Lessons from the sit-in
As I write this article, the storm clouds on the political horizon appear to be dissipating as an agreement has been reached with the protesters in Rawalpindi.
It has come at a cost. The law minister has resigned and addressed the nation and the protesters on Sunday evening through a video recording. He was visibly shaken, apologised and promised to reveal the names of all those who were responsible for the election bill imbroglio. A special report will be compiled in the next 30 days and will be made public. The report will reveal the names of the parties responsible for making changes to the election oath against whom legal action has been promised.
Meanwhile, all protesters apprehended in the last few days are to be released and a separate enquiry will be made on the botched security operation of Saturday morning, with further punishments in the offing for the civil and security administration.
As the nation breathes a sigh of relief, a few aspects of the Faizabad sit-in are important to consider and the lessons they offer must be learnt. First, the complete lack of preparedness and ineptitude of the police and the Frontier Constabulary. As they were seen marching towards the protesters and later, as they retreated from the site of the main clashes – choosing the back roads and alleyways of Sector I-8 in Islamabad – the confusion, boredom, fear and lack of discipline was written in bold across the faces and shabby apparel of this rag-tag militia of poorly-equipped young men. If the architects of the botched operation are to be blamed, it would be wise to also add the names of the people who train and equip the police and the FC.
Dressed in shalwar kameez – a national dress designed for leisure and relaxation – and appearing even more awkward with ill-fitting riot gear slung and strapped on clumsily, these brave young men, armed with batons and teargas grenades, were seen marching hesitatingly into the Faizabad underpass with the wind blowing into their faces, before their first clashes with the protestors occurred. As the protesters retaliated with stones lobbed by hand and slingshots, the order to fire the teargas grenades was given. This was the critical moment where the operation was lost, apparently, as the wind blew the teargas fumes into the faces of the now-retreating police and FC units, as the protesters continued raining down on them with sticks and stones.
The tactical manoeuvre of surrounding the protesters also did not pay off as the live transmission from private channels had already alerted them and gave the core leadership of the protesters ample time to strategise and respond more intelligently. Within an hour, the poor decision to not suspend television and internet broadcasts was delivering its results as incensed zealots from across Rawalpindi and the environs of Islamabad came out in throngs to join the protesters, who further managed to mobilise their followers across the country.
By the time the plug was pulled on the internet and TV channels, it was too late. Eyewitnesses have further reported the complete inability of the security personnel to engage in unarmed combat – particularly when accosted by more than one person – and their bewilderment as they observed that many of the teargas grenades fired were duds. Within hours, the numbers of casualties reported from hospitals revealed that approximately 80 percent were police and FC personnel – a damning indictment on the state of preparedness of our civilian security apparatus.
The second aspect – and no amount of emphasis on this can ever be enough – is the complete radicalisation of large sections of our population. The argument that we have traditionally not voted for religious groups in Pakistan is no longer tenable because the Faizabad sit-in reveals that even fringe movements in the radical right, with hitherto zero representation in government, can paralyse the country and its governance mechanism.
The sheer numbers and the quickness within which they were mobilised across the country has no parallels with any established political party calling for a long march or a similar sit-in. Add to this the fact that the fringe movement and others who sympathise with it have already demonstrated their political clout in the recent by-elections in Lahore, and it further dispels the notion of a limited support base.
And it is no mystery why this radicalisation is taking place if you simply consider the publicly-available results of the recent surveys of our educational system. One report by Nadia Naviwala, a Wilson Center global fellow, reveals that a total of 23 million children in Pakistan are out of school. And out of this 23 million, approximately 18 million are aged between 10 and 16 years, which means their chances of returning to formal schooling are minimal. It is this demographic that is cheap fodder for the legal and illegal madressas permeating the rural backwaters of our country.
Despite doubling the education budget that now matches the budget of our military, no tangible steps have been taken to solve the supply-side problems of our crumbling public education infrastructure that have to do with the quality of teachers and their absentee rates. Add to this the basic error of insisting on English as the medium of instruction – a language that is not understood by teachers or students in the public education sphere – and you have an army of semi-literate young men and women, usually struggling to find employment and are, therefore, fit candidates for radicalisation.
The third aspect is the dubious role played by private news television channels, where gossip, conspiracy-mongering, character assassination, misinformation and tabloid journalism continue to scale new heights. A largely uneducated populace is intoxicated on a daily basis by the shenanigans of a handful of television anchors, whose sole agenda – it appears – is to create confusion, sensationalise even the most mundane of events for the sake of ratings and discredit politicians and the political process.
In the space of a decade, they have managed to tarnish the image of all important civilian institutions – from parliament to the judiciary – and have introduced an appetite for hate speech among the public. They are also the main culprits in fomenting intolerance for minorities and for towing the agenda of the radical right through unnecessary coverage and obsequious lip-service to their cause. If formal measures are not taken to introduce and enforce journalistic ethics and improve the quality of reporting in private news media, the deleterious effects on society may become irreversible.
The writer is a freelance columnist.