Many questions have been thrown up by the way the government wasted its advantage in the matter of Aasia Bibi’s acquittal and negotiated a settlement that, on the face of it, looks like handing over an undeserved victory to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
The first question is whether the government had prepared itself to meet the TLP agitation, that surely was not unexpected. A large number of people, including the TLP leaders, had come to know at least a day earlier when the Supreme Court was going to announce its verdict on Aasia Bibi’s appeal.
In Karachi, and possibly elsewhere too, posters attacking the convict’s acquittal had been printed before the judgment was announced and these were put on display immediately after the news of the decision was received. Obviously, the agitators had prepared themselves for both of the possible eventualities. Even a modestly efficient administration should have found out what plans the various parties were hatching.
The Christian community had reason to apprehend mob violence against them in the event of Aasia Bibi’s acquittal, and the provincial governments deserve credit for taking steps to protect them. These arrangements were however not tested as there are no reports of attacks on Christian settlements or offices of their organisations.
But no clear evidence is available to suggest any effort to prevent the potential agitators from capturing strategic points on roads in cities and on highways. This proved to be an extremely expensive lapse.
The government’s lack of a plan to deal with the situation is also confirmed by the confusion and indecisiveness seen in the way the TV coverage of the agitation was handled. In the beginning, no scenes of the agitators’ violent acts were allowed to be telecast, in the hope, probably, of preventing a snowballing effect, but the policy was changed later on and the coverage of acts of arson and vandalism did contribute to the erosion of public sympathy for the agitators.
The second question is as to why the government did not realise that several factors had made its position this time stronger than the protesters’. It was backed by a judgment of the apex court and that reduced the agitators’ cause to a totally unacceptable demand that everyone accused of blasphemy must be punished regardless of lack of evidence against him/her. Moreover, casting doubts on this verdict of the Supreme Court amounted to making its other judgments, from which the present political structure derives much strength, controversial.
The agitators lost the support of the business community and a large part of the country’s urban population by causing them material losses. This public mood probably persuaded some of the prominent religio-political outfits to put themselves at some distance from the agitators. They deplored acts of arson and destruction while remaining silent on the merits of the agitation. Above all, the agitators made the capital mistake of targetting not only the prime minister and the judiciary but also the army. This became evident on the very first day of the agitation because the prime minister gave special importance to the attack on the army.
The common citizens are justified in asking the government as to what happened to its will to establish its writ while the situation on the ground was in its favour.
Of the three possible ways of dealing with a situation like the one the government faced on October 31, the first one, that is, preventing a mob action, was missed as discussed above.
That left the authorities with two options: use of force to control the mob or to achieve the same result by peacefully demonstrating the futility of the agitation.
While the government has never been shy of using force to quell a protest by political activists, factory workers, teachers, lawyers, and even the visually impaired citizens, its ability to use force against a crowd that is appealing to the religious sentiments of the people is limited by several factors. The authority is afraid of escalation of conflict if the protesters are given dead bodies to whip up the people’s emotions. In addition to the fact that belief-related movements (Pakistan National Alliance in 1977 and Faizabad in 2017) have been more successful than secular political movements (anti-Ayub agitation in 1969 and Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in 1983 and 1986), the history of failure to suppress by force, movements launched under religious slogans is an inhibiting factor. A division within the establishment may make effective force unavailable to the government (PNA 1977, Faizaabad 2017).
However, the most decisive factor that undermines the government’s ability to use force against a mob raising, rightly or wrongly, religious slogans is that in most cases the government cannot repudiate the protesters’ core demand, which is roughly described as enforcement of a Sharia order. The government at the most claims to be better equipped than the agitators to achieve the shared objective. Thus, the government raises the threat from mob leaders to the level of a competition between them for realising a common ideal. Use of force against a crowd chanting religious slogans becomes an unwelcome hazard.
The government has also not been able to develop a strategy to overcome agitators through persuasion. Its negotiations with hardline agitators have ended more often than not in its capitulation. In the latest case too, the government rushed into negotiations with TLY apparently from a position of weakness. It might have improved its bargaining position by isolating the arsonists and destroyers of property from the TLY leadership and ordering a crackdown against the former before talking to the agitation organisers. Unfortunately, the government sued for relief in a state of panic and perhaps without a clearly thought out strategy.
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The government’s case also suffers from treating any challenge from religious groups as a law and order problem. Eventually, the issue boils down to the government’s lack of a credible counter-narrative. The authorities did call out friendly religious scholars to deplore violence but their intervention was too little and a bit too late.
Unfortunately, the present government seems determined to appease the forces of religiosity to a greater extent than the previous governments. Any concession to these forces will inevitably lay the foundation of a new assault on the state’s political structure. The custodians of power in Pakistan are not strong enough to overturn the lesson of history that capitulation to unreasonableness never yields a fair dividend.