Something is happening to Pakistan that is not entirely obvious to its rulers. The dark forces of orthodoxy and fanaticism are gobbling up the prospects for a modern, democratic dispensation in this country. And the Faizabad sit-in could be seen as the loss of a cherished dream.
This is so in spite of how this confrontation is brought to a conclusion. I am writing these words in the forenoon of Saturday and the breathlessly expected crackdown to end the blockade has not begun – though the deadline was 10pm on Friday night.
Hence, these are very tense moments. It has been a long night of suspense. We are in the midst of what has become a national crisis. Since I cannot anticipate what it will be like when you read this column, I can only temporise and try to look back at the path that has led us to this incredible and incomprehensible moment. Nothing less than the writ of the state is at stake.
Sorrowfully, this path was paved by whatever the intentions of the ruling establishment were in the process of fighting its war against terror and violent extremism. Any discerning observer should have seen it coming. Perhaps we were distracted by how we defined our national interest and how religion was invested in our politics.
A lesson that we should have learnt a long time ago has been asserted once again by the protest staged by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and other religious groups. We wait for something to become almost intractable before we begin to confront it. This has happened repeatedly and the price we have paid is horrendous.
An analogy – offered by those who advise caution or, in other words, a policy of appeasement – is that of the Lal Masjid operation during the reign of Gen (r) Musharraf. But where had Lal Masjid come from? How did it become what it was under whose watch?
There is little point, at this stage, in recounting the circumstances in which the protest began under, seemingly, the protection of the administration. It was, since the beginning, a virtual siege of the capital of the country and the pain it caused to the citizens of Islamabad and Rawalpindi was not taken into account.
Initially, the blockade was carefully underplayed. The media also followed this plot until it became untenable and the massive disruption it was causing in the daily lives of an untold number of citizens had to be put on record. Also instructive is how the government bent over backwards to placate the protesters. It was sad and pathetic to see how ministers were pleading sympathy for the protesters’ point of view.
On their part, the protesters were determined to flaunt their power and the passionate support they drew from a considerably large segment of the country’s population. Their inspiration, of course, is Mumtaz Qadri – the executed assassin of Salmaan Taseer. At the heart of all this is the extremely emotive issue of blasphemy. The TLY had launched the protest over a change in a law that had already been reversed. It now wanted the resignation of the federal law minister that the government was unwilling to accept because it would be a clear sign of capitulating to an unjust demand. Otherwise, there were hints of surrender in how high functionaries sought to negotiate a settlement with the leader of the TLY, Khadim Hussain Rizvi.
An important milestone in this saga was the intervention of the Islamabad High Court on Thursday. It directed the TLY to call off its sit-in at the Faizabad Interchange. Incidentally, Thursday was the International Day for Tolerance and one may note the irony of how it was celebrated in its blatant breach in Pakistan. Anyhow, the protesters simply shrugged it off. So, on Friday the court gave the capital administration and the police 24 hours to remove the blockade. It asked the deputy commissioner to seek assistance from the Frontier Constabulary and the Rangers. It just meant that the writ of the state had to be enforced.
In his order, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui said: “I observe with great concern that the district administration not only failed to perform its duty as was required, rather from the mannerism it appears that sit-in has been facilitated to put the country in a crisis situation”.
This crisis situation has many dimensions, if you look at it against the backdrop of the developing political situation. There are grave apprehensions about the possible consequences of the defiance of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The accountability process is gaining traction. This week, the focus has been on Ishaq Dar as the federal minister of finance. He announced his resignation on Saturday morning. The cards are being shuffled and there is much speculation about what the new deal will be.
Meanwhile, it is the showdown at the Faizabad Interchange that is keeping the nation on tenterhooks. It has obviously been very dramatic. It is so much more thrilling than that protracted ‘dharna’ in Islamabad in 2014. Preparations made for a possible crackdown, as shown on television, are awesome. This is what they call the chase sequence in the movies.
At this point, the administration is doing all that it can to step back from the brink and is pursuing negotiations with the protesters who stand on a higher ground – at least in a literal sense. We have this spectacle to show how the religious leaders and the militants play their hand. We may also identify the areas in which the law or reason has no jurisdiction.
This, in some ways, is a parable for the surrender of the state in the context of what Pakistan was meant to be. We may also mourn the demise of the National Action Plan because it had prescribed a crackdown on hate speech – something that has intensified in different guises. We are told that victories have been won in battles against terrorism. But there is this war that we are losing – or have already lost.
This movement that the Faizabad protest represents is demonstrably quite powerful. But we must recognise its sources. It has risen from a strategic refusal to accept modern, progressive and liberal values and from our failure to educate the people. Our political leadership, too, has condoned the sustained socially regressive drift of our society. Orthodoxy has almost become our ideology. Imagine the ignominy of a poor girl being stripped in a village without disturbing the thoughts of our leaders.