Friday May 24, 2024

Divided we fall

By Editorial Board
November 28, 2017
After nearly three weeks of being held hostage by Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, the people of Islamabad are finally free to leave their homes. The rest of the country can breathe easy knowing that the government’s inability to handle just 2000 people will not bring any more violence to the streets. On Monday, Rizvi announced an end to his sit-in after saying he had received assurances from the army chief. The agreement between Rizvi and the state was a capitulation. Law Minister Zahid Hamid handed in his resignation and the government agreed to release all TLYRA workers without charging them while also committing to pay for any damages caused by the protesters. Everything about this sorry episode, from the way this dharna sprung up to its eventual ‘resolution’ reinforces every fear we – and the rest of the world – had about the Pakistani state and its resolve in the fight against extremism. The message sent out by this debacle is that protestations by the government that all state institutions are working in harmony cannot be taken at face value. There has always been chatter about differences within the state on matters of foreign policy and external security but we have now seen evidence that those differences extend to a small gang of extremists shutting down the capital city. The government was paralysed with fear, leading to debate and negotiation within institutions and, finally, an abject surrender to Rizvi.
The ramifications of caving in to the TLYRA will continue to be felt for years. Every extremist group in the country now knows that it only needs to gather a couple of thousand people to blackmail the government into acquiesce. We may have always known that the power of our government is not particularly strong but to have its weakness confirmed in such a manner is humiliating. The hesitation of the government in tackling the protest was not entirely unreasonable, though it was unfortunate. The government was scared from the very beginning that no matter what course of action it took, it would be besieged by criticism. While that may have been true, allowing a violent mob to dictate policy should never be countenanced. The demands of the TLYRA were unreasonable to begin with since the change in the election oath clause was accidental and immediately rectified. In any case, just the law minister alone could not have been single-handedly responsible for this change. Despite what is being said now, we know the draft bill was signed by the members of the standing committee which included representatives from every major party. At its most innocent even, this protest was never about just that one issue. It was a way for extremists to snatch yet more political space and in this it succeeded. This is apart from any drawing-room discussions on the matter. The rest of the world will now look warily at Pakistan, wondering if this is a country in which they want to invest. India too will surely not miss the opportunity to point out how just two thousand armed men were able to hold the country hostage.
During the course of his protest, Khadim Hussain Rizvi was unsparing in the vitriol he spewed against every institution of the country, be it the government, the judiciary, the civil administration or the media. The only institution he spared was the army, which ended being pivotal to the resolution of the matter. Over the weekend, there were reports and speculation about the army not involving itself in any possible operation against the protesters. There was also consternation in some quarters about a moral equivalence being drawn between an elected government and two thousand violent extremists. In the end, everyone within the state was on board in this act of collective surrender, with the rest of us watching aghast. Now that the protest seems to be over, we as a nation need to reflect on our governing norms. In most countries, the constitutional duties and responsibilities of governments in such scenarios are laid out. They know who they can call upon to defuse such situations. Over here, it is not clear if orders are being followed and if everyone is operating in concert. The government was clearly unprepared for this situation. In the past, it has shed ministers in moments of pressure even when many felt there was no reason to do so. Capitulations such as these only reinforce the belief held by some commentators that the government has very little maneuvering room in its dealings. That room was further shrunk when the judiciary kept giving deadlines for dispersing the protesters and essentially ordered action against them. When that action took place, it made statements about the operation and how it played out. The courts too perhaps required a more pragmatic approach to the matter. It is always difficult to deal with potentially violent groups without some use of force. And it is to be expected then that once the government is boxed in it will be unable to move forward without the assistance of the army.
One manifestation of the disunity within the state were reports that the government in Punjab was not wholly committed to an operation against the protesters. It was notable that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif himself called on Zahid Hamid to resign. Should that turn out to be true, it would show that the PML-N, for all its external problems, needs to get its own house in order. The optics that are presented by this are that of a ruling party in disarray and disagreement while the army presents a united front. It is now the responsibility of the PML-N to show some clarity and resolve. It has a tendency to dither and prevaricate whenever it is in trouble. Whether it’s the refusal of the government to release the report of the Model Town killings or not publicising the results of the investigation into the election oath change, the government is unable to take a clear stance and stick to it. Chaos is created when you have Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal explaining how it is trying to solve the issue peacefully but others in the party undercutting his message by calling for Hamid’s resignation. The prime minister didn’t help matters by staying on the sidelines throughout, leading to further confusion. Some would argue that the position in which the PML-N finds itself pushed into makes the party want to please various quarters at the same time.. That said, was enough done by everyone to act together? The army certainly was clear on what was required. True, the nature of institutions which operate in various spheres in the county is different but they do need to work in cooperation. Perhaps the government could have done more. Perhaps the Raja Zafarul Haq report could have been released with greater urgency. Perhaps Ahsan Iqbal’s emphasis on a peaceful resolution needed to change. But all this would have happened only in an environment of harmony within the government and amongst institutions. There is no definite evidence that this harmony existed.