A lot of things that happen in Pakistan’s power landscape are so bizarre that they are quite simply jaw-droppingly unbelievable.
Much has been written over the past week about the ‘dharna’ and the army-brokered deal that helped to disperse the groups of volatile protestors and their rabid leaders. Much has been written about the PML-N government’s mishandling of the situation, the police crackdown that went wrong and the military’s very public stance of not being supportive of the country’s government. Much has also been written from the perspective of ‘saving’ Islam, ‘saving’ the country and protecting the blasphemy laws.
But despite column inches and broadcast hours of comment, enough has still not been said about the military’s murky role in the whole lynch mob episode, or about the electronic media’s tone or positioning throughout the crisis.
The military made it perfectly clear it was not on the same side as the government. First there was the patronising tweet from the head of ISPR, saying the COAS had advised the PM that in handling the protest both sides should avoid violence, thus implying that the elected government and the protesting thugs who were challenging the writ of the state were at the same level, much like naughty schoolchildren feuding in the playground. Then the army made very clear and quite public, the fact that they would not move in to disperse the supporters despite the government officially asking them to move in and help control the violence. Instead it forced the government to agree to every demand of the mob leaders. The agreement was brokered and ‘guaranteed’ by the COAS himself.
One of the shocking points agreed upon was that all detained protestors would be released without any charges, and the federal and provincial governments would foot the bill for all the damage and destruction caused by this mob. But most shocking was the footage that made it to social media in which the Rangers commander benevolently distributed cash to some of the protestors.
In this video the general tells them “this is from us… After all, don’t we stand with you? (kya hum aap kay saath nahin hain)?” He says this putting his hand on his heart and paternalistically pressing white envelopes apparently containing 1000 rupees into the hands of various protest participants.
The 1000 largesse was later explained by army apologists as simply a kind gesture because some of “these people were so poor they had no money to get home”. However, some low income Islamabad families who had family members at the protest had said, they had been paid 1000 rupees per day for joining the protest.
Army officials thus publicly aligned themselves with a mob that was baying for blood in the name of blasphemy, a mob that killed one policeman, blinded a young man, caused the deaths of several people including a child, destroyed police vehicles, and attacked the homes of legislators. The paternalistic tone of the DG Rangers was not stern though — it was the tone of somebody congratulating a group on a job well done — a “shaabash beta” sort of tone. We’ve all heard of the 111 (Triple One) Brigade (notorious for its role in military coups) but now we also seem to have the 1000 (One Triple Zero) Brigade as well: a lynch mob to be used against the civilian government as and when needed.
The electronic media also took an odd position: highlighting the failures of the government without expressing much shock and outrage at the mob’s violence or the attacks on legislators’ residences. In fact, nearly all the news channels seemed to be more outraged by the fact that the government had temporarily shut down their transmission than by the fact that the crowd had killed a policeman.
The protest was a show of strength, an extended round of the chess game of power, and it bodes ill for next year’s election (or ‘general selection’ as some commentators now refer to it). The military’s show of public sympathy with this ‘One Triple Zero’ Brigade is inappropriate: by doing so they have condoned the actions of a mob that challenged the writ of the state, destroyed public property and killed a law enforcer.
And despite the immense pressures and betrayals (including from opposition politicians who profess an interest in the democracy project), the PML-N is still not giving up without a fight. As one of their ministers put it last week, to get rid of or diminish popular progressive leadership in Pakistan, one of two labels are used: accuse them either of being traitors (ghaddar) or apostates…
And for some quarters of course the Triple One Zero lot is now a useful resource, TA DA and all.