When President Asif Ali Zardari pounced upon Geo News on Friday – ominously, Friday the thirteenth – the writing on the wall became luminous. And the immediate resignation of Information Minister Sherry Rehman, an exemplary move that deserves appreciation, became another sign of rising disarray in the corridors of power. Very street smart our present rulers may be but they seem to lack the higher intelligence to understand that a war against the media is simply not winnable, not in these times.
It has been said that Pakistan has been changed by Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s defiance on March 9, 2007, and the consequent movement by the lawyers. In fact, it is the emergence of the independent television news channels that has changed this country because these channels, with Geo in the lead, inspired a new coalition of hope two years ago with the active participation of the lawyers and civil society.
Now, it should be instructive to figure out why Geo has provoked the ire of Asif Zardari. In many ways, it is an action replay of what General Pervez Musharraf had done to Geo in November 2007. But Musharraf at that time was in total control and his nasty attack on the channel led to a severe financial loss. Still, we know who has prevailed and how Geo was vindicated, gaining in its stature and credibility. We can say that Geo has also changed. This is certified by the passion with which it has supported the cause of justice and morality in the context of the lawyers’ movement.
It is this commitment that the present rulers, who have unashamedly betrayed the pledges made by their martyred leader and by themselves, cannot stomach. Indeed, Geo’s forceful and innovative portrayal of the real issues that underline the present crisis has exposed the dark machinations of the present leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party. To be fair to this leadership, it had either to correct its course or lunge at its critics.
We can see what this leadership has chosen to do. Friday’s action against Geo has come in the wake of a brutal countrywide suppression of the long march. The manner in which the law enforcement agencies and the bureaucracy have collaborated in this evil design is an indication that the existing system of our governance has become insane and its continuation can destroy this country.
We have all seen on our television sets how the police have dealt with the lawyers and the political and civil society activists who assert nothing more sinister than their right to peacefully demonstrate. As a journalist, I have been witness to this administrative monstrosity for four decades. The sadistic manner in which the policemen, often in plain clothes, beat and humiliate respectable protesters is not just a violation of fundamental human rights or constitutional guarantees. It reflects the sick mentality of the high functionaries who preside over these acts of infamy.
When I say that the lawyers’ movement and the electronic media have changed Pakistan, I should concede that there are some segments of our polity that are refusing to change. It is the persistence of this despotic tendency that could declare Pakistan as a failed state. Yes, we were deluded into thinking that after the elections of February last year, a new era of democratic dispensation would dawn. At least the terrifying loss of Benazir Bhutto should have prompted her somewhat dubious inheritors to learn some lessons from our tragic history. No one had any expectation of what has happened in the last few days.
There are numerous clips of the leaders of the present arrangement proclaiming their democratic credentials and promising that no impediments would be placed in the holding of a peaceful long march. They would repeatedly endorse the right of the people to assemble and to protest peacefully. It was truly sickening to listen to a number of PPP ministers in television talk shows – and their presence there was mandatory – to invoke the history and the character of their party.
We know about that adage that all revolutions sometime devour their own children. Our democratic ‘revolution’ threatens to devour the party that had led this essentially hopeful transition. There has been some concern among liberals that the lawyers’ movement is being hijacked by the right wing. This is not the central issue. What is more crucial in the present circumstances is that the PPP has been hijacked by Asif Zardari and his cronies.
There is nothing in the gamut of human emotions that hurts more than the betrayal of someone you have deeply loved. A very large number of ardent supporters of the PPP now have the same feeling. One of them is social activist Tahira Abdulla, who was arrested from her Islamabad residence and then released after the intervention of Sherry Rehman and some other PPP leaders. But the treatment meted out to a person of her dedication and integrity would remain an example of how this government is running amok.
A more tragic incident took place in Peshawar when the police broke into the house of Musarrat Hilali and she got her leg fractured in the terror created by the policemen. Musarrat is vice-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan for NWFP and is a highly respected lawyer known for her work for the poor and the underprivileged. If distinguished and precious individuals like her can be treated in this manner, what can ordinary citizens expect from our heartless and immoral rulers? As an aside, what has happened to our ANP friends and why have they condoned brutal suppression of the long march in the province where they lead the coalition?
What they have done to impede the long march needs to be properly analysed. Irrespective of the obvious admission of defeat on the part of the rulers that this violent suppression represents, there are serious implications here about the future of democracy in this country. In a wider context, such initiatives would undermine the very potential of our society to renew itself and to allow the citizens to have a meaningful sense of belonging to their country.
We must also not forget that this has happened against the backdrop of rising religious militancy and social disequilibrium. The gift of hope that the lawyers’ movement and last year’s elections had given us is being trampled under the feet of civilian despots. We may not expect our present rulers to comprehend the significance of what they are doing. But are the Americans, who are openly involved in attempts to resolve this crisis, also oblivious to the social and political consequences of this government’s brutality and its vicious suppression of the human rights of the people of Pakistan?