Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Coming Out on the Streets

On Friday, addressing a charged rally of his supporters in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif took another step ahead in his confrontational campaign against President Asif Ali Zardari and exhorted the people to come out on the streets. This unfurling of the banner of rebellion was manifestly meant to garner popular support for the lawyers’ long march and the sit-in in Islamabad later this month. But the stage for this fateful encounter was set by the Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify the Sharif brothers and by the imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab.

The sense of national crisis has deepened this week. The terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, particularly because of that spectacular lapse in security, has sent a fearsome message to the world about the present government’s ability to govern. It allowed the top US diplomat in Kabul to assert that Pakistan now poses a bigger security problem for the rest of the world than Afghanistan. What greater affront could there be for a nuclear-armed country that considers itself a major player in the region?

Then, there was a bomb attack on the mausoleum of Rahman Baba in Peshawar in the small hours of Thursday. Unfortunately, the real significance of this outrage was somehow camouflaged by more flaming headlines, though a number of sombre interpretations of what this means have appeared in the English language press. Rahman Baba, of course, was a 17th century mystic poet revered by the Pashtuns. That Pashtun jihadists would mount an attack on a beloved symbol of Pashtun identity says a lot about the rising tide of Talibanisation that our rulers, with all their pious intentions, are failing to contain.

Meanwhile, terrorist activities across the affected belt in the northern areas have continued in spite of the peace deals that have been made. On Saturday, there was another terrorist attack in Peshawar in which a number of policemen were killed. There is increasing evidence that the militants are becoming more confident and more resourceful. There is also a sectarian dimension in their primitive pursuit of power. People everywhere are feeling more insecure and uncertain about the future.

And it is against this ominous backdrop that the political confrontation is becoming more antagonistic. Speeches made by Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif in Friday’s rally tend to certify that a point of no return has been reached, though hectic efforts for reconciliation are underway by provincial leaders who have a vested interest in the present arrangement. Considering Asif Zardari’s rigid stance on the pivotal issue of the restoration of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, it is hard to imagine how they can pacify a rebellious Nawaz Sharif in these climactic moments when the die is cast. Some seasoned analysts can hear the approaching sound of army boots.

Hence, the next few days will be crucial. Pakistan has already been pushed to the edge of the precipice. The entire world is anxious about our fate, also because it would have global implications. Americans have obviously played a critical role in the shaping and execution of our national policies. What will – and can – they do at this time when they are in the midst of a strategic review of their policy relating to Afghanistan and Pakistan? Speaking at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reportedly said that Pakistan is facing a serious internal security threat. This she said with reference to the attack on Sri Lankan cricket team, calling it an “eerie replica” of the Mumbai attacks. How about the other toxic ingredients of the crisis of Pakistan?

For the time being, the focus rests on the lawyers’ long march that will start from Quetta and Karachi on March 12 and will culminate in Islamabad on March 16. It is in this context that Nawaz Sharif has asked the people to stage a revolution by coming out on the streets. Will a massive show of popular force be possible in this protest? Apparently, if the march is not stopped through violent means, it will be massive because the people are fully conscious of the moral and democratic validity of the lawyers’ cause. But there has also been a tradition of governments in power to suppress popular agitation with brutal force.

In fact, memories of May 12, 2007, cannot be erased from our minds. That bloodbath in Karachi should stand out in the history of how a popular movement is sought to be crushed by despotic rulers. Ah, the irony here is that the Pakistan Peoples Party workers on that day were on the side of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Look at where they are now. But the betrayal that the party’s supporters have suffered is one more instance of the catastrophic derelictions of Pakistan’s politics.

Coming back to the appeal for street demonstrations, one should realise that Pakistan can be truly liberated if this is possible. Irrespective of whether they do it to support Nawaz Sharif’s politics or to concentrate solely on the vindication of the lawyers’ demand for the restoration of November 2, 2008, judiciary, their active participation in politics can change this country and make a new beginning possible. Unfortunately, the tendency of our rulers and leading politicians to revert to their past behaviour and shameless deceptions has undermined the very potential for democratic dispensation in Pakistan.

We desperately need to make a new beginning, with adequate deference to moral and democratic principles. It was in this respect that the courage demonstrated by Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in this month two years ago and the response it got from the independent media and the civil society was an immeasurably precious gift to our polity. Yes, he had taken an oath on PCO before that. Yes, he may have committed indiscretions in his career. But people do change. There are innumerable examples in history of how great heroes and respected martyrs were initially on the other side.

After all, our lives are shaped by circumstances and by conscious decisions that we make in a time of crisis. Let me quote Thomas Paine one more time: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldiers and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.” How is this crisis trying our souls? Yes, the issue of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has somewhat been confused by our feelings towards politicians and parties that have taken their positions. But we need to think about this entire issue in the light of what we think is right. And once we have taken our decision, we should have the courage of our convictions even if it demands our active participation in a street demonstration. The threats that we face in this challenge are far less than the threat our country faces at this time.

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