The gradually increasing temperature of Islamabad’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasul-Allah (SAWW) has finally reached its boiling point. At the time of writing this article, government’s operation to disperse the dharna participants is underway; electronic media transmissions have been taken off-air; social media feeds have been blocked; protests have broken out in all major city centers across Pakistan; Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan’s house (close to Faizabad Chowk) has been attacked by the protestors; Zahid Hamid’s house has been surrounded; people have been advised to stay in-doors, to the extent possible; and the streets of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad look eerily deserted.

If there was some moment and method that could resolve this issue peacefully, it has come and gone. Questions such as ‘Are they protestors’ demands illegal?’, ‘Should the government have relented?’, ‘Should the courts have intervened?’, are no longer relevant at this moment. The only objective, for now, is to ensure that the ‘writ of the State’ is restored with minimum possible violence.

As this dangerous and volatile situation develops – behind the black screens of media blackout – a few issues need purposeful reflection.

One: irrespective of how this drama concludes, the government will need to answer some tough questions. And the first of these needs to be a cogent response to: who changed the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat oath statement in electoral declaration, and why? Over the past few weeks, government officials have pointed out (and rightly so) that a group of protesters cannot be allowed to stage a sit-in and hold the entire State hostage. They have explained why such street demands cannot be allowed to affect the democratic governance model, or individuals within the Cabinet. They have also correctly pointed out that evoking religious sentiments, amidst a street-mob, in order to achieve political and legislative goals, is terrible precedent in a country where religious divides frequently end with blood-shed. However, despite such logical and constitutional arguments, the one question that government has remained entirely unable to answer (in a satisfactory manner) is: why were electoral clauses relating to Khatam-e-Nabuwwat changed, and by whom? Who proposed the amendment? Who drafted it? Who deliberated upon it? And how all members of the concerned committee (including members of religious political parties), as well as members of the Parliament (from different political parties) voted for it?

This narrative – demonstrating that the clauses were changed as a result of deliberative legislative process, agreed upon by a wide spectrum of political parties – needs to come forth. This is the only way in which focus can be shifted from PLM(N) and Zahid Hamid alone. This is the only way that leadership of our religious political parties, and in particular the likes of Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, will be made to answer and justify their position on the issue. And only in this way can the ongoing debate be reframed: as a political, instead of a religious issue.

Two: this model of seeking political or legislative change, through public sit-ins, must now come to an end. Introduced during the Lawyer’s Movement and Long March, this model of seeking political change through public dharnas come to a fruition during the PAT and PTI dharnas. It was argued by dharna participants that they are merely exercising their constitutional right to protest, as protected under Article 16 and 17 of the Constitution. However, dharnas do not violate any express provision of the Constitution, still, ironically, they almost obliterates the entire ethos of our democracy. They runs the pervasive risk of setting a trend that any political party, or even a militant group, who can gather enough people on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad, has the right to overthrow the government. And who would decide which group or party has summoned the largest number of supporters in Islamabad? There is no empirical method, other than the general elections, through which the sovereign ‘will of the people’ can be measured. By setting this precedent, would we not be inviting, and sanctifying, future would-be-saviors to gather their supporters in our streets, demanding an imposition of their preferred legal regime? Are we really so naïve as to assume that all such adventurers would come in peace, bearing no arms? Is it not true that sympathizers of Lal Masjid, or proscribed outfits such as ASWJ, can gather a crowd larger than TLY, PAT, or even PTI? And would we ever be in a position to deny their methods tomorrow, if we support their method today?

Three: The ongoing dharna, being led by Barailvi clerics (without much physical support, for now, from other Sunni outfits), threatens to create a fissure within the Sunni ranks and their ulema. It threatens to unravel the precarious (political) balance that exists between Diobandi groups and anti-Shia militant wings. The likes of Lal Masjid militants, Jamia Binoria, Raiwand Ijtima, Minhaaj-ul-Quran and others might be forced to take position. In the coming days, they will be faced with questions such as ‘are you with LYT, or are you against it?’ ‘Are you with Zahid Hamid, or do you support a demand for his resignation?’ Better yet, the narrative might be a much more menacing: ‘Are you with the slogan of ‘Labbaik Ya Rasul-Allah (SAWW)?’ There is not political alliance or strategy that can provide a neutral escape from this debate. This slogan will find no opposition. And if so framed, PML(N)’s political leadership might find itself at logger-heads with the entire Sunni clergy… which, historically, has been PML(N)’s support base.

Fourth: it is possible that the ongoing protests/dharnas are not simply about changing of a clause in the electoral laws. Not are they purely about religious sentimentalities of the public. At least in part, this seems to be a confrontation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. On the one hand are those who are looking to find space within the political paradigm, and on the other are those who enjoy a virtual hegemony over political discourse. On the one hand are boys and men from ‘sub-middle-class’ backgrounds, and on the other are those who fly in private jets and live in houses built over hundreds of acres. On the one had are those who believe that they are shouting slogans for the one true Prophet (SAWW) of Islam… and on the other are those defending the political collapse of an indicted individual. And such confrontations, all through human history, have resulted in heads mounted on pitchforks.

In the circumstances, saner heads must find a way to resolve this conflict peacefully. Or, as peacefully as is possibly. And this places tremendous responsibility on the government. This is now a time for PM Abbasi to step out of the shadows of Nawaz Sharif, and take steps that are commensurate with the responsibilities of his office. He must find a way to end this brewing violence, without compromising on the integrity of his cabinet and its members.

 

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.

saad@post.harvard.edu

@Ch_SaadRasool