Monday, November 27, 2017

Business Recorder Column Nov 27, 2017

Abject surrender Rashed Rahman The Faizabad sit-in by the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasul Allah (TLYRA) ended after 20 days not with a bang but a whimper. The government folded in abject surrender despite its earlier bluster about being able to clear Faizabad within hours but, as it argued, exercising restraint to deny the protestors the dead bodies they desired to widen their protest movement and perhaps escalate their demands beyond the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid. The minister was accused by TLYRA of being responsible for a deliberate attempt to water down the declaration about the finality of the prophethood of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) despite the attempts by the government to paint the issue as a ‘clerical error’ that was corrected as soon as it was pointed out. The whole episode throws the government’s performance in a pathetic light. First and foremost, the PML-N federal and Punjab governments were caught napping otherwise the TLYRA activists could not have gained access to and been able to blockade the Faizabad Exchange. Had these governments acted in time in concert, the blockage of access into and from Islamabad would never have succeeded, nor would citizens have been subjected to serious problems in movement into and out of the capital. Second, the government appeared to have been frightened into paralysis for fear of the consequences of using lethal force against the protestors. The latter were able to use this period of inaction by the government to strengthen their presence at Faizabad and reportedly import weapons, state-of-the-art teargas canisters (which Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal says even the law enforcing agencies do not have) and the usual weapon of the religious extremists, batons and sticks. This arsenal they used to devastating effect before and during the failed police operation on November 25. When the operation was launched, reportedly 1,800 protestors were present but this soon swelled to 4,000. This reinforced contingent blunted and forced the retreat and calling off of the police operation midway. Before the abortive police action, numerous incidents of policemen being attacked, kidnapped and beaten by the protestors were reported. So much so attacks were mounted against the homes of former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar and besieged Law Minister Zahid Hamid in their home districts. The attack on the former's residence sparked off a public slanging match between the former and current Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal. These attacks outside Islamabad were accompanied by blockades of roads, highways and motorways throughout the country. The kind of ‘instantaneous’ mobilisation and arms the protestors were able to muster point to well-laid plans in advance, anticipating all the moves of the government to tighten the noose of the state of siege around the government’s neck. After its ill-planned and half-hearted police operation in Faizabad, the government turned to the military for help in clearing the blockade. COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa responded in meetings and calls with Prime Minister (PM) Shahid Khaqan Abbasi with the advice that the issue should be handled without use of lethal force. As far as the request for the army’s help in clearing Faizabad, the COAS said the army could not risk the trust reposed in it by firing on its own people. At best, the army was prepared to play the role of securing sensitive buildings and sites in the capital, thereby freeing the police from these duties. Last but not least, the COAS agreed with the PM the deployment of the Rangers under whose command the police was placed. One of the added concerns for the government was the looming date of Eid Miladun Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet, PBUH) on December 1. The TLYRA had threatened many times the number of the protestors at Faizabad would join the sit-in from all over Punjab if not the country on that day. Under the cosh of all these pressures, the government has signed an agreement with the TLYRA, reportedly with the mediation of a Major General who is also a signatory, which not only fulfils all the demands of the protestors (first and foremost the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid, which has now been duly tendered and accepted ‘in the supreme national interest’) but bowed to even absurd conditions such as the freeing of all protestors arrested for various acts of arson, rioting, kidnapping and beating police personnel without any further legal action against them. A joint commission of the government and TLYRA will be formed to investigate Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah’s views on the Ahmedis and he will have to accept its verdict no matter what it is (it does not take any flight of imagination to guess what the commission’s conclusion will be). Those commentators bemoaning the incapacity of the state to handle a protest by at best 10,000 protestors throughout the country are missing the point. It is not the state but the sitting government’s incapacity that has been exposed by laying and then springing the trap, opportunity for which was provided by the stupid mistake and/or deliberate attempt to water down the anti-Ahmedi language of the oath in the Elections Act 2017. This was a self-inflicted wound that almost brought the government crashing to its knees. The state, whose main component is the establishment, seemed supportive of, if not in collusion with, the challengers of the government. Whatever lessons are derived from the whole episode, including the purposes of the protest/blockade, the implications for the future are frightening. Several thousand protestors throughout the country could bring any elected government to its knees, including forcing it to resign as a result of the state of siege they have proved capable of mounting with the suspected covert support of the deep state. Welcome to the confused state of Pakistan.

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