming together of the individuals, mobs, cults, and the loosely identified security personnel the privacy of whose violence has forever been protected. They are the most influential inspiration. Once these original masked men have been identified, dealing with their clones out on the street will be easier.