Friday, Jan 27, 2023

And another long march

As Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri face off with Islamabad, will the past be repeated?

Pakistan has collapsed materially in the face of Taliban terror. Pakistan has collapsed materially in the face of Taliban terror.

Pakistan is reeling under the good/ bad news of revolutions. I thought the only revolution possible here was that of the Taliban, which has pledged to establish “superior” Islamic order and has the power to bring it about through much slaughter. It has already accomplished part of this goal, which the victims, whose extremism matches that of the killers, would welcome as divinely ordained in the holy books.

I thought “revolution” was different from “change”, but Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, currently on the warpath, seem to conflate the two. Change, I thought, was democracy, with its inbuilt period of change of government. And revolution was a sanguinary uprooting that comes after a long period of authoritarian oppression. The other “revolutionary” who wants to overthrow the “rotten system” — read democracy — is Tahir-ul Qadri of Pakistan Awami Tehreek, a fabulously rich cleric who lives in Canada but can mobilise global funds of untold quantity. Both are cult leaders backed by supporters willing to “face bullets”.

In Pakistan, most politicians prefer to name their parties “tehreek”, meaning “movement” rather than “party”, because tehreek implies a spontaneous massing of people intent on achieving an objective — which is what a revolution looks like when it starts. The half-hidden intent behind each tehreek is violent change, while also implying the inspiration of a higher “cause”, preferably mixed with religion.

What do the two cult leaders want? Khan says he wants a change of government through a “long march” on Islamabad, where an incumbent prime minister is wobbly — not because he is bad, but because Pakistan has been getting less and less governable over the past decade because of terrorism. The prime minister may have been guilty of unrealistically promis ing the moon but not of doing something deserving constitutional dismissal. All prime ministers will be wobbly for the foreseeable future in Pakistan and, therefore, vulnerable to “revolutionary” attacks from opposition parties posing as “movements”.

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I develop a moronic tic when such a moment is reached. An evil glint appears in my eyes as I predict “revolution” will come after the storming of Islamabad through a well-timed move by the Pakistan army. (Revolutions through such interventions have been pathetic hot air so far.) That is what has happened in the past, and it is accepted in Pakistan that the army is the only powerful institution in the state, running external policy and internal order. Hasn’t Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif offended the army by not letting General (retd) Pervez Musharraf duck a trial for treason and leave Pakistan to enjoy his wealth abroad?Khan may once have been the army’s “candidate” for coronation as an anointed ruler of the country through the familiar interruption of a “corrupt” democratic order. But he may not be “anointed” today — he has opposed new army chief General Raheel Sharif’s war against the Taliban, which has a soft corner for Khan, whose province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it has nevertheless laid waste through bombings and extractions. Why should the general headquarters lend a hand if Khan is soft on the Taliban? Hence, one can say that both Khan and Sharif have offended the army.

That leaves Qadri — also called Sheikh-ul-Islam, a status probably stemming from a dream he once had in which the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) “chose” him as his deputy after rejecting all the other schools of thought in Pakistan’s religious hierarchy — and his “movement” based on revolutionary pledges that would put India’s Arvind Kejriwal to shame: employment for all, free education, free health, free housing and free food if someone goes hungry.

He says he doesn’t want a mid-term election like Khan but will somehow take over the state after his march on Islamabad and “change the system”. The problem is that the system he will bring about will not be acceptable to the people of Pakistan in the thrall of a brand of Islam opposed to Qadri — he is a Barelvi who offends other Barelvis by reinterpreting the infamous blasphemy law to spare its non-Muslim targets and makes the Deobandis, favoured by the state and feared by the people, bristle. The Taliban in Pakistan is expected to get him one of these days.


Pakistan has collapsed materially in the face of Taliban terror. It has also collapsed intellectually when you examine the political intent of the Khan/ Qadri duo. Both rely on angry statements. Their spittle-rich but empty-minded speeches convey a sense of outrage that puffs up their cult following and prompts violence. Subliminally, both expect their followers to get to Islamabad and clash with the police, which normally takes to its heels when not firing its defective British Raj rifles into the mob. Then, they hope, somehow Sharif will fall to his knees and concede to holding elections after a year in power.

Like Muslims elsewhere in the world, I feel mentally defective because, at some level, I accept all this as normal. Cretinous politicians mouthing new formulas of surrender to stupidity are about to fall into the Pakistani lunacy of repetitive behaviour. Don’t blame me. I have been in Pakistan too long to be normal.

The pattern of downfall is like this. The now-besieged prime minister held his “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad in 2009 against the PPP government on the pretext of restoring the supreme court, which had been dismissed by Musharraf. He had reached halfway when the then army chief intervened and forced the government to reinstate the fired chief justice, who then proceeded to fire the prime minister, who had a majority in parliament, and allowed his son to become a billionaire through leveraged gouging of state contractors, while a low-IQ population led by semi-criminalised lawyers clapped thinking the judiciary had become “independent”.


Sharif was prime minister in 1993 with a two-thirds majority in parliament when the opposition PPP, led by Benazir Bhutto, decided to tip him off his throne through long marches and a climactic address at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh — the venue where the Taliban finally killed her in 2007 — amid police violence that produced the needed scenario. “Revolution” defeated democracy and Sharif was kicked out with a little help from you know who. Ditto happened to Bhutto in 1996, when her own president fired her under an enabling “hara kiri” provision in the constitution.

Why does Pakistan behave the way it does? If it is a generic Muslim angst, it started much before it infected the Arabs. As a Pakistani, I am most likely to blame it on America, at whose side are two ominous entities, India and Israel, which I see in my daily “denial” nightmares. I can prove that India has done us in without doing much. The 1999 toppling of the Sharif government happened after our brave army chief, General Musharraf, tried to deliver the much-deserved trophy of Kargil and was forgivably defeated by India. Was Pakistan sad, reeling under a “victory hype” unleashed by the media, after Sharif was overthrown? Not at all. That day, I ate a lot of what, in the vocabulary of overthrows in Pakistan, is called “sweetmeat”.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

First published on: 14-08-2014 at 00:05 IST
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