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March 29, 2018

Outlook for the future


March 29, 2018

As Pakistan Day was marked, camps run by Pakistan’s latest political force, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), were prominent in terms of activity and the degree of noise they were able to create in most Lahore vicinities.

These camps, which were evidently part of the election campaign the party plans, continue to run across Lahore and in other cities of Punjab, with turbaned men handing out Pakistan’s flags, pamphlets concerning the party’s ideological mission, and other promotional material to passersby. The party, if it gains the ECP’s approval, will contest the polls using its symbol, a crane – a tool useful in construction but also capable of swift destruction. The symbol was used by the TLP candidates in the by-polls, although they were contesting as independents then.

What is clearly visible is the confidence and zeal of this new party. The slogans are loud and the demand that Islamic laws be made stricter is clear. There can be no doubt that the unexpected electoral success of the party, founded in 2015 after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri who had gunned down ex-Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011, is one factor for its high spirits. The TLP picked up just over 7,000 votes last year in the NA-120 by-poll in Lahore; the constituency had fallen vacant after the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, last year.

In PP-20 in Chakwal, the party secured an astonishing 16,756 votes on the provincial assembly seat, finishing third, well ahead of the floundering PPP. In the NA-154 by-poll in Lodhran, the TLP again collected a sizeable 11,494 votes, finishing third after the winner PML-N, and the runner-up PTI. The result for the by-poll in Kohat’s NA-4 last year followed a slightly different pattern. The seat was won by the PTI, with the PML-N, the ANP and other groups all picking up respectable votes.

The rise of the TLP, notably in Punjab, has been dramatic. Founded by the foul-mouthed cleric Khadim Rizvi, the party considers Mumtaz Qadri a hero and its key campaign has so far focused on violently opposing a slight change in wording in a clause of the Election Act of Pakistan. The opposition did not cease even though the PML-N had immediately retracted the alteration. The sit-in staged by the party at the Faizabad flyover late last year, ended only after a cornered government capitulated to their demands, and certain quarters doled out money to the participants as they finally left. However, it is still a matter of conjecture whether the party has the support of powers beyond the conventional political arena, and how would it fare in the coming elections.

In Pakistan’s political history, despite considerable street power, right-wing religious parties have never done well in the polls. They usually fail to collect more than a handful of seats in the assemblies. But are we set to see a change? Whether this change is being deliberately carved out for specific purposes is difficult to say. However, certainly the meteoric rise of Khadim Rizvi’s party and its slogans are a cause for fear. In a country where convicted killers like Qadri are heroes and their victims are villains, it is difficult to draw the line between right and wrong and good and evil.

Forceful attempts are made to define where the divide lies. We have seen increasingly fervent debates on the kind of behaviour people should engage in, whether Valentine’s Day should be observed, or children’s birthday parties be held and, of course, what is suitable clothing for women. Women have always been the centre of attention when moral judgments come into play, with patriarchal societies everywhere attempting to determine what they wear, how they act and what their role in society should be. Of course, all this seems absurd in a situation where malnutrition, illiteracy, growing extremism, a breakdown of the rule of law and a potential collapse of democratic governance marks our political and social space.

When we consider the rise of the TLP and other hard-line Sunni groups that align themselves with the party, it is difficult to not wonder at what Pakistan has become from what it used to be, only a few people remember it that way. Many of us were too young to recall the days when PIA’s airhostesses, clad in uniforms designed by Pierre Cardin and other top figures from the fashion world, served passengers – one of them being the wife of former US president John F Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy. She is remembered till this day for having called this now-creaking national carrier that can both literally and metaphorically fall out of the sky, her favourite airline. The dupatta-draped heads of women that have now become too common a sight were nowhere to be seen; neither on PTV or other places, including the beaches of Karachi where young women would wear T-shirts and jeans and walk comfortably along the shore.

Today, of course, Khadim Rizvi and the thousands who follow him would have no doubt protested in every way they could over such acts of perceived immorality. However, the heinous acts of rape, child abuse and domestic violence that we see everywhere apparently do not move such groups to action. These are matters they appear to simply have no interest in.

The manner in which Pakistan has changed has been drastic. The foreign tourists seen in Karachi’s streets and in the northern areas in the 1970s have long gone. The threat of terrorism had made it far too dangerous for them to visit a country that has, by some writers who had dared to venture beyond Islamabad, been described as amongst the most beautiful in the world. In so many ways, this is Pakistan’s true tragedy.

What we have today are the ruins of a nation that could have risen to considerable economic and social heights given all that favoured it. Through the 1950s and beyond, the world’s economic analysts believed Pakistan could quite swiftly emerge as one of the strongest economies of the region, and play an important international role. Instead just the opposite happened. Today, we see that the rupee continues to nosedive against the dollar, unemployment is growing and investors are shirking away from putting in their money in a country known for instability and instead money is being taken from people to fund other activities.

The TLP has made no mention of how it intends to alter the situation. It appears that the party thinks its votes will come from raising cries that people see as righteous and pious. These, of course, include action against anyone accused of ‘irreligious’ acts. In such a clamour, real problems begin to vanish, as if they have been eaten up by the unholy noise that rings out all around. When we look back in time, we see a far gentler, more open and equitable country. There is no evidence that this election will help us walk back towards our past.

The manner in which we deviated from the past, following the events of 1977, was a violent one. Those days continue to haunt us. The TLP is one manifestation of those events. There are others which have taken different shapes. A reminder of the past is important for our future. Without a strong hold on history, it is difficult to walk forward with any real sense of direction.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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