Television audiences are accustomed to listening to tame, insipid talk shows in which the defining characteristic is a vaunting self-regard without the merest glimmer of insight and where even the reactions of the participants are neutered so as not to offend anybody’s feelings. It is all very cultured and civilised. Dr Zulfiqar Ali Mirza’s recent lickspittle, forelock-tugging press conference in Hyderabad, in which he fired a number of broadsides at the MQM, therefore jolted them out of their lassitude. They had never heard anything quite like it since ZA Bhutto made his famous speech in Bhati Gate before a huge crowd and confessed that while he partook of the distilled essence of grain, he did not suck the blood of the destitute.
The press conference in Hyderabad might have had some of the older, portlier generation of TV viewers chortling with pleasure, but it was most offensive to the MQM; and it is to their eternal credit that they did not react beyond suggesting that Dr Mirza was badly in need of psychiatric counseling. After emptying both barrels at the MQM, Dr Mirza directed his wrath against the sycophants who surround the president, particularly Rehman Malik, the PPP’s answer to the irascible, petulant Sheikh Rashid of the Q League, whose one-liners and two-tone voice endeared him to the media.
Dr Mirza is being hailed as a hero in parts of Sindh, but his diatribe hasn’t really changed anything in either the province or the country. If anything, it has put a damper on the issue that was being debated in Punjab a fortnight ago: should the army be called out to clean up the mess in the killing fields of Karachi? Supporters and detractors can be found on both sides of the fence. The business community; people who live in Karachi’s Orange County; the daily wage earner in Orangi who is sick of the strikes, protest marches and other types of organised public dissent which deprive him of a living; and the leader of the MQM say it should. The prime minister and spokesmen from the Nawaz Sharif faction of the Muslim League, however, say it should not, possibly because they have a lurking fear it might eventually lead to the return of the former military dictator. Asma Jahangir, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, voicing the views of a small chorus of dissenters, also says it should not — not because she has any particular distaste for the army, but because in her opinion it would lead to the usurpation of the fundamental rights of the citizen.
Now I have two questions for Ms Jahangir, whom I have always held in the highest esteem and have admired for her long and hard struggle to protect the rights of women and the establishment of civil rights in this country. Would she have expressed the same view had she been residing in Orangi and her office had been located in Jacob Lines? And just what are the fundamental rights of a citizen in a country where there is no rule of law, where a man gets off scot-free after stoning and killing his wife under the guise of upholding family honour, where rapists are protected by the police and where a prime minister obstinately refuses to implement the decisions of the Supreme Court?
Some time ago, the MQM leader exhorted the prime minister to stop the genocide of muhajirs in Karachi, and added that if he can’t stem the tide he should resign. One shudders to think who his replacement would be as the public perception is that all members of the current politburo in Islamabad are cloistered in wombs of the same sly mould. It was decided to deploy the Rangers and the police, and the armed personnel appear to have brought matters under control. But has anybody bothered to ask what will happen once the men in uniform are withdrawn? The hitmen from the political parties will once again crawl out of the woodwork and it will be business as usual. What is required is a permanent solution, and it is incumbent on the country’s leaders to find it. The case for army intervention is that the country would be dealing with a highly trained professional agency totally objective in the execution of its duties. In case the president decides to chance it and brings in the army, Aitzaz Ahsan will tell him that such a move would not be unconstitutional. What people have in mind is the sort of operation that the army conducted in Swat.
The real issue before the decision-makers therefore is: should whatever civil liberties the citizen still enjoys be protected at the cost of increasing genocide, when a remedy is available? The prime minister and the president prefer the Rangers-police deterrent because, as they so charmingly put it, ‘it would be good for democracy’. There is every reason to believe that both the president and the prime minister are sincere in their desire for peace. But they appear to have missed the full quilt. Let’s hope they are on the right track and have made the correct choice. They must remember that the people of Karachi are exceptionally tough and resilient and have brought down many an administration. The primary duty of a government is to ensure the protection of its citizens. And if the regular paramilitary forces cannot prevent planned homicides, the government would have no option but to turn to the military for help. At present the armed forces have expressed a certain reluctance to get involved. But if things really get out of hand, they will be called upon to exercise their patriotic duty.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 7th, 2011.