The Pakistan government recently bought peace with hardline religious groups staging sit-ins at Islamabad’s Faizabad and paralysing life in the city, as well as neighbouring Rawalpindi, with Law Minister Zahid Hamid offering his resignation. This utter surrender of the state managed to end the protests that saw six people being killed and hundreds injured but also raised several questions. With the sit-in also ended all hopes of a state that could enforce its writ, writes Lahore-based journalist Mehmal Sarfraz in this Business Standard Special piece. What is worse, she says, is that almost all of Pakistan’s institutions and politicians failed their people.
Anger. Despair. Disgust. Fear. Frustration. Shock. These are just some of the emotions one felt after the state of Pakistan literally bent over backwards to appease religious extremists as it made a deal with those who had laid siege to the capital. What started as a controversy surrounding the Elections Act 2017 due to an amendment to the oath turned out to be the undoing of the entire state of Pakistan.
A mob led by extremist cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of Tehreek-i-Labaik, staged a sit-in at Faizabad, Islamabad. For three weeks this mob sat there and hurled abuses at the politicians, judges, mediapersons, etc, and also ended up paralysing the lives of the people living in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The courts took notice of this and ordered the government to end the dharna (sit-in). What ensued was a failure of utter proportions. From a ban on news channels to shutting down of social media, the government made one mistake after another. But its last mistake – the agreement – was the most grotesque one.
An operation began to end the sit-in but the police was ill-prepared to deal with the protestors, who in turn were actually more prepared to deal with the law enforcement agencies. The military was unwilling to use force against the protestors. Two policemen were even abducted by these goons; they were not just tortured but also said the protestors wanted to burn them alive. Unfortunately, they will not get any justice because the state of Pakistan signed an agreement with the Tehreek-i-Labaik giving in to all their demands. One clause of that agreement says: “All protesters arrested between November 6 until the end of the sit-in from across the country will be released within one to three days according to legal requirements. The cases registered against them and the house arrests imposed on them will be ended.” The main casualty of this agreement was Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid, who had to resign, as this was one of the main demands of the protestors. The agreement was signed by Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, Secretary Interior and a Major-General of the Pakistan army from the administrative side. The agreement also thanked Army Chief Qamar Bajwa for his “special efforts” in mediating the deal. After the sit-in ended, a video surfaced where DG Rangers Punjab was seen distributing Rs 1,000 among the protestors as bus fare. Internal politics of the ruling party also led to this chaos as it became quite evident that the Punjab government facilitated the protestors to travel to Islamabad. The Punjab government had signed a separate agreement with the Labbaik brigade even before they arrived in Islamabad.
Islamabad High Court’s Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui took the government and the army to task over this agreement. Justice Siddiqui asked: “Who is the army to adopt a mediator's role? Where does the law assign this role to a major general? Where is their Radd-ul-Fasaad [military operation against terrorists] now? Did they not see any Fasaad (anarchy) in this protest?” Justice Siddiqui asked questions that every Pakistani should be asking of the state.
Tehreek-i-Labaik chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi also announced a march from Lahore to Islamabad on January 4. This announcement left one feeling sick to the stomach. In 2011, Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer was assassinated on January 4 by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri because he raised his voice for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman falsely accused of committing an alleged blasphemy. Shaheed Salmaan Taseer’s martyrdom will go in vain because the state surrendered to a group of extremists who eulogise and celebrate his murderer and who encourage other vigilantes to emulate that murderer.
In all this brouhaha, we have forgotten that the Ahmadis will suffer the most. It was in their name that the entire issue of the Khatam-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) clause of the Elections Act 2017 was politicised in the first place. The Ahmadis are a persecuted minority community. Both the state and society have ostracised them. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah’s statement regarding the persecution of Ahmadis in a TV interview has led the Punjab government to agree to the demand of the Tehreek-i-Labaik that he will appear before a board of clerics to explain his position regarding his comments. While Sanaullah may not have to resign, the government’s agreement to ‘present’ him before a board of clerics is in itself preposterous to say the least.
The Faizabad sit-in ended but with it ended all hopes of a state that can enforce its writ. What is worse is that almost all of Pakistan’s institutions and politicians failed their people, as is evident in the aftermath of this dharna – from Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif who asked for Zahid Hamid to step down to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan who thinks Pakistani liberals are a far bigger menace than religious extremists, from our military establishment that brokered this deal because it wanted to remain neutral to the ruling elite who signed on it and capitulated. That the Punjab government and the federal government have acquiesced in to the mullah brigade’s demands says a lot. It says that the state of Pakistan is not willing to take on the extremists. It says that the society, which is already quite intolerant, will further descend into chaos. It says that the Ahmadiyya community will feel even more unsafe and vulnerable than it has since they were declared non-Muslim back in 1974. It says that the mullah brigade can get away with anything and everything – from threatening parliamentarians to assaulting policemen, they got away with everything. This is a surrender like none other.
The writer is a Lahore-based journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @Mehmal