The Faizabad blockade is well into its third consecutive week of paralysing the twin cities, depicting an all too familiar image of a government reluctant to take on the protesters gathered there. In some ways, it is a tale of diminishing writ yet there is a method in this madness.
The government’s hesitation — which arguably is enabling the protesters into blatantly defying the judiciary — may seem out of place, even appalling. Still, it is not surprising as a political mess at this point can prove to be the distraction Nawaz Sharif needs to quietly make his way towards general elections next year. The ruling party may be looking to reiterate its ‘martyrdom’ at the hands of the judiciary, playing the role of a government besieged from all sides.
On November 21, the interior minister took full responsibility for not complying with the Islamabad High Court’s orders to evict protesters. His excuse for wanting to “peacefully” negotiate with the demonstrators whose blockade has already caused at least one death seems lame.
The precedent set by the government in depicting itself powerless in front of a few holding the capital captive despite having the option of seeking the help of the armed forces under Article 245 to disperse the protesters, ignoring IHC warnings and the Supreme Court taking notice of the situation further highlights the PML-N’s incompetency to govern and its indifference to the common man’s struggle.
One would think that a sit-in crippling civilian life for more than two weeks warrants attention from the top brass yet we see no hurried meetings between the prime minister and the army chief to find a solution. Such a lukewarm response to the Faizabad crisis raises questions. Even popular political leaders have shied away from urging a quick resolve through the use of force.
Reasons for the averseness can be many: the political parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), are unwilling to draw the ire of religious groups as their support will be needed in general elections to garner votes, the government fears any show of force may lead to a situation similar to Lal Masjid or simply because neither the civilian nor the military establishment wants to be on the wrong side in the debate of finality of the prophethood.
Given that the amendment igniting the controversy was scrapped and the clause restored, the demand to remove lawmaker Zahid Hamid is not only irrelevant but can potentially endanger his life owing to the sentiments around the issue and efforts by the religious parties to decribe the amendment as blasphemous.
The government stands in a position where leniency shown to the protesters would not just show weakness but also encourage other groups to intensify pressure by blocking roads, staging sit-ins for demands that can be beyond the state’s influence. And if it allows security forces to comply with IHC orders to evict protestors by force, it risks armed clashes. Delaying it further can lead to an even bigger crowd with heightened passions, in a re-enactment of the 2014 dharna staged by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Only this time around, the protesters are close to losing their zeal and energy waiting for the state to act — as it drags its feet in the dialogue process. The cold weather seems to be adding to their woes, dampening the spirits of the participants.
Yet if the Supreme Court decides to call in the army under Section 190 to remove the blockade it may give the PML-N a get-out-jail card in terms of keeping its vote bank intact and keeping religious sentiments at bay.
By prolonging the situation and not taking a fundamental stand, the government has cornered itself and allowed the judiciary (and military) to sweep in to make the tough calls — weakening the hands of democracy.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2017.