Who won the battle of Islamabad?

Pakistan’s government lost the latest round against radical protestors. But the country’s army has won

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Updated: November 28, 2017 1:01 am
Under the Pakistan army’s benign gaze: Protesters hurl back tear gas shells fired by a hapless police force during clashes in Islamabad. AP photo

“Mumtaz Qadri’s father told me he wanted to kiss his son’s face one last time before they took him away from Adiala Jail after his hanging. He told me that when the ambulance door was opened, and he entered it, Mumtaz Qadri sat up in his coffin, that when he leant forward to hug his son, Mumtaz Qadri saw policemen approaching the van, and he lay down in his coffin again”.

The crowd of protestors squatting on the arterial flyover connecting Rawalpindi with Islamabad murmurs in awe as Khadim Rizvi, the wheelchair-bound leader of the Sunni organisation Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), speaking in earthy Punjabi, gives more examples of miracles wrought from the grave by the man who, on January 4, 2011, killed Salman Taseer, then the Punjab Governor, for his support to a Christian woman jailed for alleged blasphemy.

For twenty days, with his expletive-peppered speeches and dramatic flourishes, Khadim Rizvi kept enthralled his audience of about 2,000 (mostly young) men, drawn from different Barelvi Sunni organisations —the TLY, the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan (ST), and the Tehreek-e-Khatme-Nabuwwat — and effectively brought the government to its knees. The episode has dealt a body blow to Pakistan’s stop-start democratic politics, and reinforced the supremacy of the Pakistan military in national affairs.

The “dharna” ended on Monday, with the government accepting several key demands of the protestors, including the Law Minister Zahid Hamid’s resignation. The document of agreement, negotiated by the army, ends with fulsome praise for it. It thanks Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for “special efforts”, noting, “We are thankful to him for saving the nation from a big catastrophe”.

On Saturday, after a spectacularly botched-up attempt to clear the protestors by an 8,000-strong force of police, Punjab constabulary and Frontier Constabulary, the government asked the Pakistan Army to help. General Bajwa refused, and instead counselled Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi that “both sides” must avoid violence “as it is not in national interest ”, urging the government to “handle the dharna peacefully”.

Ten years ago, the-then Pakistani army ruler General Pervez Musharraf launched a commando operation to flush out militants camping inside Lal Masjid and the Jamia Hafsa, a women’s seminary. Over a 100 people, including commandos, were killed. Musharraf never recovered from that. The Lal Masjid militants were affiliated to a smorgasbord of terrorist groups who called themselves the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP (different from the Afghan Taliban, but with robust links to them), whose interpretation of Islam came from Pakistan’s Deobandi madrassas and Wahhabism imported from Saudi Arabia. It took years after that for the Pakistan military to be convinced that it had to take on the TTP, then too only after they were painted as an India/R&AW proxy.

Bajwa was certainly not going to risk the huge institutional image that the army has managed to rebuild since the Musharraf years, to now clear, using force, a demonstration by Barelvi Sunnis who form the majority of Pakistan’s Muslims (in Punjab). He is reported to have conveyed that “force could not be applied against (our) own people as the people of Pakistan love and trust (the) army, which can’t be compromised for little gains”. Also, considering that the protests were triggered by what the Barelvi groups saw as an attempt to dilute the anti-Ahmadiyya provisions in the Elections Act, Bajwa had another reason not to walk into the hornet’s nest — at his appointment, rumours flew that he was an Ahmadiyya.

Looking back, it is sweet that Pakistan, in the infancy of its new democratic phase that began in 2008, desperately tried to prop up the Barelvis against the Taliban. The gunning-down of Salman Taseer by his own bodyguard, a Barelvi named Mumtaz Qadri, and the massive support he received from his community, was the rude awakening. In March 2016, when Qadri was hanged, the same organisations that blocked the Faizabad flyover this month, mobilised over 30,000 people in protest. The clear victory of their muscle power, as apparent on Monday, is sure to be making the TTP envious.

At last year’s post-Qadri hanging Barelvi mobilisation, the government called in the military for help to clear Islamabad. The army secured buildings like Parliament House, the Prime Minister’s House and the Supreme Court, as protestors overran Islamabad’s Constitutional Avenue, but did not engage with them directly. Earlier too, in 2014, during a sit-in by politician Imran Khan and Pakistan Awaami Tehreek chairman Tahir-ul-Qadri’s supporters, the army secured government buildings. Eyebrows were raised, but Nawaz Sharif, who was the PM then, was still able to project that he was in charge.

This time, there was no Nawaz. For weeks, his substitute Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal were clueless on how to handle the situation. Ironically, the army’s refusal to move in showed decisively it was in charge. It has been seen more often since Nawaz Sharif’s exit. Sharif’s efforts to project his ouster as an unstated military coup showed he had not given up the fight. Now there is no doubt about which way civil-military relations are tilting.

While the PML(N) government was paralysed for three weeks, conspiracy theories swirled about who was actually behind the protests. But the question is really cui bono — who benefitted? The army-prodded government surrender before religious extremists shows that whether or not anyone was pulling the strings, on the ground, the military and the mullahs did.

With Parliamentary elections in about six months, this bruising standoff raises many questions, to which only one answer is clear — the Pakistan army is on top. In the recent by-election for Sharif’s seat, the TLY stood third. It got 7,130 votes compared to Sharif’s wife Kulsoom’s 61,745 votes. But its success on the street, under the military’s benign gaze, has set a precedent. It could embolden the TLY and others of its ilk. This is a blow not just to the PML(N). It would be worrying the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Imran Khan’s right-wing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) even more, and all democrats in Pakistan.

nirupama.subramanian@expressindia.com

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