Feeble but welcome signs
TWO protests of different kinds over an eight-day period helped shape the political landscape in the country in no uncertain terms. That was the past week.
After the Jan 10 tragedy when in two bombings in Quetta nearly 100 Shia-Hazaras were killed and a greater number injured, they decided they had had enough. The Shia-Hazaras have been particularly at the receiving end of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi terrorists for several years.
Their steadfast, passive resistance, primarily directed against an inefficient and criminally apathetic provincial government, soon triggered a sympathy wave across the country and many sit-ins mushroomed across its length and breadth.
Although Pakistan has been home to many tragedies, it would be difficult to find a parallel where one confronted the heartrending sight of mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and male relatives of the victims sitting quietly besides the coffins, refusing to move till their demands were met.
Admittedly, our electronic media was slow to react to the unfolding defiance of the silent, dignified yet heartbroken loved ones of those who had perished in the twin bombings. The families were demanding the sacking of a government whose leaders didn’t even bother to condole with them.
Eventually their four-day resistance forced the central government to take notice. A team headed by the prime minister arrived in Quetta and after daylong negotiations arrived at the Alamdar Road protest and announced the dismissal of the provincial government.
One may disagree with the demand of the protesters calling for the army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps to take charge of security (as many blame these institutions for not stopping the mass murder) but one could only sympathise with and feel the pain of the community.
The protest demonstrated that even the most vulnerable and victimised community can get its way by peaceful, resilient defiance and can sometimes move mountains. One hopes that the Shia-Hazaras’ other demand of action against LJ terrorists also sees movement.
As the Quetta protest was coming to an end with the families burying their dead, a different protest was starting in Islamabad. A ‘long march’ led by religious leader Dr Tahirul Qadri entered the capital and encamped not far from Parliament House and other government buildings.
The march was announced and executed all in a matter of weeks, creating misgivings. It was led by the cleric who sees himself as a scholar, has lived in Canada long enough to have acquired its nationality and who suddenly appeared in Lahore.
The military may have publicly distanced itself from this march and its leader but the fact he was descending on the capital with several thousand devotees calling for the sort of ‘electoral reform’ one often hears military figures talk of in private triggered concerns of a dirty game being played.
The spectre of military intervention was also raised. What if the peaceful protests turned violent? It didn’t help that in Lahore in December Tahirul Qadri had talked in terms of a technocrats’ government for a term longer than needed to hold elections.
But his arrival and sit-in in Islamabad alarmed the disparate yet democratic political forces sufficiently to unite them and, with almost one voice, condemn attempts to derail the democratic system and delay the holding of polls. They vowed to uphold the constitution and law.
This rare display of unity and maturity by all the political forces went some way in knocking the wind out of Dr Qadri’s sails, isolating him and probably demoralising his backers too. But the threat of a breach of peace and its consequences still existed.
After a few hours of talks on Thursday night between a team of ministers, prominent leaders belonging to the parties represented in the coalition, and the march leader agreement was announced which, albeit hailed by Dr Qadri as a success, looked more of a face-saving for him.
Good that agreement was reached. A large assembly of devotees of a cultish religious leader including women, children and the elderly on a main Islamabad boulevard would have been a nightmare to disperse peacefully without an accord.
In the days since the march arrived in the capital, the rhetoric reached a crescendo, anyway, in the hours before the final accord. But Dr Tahirul Qadri’s hold over his supporters and workers was such that, despite a presence in thousands, the protest remained disciplined and under control.
Whether it was Dr Qadri or the coalition that conceded more will be debated for weeks on end. But it was clear that what many see as the only viable way forward — fresh elections under an independent election commission and neutral caretakers — was not jeopardised in any way.
Perhaps, it was a last-ditch attempt by those who feel the need to ‘engineer’ elections to ensure a ‘positive’ result. In the past, this may have meant a preference for one party over others. But in the next elections a fragmented result may be preferred as it would deliver a weak, pliable coalition.
Rather than spend so much money and expend so much energy, all forces in the country should lay greater store by the wisdom of the masses, the electorate. They may not have much in terms of material comforts but are more and more aware of their rights and can tell right from wrong.
This was demonstrated by the shorter sit-in in Bara when tribesman headed to Peshawar carrying the bodies of 18 of their innocent friends and family who had been allegedly shot by the army conducting an operation against the militants.
Although the media was dazzled by Tahirul Qadri’s show and didn’t really give the Bara protest its due, the sit-in did lead to negotiations between the protesters and the authorities and ended in agreement that the killings will be investigated and responsibility assigned.
These are but small steps, feeble signs. But they point in the right direction. More democracy, not less, is the answer to many of our problems. If consensual politics drops roots, hopefully, attitudes towards terrorism will harden too as terrorism threatens democracy like nothing else.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.