The inevitable postponed, not averted
If the bugles had been sounded on Sunday evening when the corps commanders met, and if what is now an apology of a government had been given its marching orders, no one would have been surprised. A country living on the edge for weeks had been brought to expect this.
But the generals perhaps were playing a waiting game. Perhaps they wanted to give what has now been reduced to a shambles of a government some more rope – to compound the long list of its follies and commit some more blunders. Or perhaps the generals yet had to pluck up the nerve to deliver the fatal blow, the coup de grace, to put Nawaz Sharif and his sorry lot out of their extended misery.
Whatever the reason, the generals delivered just a warning shot …calling upon this waning shadow of a mandate to desist from the use of force and waste no time in finding a political solution to its problems. This advice is rich with irony for it amounts to asking a patient in intensive care to be up and about and perform some heavy gymnastics.
A prime minister whose word his tormentors in the shape of the Reverend Allama Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan are not willing to take on trust, a government on its last legs and which is now devoid of its last defence, its flair for bluff and bluster, how does it engage anyone in any talks for a political settlement? A stricken quarry no one spares and this is now a stricken government, unable to govern, unable even to put up the pretence of government.
The use of brutal and excessive force to crush the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) and PTI protests was for the government the tactic of last resort. But even that has failed, PAT activists, men and women, still present on Constitution Avenue and still standing up to the Punjab Police summoned from all over Punjab to pacify Islamabad.
Such naked use of force we have not seen in military dictatorships. What abuse and calumny was not hurled at General Pervez Musharraf during the lawyers’ movement? But not a shadow of the brutality ordered by Nawaz Sharif and his interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, was ever tried by him or his government. And we call this a democracy and that was a dictatorship.
The heroes of this movement, the heroes of this moment in our history, are the workers and activists of the PAT. What stuff are they made of? Sun and rain do not affect them and when on Nisar’s orders the massed regiments of the police unleashed their full fury on them – Islamabad witnessing the worst teargas shelling and rubber-bullet firing in its history – how bravely, how steadfastly, with what magnificent resolution, they held their ground. Without food and water, without rest and respite, they continued to hold off superior force throughout that long night. Three people are dead while over five hundred lie injured in the capital’s hospitals.
And the government was left gnashing its teeth. It had shot its last arrow and it had come to nothing. The corps commanders were to meet on Monday but they met in emergency session on Sunday evening and the nation held its breath, half expecting the last blow to fall. But the generals, governed by their own sense of judgement, restrained their horses and confined themselves to advice and warning – advice likely to be of little use to a government on its last legs.
“Whom the gods would destroy,” said Euripides, “they first make mad.” What we are seeing are the unmistakable signs of madness. Journalists performing their professional duties, when were they beaten so badly before? Individual journalists have been roughed up by ‘invisible’ hands in the past. But such collective brutality, cameramen and reporters dragged out of their vans and beaten…this is a first, a feather in the cap of a departing dispensation.
The Asma Jahangirs and the Achakzais are painting this as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Are the dynasts of the PML-N, the extended family tree of the Sharif hierarchy, their idea of democracy? Is the marriage of power and big money their idea of democracy? As if the situation was not already replete with irony, we must also now contend with the spectacle of Asif Ali Zardari rushing to the defence of democracy…and Khurshid Shah, the opposition leader in the National Assembly, going red in the face orating about the sacredness of the constitution.
If democracy means the never-ending rule of the privileged, then we can be well rid of it and not feel the difference. Dr Tahirul Qadri’s interpretation of democracy may not be to the liking of the well-heeled liberati but it is closer to the pain and deprivation of the deprived and the disinherited.
Qadri is not a putschist or a rabble-rousing Mussolini gunning for power. His is a more thoughtful take on the constitution for he is saying that without a fair deal for the masses, without a minimum of social justice for the vast majority, democracy on paper is a meaningless concept, answering only to the interests of the Sharifs and the Zardaris and the other constituent elements of our entrenched privilegentsia.
This is not a bourgeois, drawing room understanding of democracy. This is a socialist call to arms, an interpretation of democracy and Islam that goes back to the egalitarianism of the first Islamic republic. The verses the Allama keeps repeating are the Marxist verses of Iqbal – utho meri dunya ke gharibon ko jaga do, kakh-i-umra ke dar-o-diwar hila do. He says this is his manifesto. And he speaks of tolerance and respect for the rights of minorities. And he speaks openly of putting an end to takfiriat – denouncing others as kafirs or infidels, and therefore liable to be put to death, which is the creed of the Taliban and their fellow-travellers, of whom there is no shortage in our society.
The Pakistani left wing is dead. If it ever did exist, it exists no longer. The PPP masqueraded as a party of the left. Today even the disguise is gone and under the leadership of Zardari its ideology and standpoint are wholly indistinguishable from those of the PML-N. As for the party of the Sharifs, we know what it is: the leading representative of the bourgeoisie, the trading classes and the power of big money. Let me not presume to talk of Balochistan which is caught in troubles unique to it. But in Punjab today, like it or not, the progressive standpoint is represented by Allama Tahirul Qadri. He alone speaks of things that others dare not utter, or dare not imagine.
And the rainbow coalition that has come to coalesce around him – the Sunni Ittehad Council and the Majlis-e-Wahdatul Muslimeen (the leading Shiite political party) – represents the face of Islam for too long pushed to the back but which, in the turmoil of the anti-Sharif agitation, is now finding a voice for itself, a voice beginning to resonate with wider sections of society.
Pakistan’s future is struggling to be born. The Sharifs are heroes of yesterday, discovered by Gen Zia and Gen Jilani to serve their anti-PPP agenda. That need is long gone. For the army new necessities have arisen, such as the fight against the Taliban. The Sharifs have outlived their utility and are no longer relevant to Pakistan’s emerging needs. It is only a matter of time before they are pushed to one side, not so much by the army as by the march of circumstances.
Even so, it is fascinating to watch the climax of this drama. And in an environment where a passionate commitment to anything is a scarce commodity it is heartening to watch the men and women of the PAT standing up so bravely and with such resolution in defence of their cause.