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Posts Tagged August 14

August 14: a possible postscript

Shahzad Chaudhry
Thursday, August 14, 2014 

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Events leading to Pakistan’s 68th Independence Day crept up slowly. Imran Khan and Dr Tahirul Qadri had both announced their respective marches onto Islamabad for that day. 

Beginning from Lahore the two had chosen to tread separate routes till both merged with their followers at Islamabad. Dr Qadri’s intents were more ominous; he had declared to upturn the existing government through a revolution – even if it meant blood. To him there was no other way to replace the existing system of political monopoly by an elitist band of familial dynasties. It had to be a ‘revolution’; nothing less would do. 

Dr Qadri’s return to Pakistan from Canada became eventful with the Sharif government’s decision to divert his plane from Islamabad to Lahore denying him the opportunity to a show of force march which could have served as a precursor to his subsequent forays in search of a revolution. The complications of his arrival had unfortunately been preceded a few days earlier by another gory incident when a bloodied confrontation between his followers and the provincial police in Lahore left 14 of his followers dead. Why did the provincial government, headed by Shahbaz Sharif, fall to such levels of idiocy remains a mystery. It did, however, set the tone for what was to follow.

Here on, politics took a back seat when it chose force as its preferred mode of engagement. Politics also took a bad name when it was woefully neglected by its practitioners. At least ten more of Qadri’s supporters were killed at another head-off between both sides at a commemoration event for those who had died. 

Once set in the mode of a confrontation the slide could only result in instability. A political engagement could have helped stem the serious spiralling down of political and administrative order, but that remained crucially absent. Haughtiness and arrogance instead replaced common sense. Playing chickens, was more like it.

What followed was even more ominous. Unable to find justice for his people, Dr Qadri chose to take law into his own hands and in a highly controversial and contentious address incited his followers to use violence in bringing the government down. An armed confrontation loomed as August 14 came. 

Qadri’s subsequent retraction to instead urge a more peaceful resort assured no one. The die had been cast in the manner of his exhortations that played on emotion, religious sentiment and an open invitation to avenge his grief through violence and disorder. He wasn’t, with his actions, planning to bring only the government down, he was essentially setting in anarchy and chaos that could only result in a state and a societal meltdown.

During all this, a chain of events spread over two months, there was no political initiative by the government, federal or provincial, that could have obviated such decadence in the social and the political order. Was it arrogance; a simple lack of appreciation of how the politics had changed with its new set of determinants based around a vibrant media and a hugely more politically aware public; or was it simply the proverbial dithering and indecisiveness of Nawaz Sharif that had pushed the government of a comfortable majority into an uncomfortable position of saving both its own skin and an existential threat to the much precious democratic order? Democracy in Pakistan was still fragile needing constant nourishment through careful handling; exposing it to reverberations so early in a government’s tenure was simply, poor politics. 

Imran Khan’s commitment to his long march to seek the prime minister’s resignation and recourse to mid-term elections remained unstinted. In the lead-up to this finality and inevitability of a political show-down there was little by way of political maturity on either side. Government ministers made obnoxious statements daring both their political protagonists to follow on their plan with a promise that the government would face the challenge. Police forces were inducted from other provinces and paramilitary forces were called in to augment the potential challenge. Inevitably and compulsively, the two sides headed into a confrontation without realising where the events would lead. Politics was at the mercy of events. 

The prime minister spoke to the nation, at last, on the evening of August 12. There couldn’t have been a more lame speech though he did end with an offer to investigate all complaints of fraud through a Supreme Court commission. It was too little, too late. Imran Khan’s retort asked the PM to resign if transparencyindeed from such an inquest was to be expected. Clearly, Nawaz Sharif would not oblige. 

Similarly, to expect Imran Khan to give up on his march at that time would have only meant political suicide for him. By these perfunctory acts the two had played their final cards in a risky game of roulette that could throw up no winners. The game was now in other people’s hands.

The government chose to blockade Qadri’s every move containing him and his supporters in the vicinity of his Lahore residence. Unfortunately, violent confrontations only meant more dead and injured; now on both sides. The strife spread to other parts of Lahore and the army had to be called out to restore order. Dr Qadri was placed in house-arrest, incommunicado under a virtual shutdown. 

Imran Khan’s long march, however, was another matter. He not only succeeded in making it to Islamabad despite the clampdown and blockades against his march, he managed to breach the defences set up on the way to the fabled D-Chowk. The administration lost control over the mob’s movement. Its inability to coordinate logistics with the PTI’s organisers beforehand now haunted the administrators. Imran Khan was able to establish his sit-in within the Red Zone as per his preferred plan. Negotiations by go-betweens began in full earnest after Imran Khan had lambasted Nawaz frequently from his podium, asking him to resign if indeed a government had to function. The army, when called to assist, simply ensured that the two opposing sides were kept apart while the political showdown went through its paces. 

The prime minister chose to spend his weekend, as per his routine, in Lahore – giving rise to popular murmurs of his having thrown-in the towel. Once again the central authority to either dialogue or resolve the fracas was absent. It was becoming more and more evident that a resolution from this stalemate would once again depend on the involvement of a reformed troika – the president, the army chief and the chief justice. They were expected to meet shortly to propose a solution that could see an interim government and recourse to another election after necessary reforms were enacted. 

Yet again, democracy under a political order was in need of crutches to stake claims to a government. It was the beginning of yet another journey in Pakistan’s democratic experience. 

The writer is a retired air-vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its deputy chief of staff. 

Email: shhzdchdhry@yahoo.com

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