Pakistan government gives in to religious groups

Last Updated: Tue, Nov 28, 2017 12:38 hrs
More than 35 security personnel have been injured by protesters who pelted stones at the authorities. Image: AP

More than 35 security personnel have been injured by protesters who pelted stones at the authorities. Image: AP

In Islamabad, a three week long sit-in by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) ended after the government’s surrender to the demands of the agitators. Three weeks ago, a number of religious groups; Tehreek-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and Sunni Tehreek Pakistan (ST) called for the sacking the country’s Law minister Zahid Hamid.

The uproar was over a clause in the Elections Bill 2017 that related to a candidates belief in the finality of the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad i.e. “peace be upon him” which was the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat oath. This was replaced with the words “I believe” in place of “I solemnly swear”.

The Law minister defended the bill and said that it was not meant to repeal the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat laws. However, later that day, the National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq had stated that it was a clerical error.

Even though the bill was amended to restore the oath to its original form, protestors gathered in the capital and earlier this month the police booked several leaders who participated in the sit-in. After mounting pressure, the Law minister Zahid Hamid resigned.

In a column for The Hindu, S. Akbar Zaidi, a political economist based in Karachi writes on the changing nature of democratic politics in Pakistan in the midst of the protests –

The fact that the three-week-long dharna, even by just 3,000 unarmed men has created such a major crisis for a government which is trying to stabilize itself under a new Prime Minister shows how a minuscule political entity can have such major consequences”.

The government has been criticized for taking such a long time in removing the protesters and making a mess of the situation. With swift action it could have chased off the protesters. Instead, the organization consolidated itself, gaining strength and support as it continued to resist”.

On Saturday, Pakistani authorities, i.e. the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority ordered private television channels to go off air during a police and paramilitary crackdown on protesters in the capital. Social media was also shut down.

Even this tiny incident in Islamabad allows one to make a number of observations about the political economy of Pakistan: religious groups and parties are far better organized and committed than their liberal cousins and civil society”.

Either non-mainstream actors or parties now do politics outside the rules of democratic politics or, the rules of democratic politics have changed to include disruptive and threatening gestures which might completely destabilize democracy itself”.

The Nation’s editorial called the situation that was taking place a ‘sad state of affairs’ and the following surrender by the government to the demands of the religious groups as ‘death of a dream’ –

For more than two weeks, the twin cities were held hostage by a self-appointed clergyman who has gained a comical international notoriety due to his imagination for vitriolic speeches. And now, what seemed like a mismanaged farce ends in the government’s greatest shame, in the death of the dream of statehood”.

Zahid Hamid’s resignation from his post is the defeat of the federation’s administrative and moral upper-hand. There could not have been a worse way to handle this crisis from any front, and at any point in time”.

A report in Pakistan Today on the deal struck between the government and the religious leaders referred to those who participated in the protests as ‘zealots’. On Saturday, law enforcement agencies launched a day-long operation to handle the protests. During the operation which failed to clear the protests, 10 were killed and more than a hundred wounded. The paper’s editorial called the deal ‘an abject surrender’ by the government –

The government has to answer important questions. Has Zahid Hamid done something culpable or was made a scapegoat, a common practice with this government? Instead of defending its minister the government, fearing that the bigots could jeopardize its electoral prospects, decided to throw Hamid under the bus”.

The terms of the deal that was agreed upon included Zahid Hamid’s resignation, release of detained protesters and dropping all charges against them. The government had also agreed to probe what actions needed to be taken against the officials behind the operation on Saturday.

Among other things how will the government release on bail or pardon those booked under ant-terrorism laws? Those keen to mainstream terrorist and extremist groups have to realize the harm these would do to the state and society when they enter national politics.

The paper, in an earlier editorial criticized the government’s handling of extremists within the country over the past few years and stated that Pakistan is facing its next existential challenge in the wake of the law enforcement operation –

During the last four years the government allowed the extremist sentiment to flourish by patronizing clerics with strong sectarian and misogynist tendencies and condoning attacks on religious minorities”.

Instead of nipping the evil in the bud it allowed the Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) to proceed to Faizabad, set up a camp, spread its propaganda all over the country, employ foul language about the judiciary and whosoever opposed the blockade that had made the lives of the commuters miserable for 18 days”.

The Islamabad High Court came down hard on the federal government for its decision to assign the army as a mediator in the confrontation with religious parties. On the role of the army, a justice observed that “this court has serious reservations about the terms of the agreement and the mannerism in which it [has been] arrived… the federal government has to satisfy it”.

The court directed Intelligence Bureau’s Joint DG Anwar Ali to submit a report revealing from where the protesters brought weapons, teargas masks and other instruments. In a column for the Pakistan Observer, Dr. Muhammad Khan, a Professor of Politics and International Relations based in Islamabad writes on how the Pakistan government engaged in bad governance which is a threat to national security –

An internally destabilized state; divided into religious groupings, sub-nationalism, ethnic grouping and political rivalries and above all mishandling them will present a very vulnerable target to its rivals, thus endangering the security of the nuclear Pakistan. This all is being done because of the bad governance in Pakistan”.

From all accounts, it seems clear that the Pakistani government botched the handling of these protests and the religious leaders and extremist groups saw an opening. The Islamabad high court in criticizing the how the government used the military is an important note to take into account. The government caved because of an ineffective and badly handled strategy.

With the shutdown of the television channels and social media, the government went to the extreme in a situation where they held the upper hand but what followed was a breakdown of law and the divide between institutions. This sets a bad precedent.

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