When a society begins to lose its equilibrium, one of the signs that social scientists have identified is what they call the loss of authority, or power deflation. And I believe that what transpired this week on the sprawling stage of D-Chowk in Islamabad’s Red Zone is a very good example of this phenomenon.
Combined with the devastating suicide bombing in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore on Easter Sunday, there is bound to be a heightened sense of disquiet about the state of the Pakistani society and about the demons that lurk in its dark nooks and crannies. The implications of how the terrorists have threatened our beleaguered minorities are hard to imagine.
Obviously, the barbaric bombing of a public park, where a large number of children and women were looking for some respite from their dismal existence belongs in a separate category from the angry march of thousands of fanatics who may not be sure of what they really want. More than 70 lives, including those of women and children, were lost in the bombing and hundreds were injured. Not one protester was killed or even injured in the encounter that continued for three days.
But there certainly was an overlap. We had to deal with them, in an emotional context, almost simultaneously. There may have been a subconscious inclination to turn away from the terrorist attack in Lahore that professedly targeted Christians because it the message it conveyed was so unbearable. We have learnt to live in denial.
It also mattered that while the explosion was instantaneous, though the rescue and relief activities continued for some time, the march of the fanatics and their subsequent ‘dharna’ lingered and remained ‘breaking news’ interminably – for almost as many hours as the number of fatalities in Lahore. Considering the time allocated to the Barelvi ‘dharna’, including the talk shows on the sorry spectacle, the carnage in Lahore was treated as a lesser event.
This is not how it reverberated in the world. This is what the ‘Sound of Thunder’ was meant to do. This is what the Jamaatul Ahrar, an offshoot of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has named its new campaign after claiming responsibility for the Lahore blast. The group, in an Urdu message posted on its Facebook page, termed Pakistan as a ‘land of war’.
The message said that Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities “are not at peace, nor are their places of worships safe” because they have not converted to Islam and do not pay jizia. It also identified the suicide bomber and released his photo. In addition, the Jamaatul Ahrar claimed responsibility for suicide bombings of two churches in Lahore in 2015.
What does this mean against the backdrop of the campaign against terrorism and extremism that was launched more than one year ago with reports of significant successes? There certainly have been other incidents of terror. But what happened in Lahore on Easter Sunday is a reminder of the massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar on December 16, 2014.
But that manifestly became a game-changer, prompting the comprehensive National Action Plan that also mandated a plan to root out sectarianism and the causes of extremism. Action was taken in Punjab against clerics for hate speech and printed material was confiscated. At the same time, though, the Punjab officials remained unwilling to launch an operation against seminaries in southern Punjab, which are known to nurture and shelter militants.
So what has changed after the Easter bombing in Lahore? Tensions between the civilian and the military authorities have surfaced, with reference to the launch of an operation in Punjab. Apparently, it was initiated unilaterally by the military and the announcement was made in a Tweet by the military spokesman Lt-Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa. The nation was informed that the COAS had directed the concerned commanders to commence the operation as soon as possible.
On his part, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cancelled his planned and rather important visit to the United States for the Nuclear Security Summit. The security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is a major concern internationally because of the presence of strong terrorist networks in the country, and the Lahore atrocity was bound to further stir these worries.
Staying at home in the wake of a major terrorist attack, Nawaz Sharif made a statement that he was in charge of the expected offensive against terrorists. He addressed the nation on Monday evening. Expectedly, he expressed his resolve to fight the menace until final victory. Yet, it was quite underwhelming. He did not take up the crisis that had left his capital under siege, with mobile communication in the city suspended.
The fact that this was a classic pattern of loss of authority became gradually evident, as the civilian government struggled to resolve the defiance of a few thousand impassioned agitators, who forcibly occupied D-Chowk. It readily became obvious that the government was afraid to use force to forestall a massive backlash – irrespective of the fact that it amounted to abdication of authority.
This failure to enforce the writ of the government has also exposed an alarming breach in the decision-making process of the Nawaz Sharif administration. He did preside over high-level meetings to work out a plan to dislodge the protesters, but what actually happened has certified the impression that his cabinet is divided and its members are at odds with each other.
Dissent within the ruling elite is understood to be another important indicator of a disintegrating social order. We have historically suffered the consequences of military interventions and tensions between the civil and military forces are a constant feature of our polity. This conflict has certainly undermined the evolution of our democracy. But when ruling politicians seem unable to cope with their own internal divisions, alarm bells should ring.
It is in this respect that the ‘dharna’ drama should have consequences. In the first place, the government has missed a great opportunity to vindicate the position it had taken on pro-women legislation and on the ‘liberal’ shift in socioeconomic policies. Yes, it could have been very bloody. But that would be the test of a leader “in times that try men’s souls”.
In recent weeks, there were indications that this government is finally correcting its course and stepping out of the shadows of religious orthodoxy and political conservatism. We do not know if the virtual surrender on D-Chowk, which would surely embolden the fanatics, is a reversal of the emerging trends or whether the government would want to make amends. But our society is visibly disintegrating.
The writer is a staff member.