Fearing that which came to be
On the night that the participants of the march put up their tents for the night, that which we feared took place. At a rally in Gilgit Baltistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan called JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman “an Indian citizen.” He did not stop there and then attacked Maulana’s religious identity.
After these personal attacks, Fazlur Rehman’s narrative reflected anger and harshness. By asking for the Prime Minister’s resignation within two days he turned the march into an unofficial sit-in. Without naming any particular institution, he also delivered a message, in which he said that he had a measured policy; we [JUI-F] want to see our institutes stable, powerful and unbiased.
To brand an opponent the agent of an enemy country is not a suitable thing to do for the man who sits on the most important chair in the country. To attack someone’s religious identity is considered unethical and immoral, no matter where in the world it may be done.
Amidst the battle of words between the government and the opposition, Maulana’s comments about an institution and then a statement that surfaced to counter those comments. This reaction gave birth to a new discussion. Some people thought the reaction was unnecessary. Not every comment warrants a reply.
Since they came into power, Imran Khan and his cabinet have repeatedly reminded everyone that the government and the army are “on one page.”Harping on and on about this claim, the government used it to suppress the opposition and give them the message that every attempt to weaken the government would inevitably fail. At the rally in Gilgit, Imran khan again repeated his mantra of sending all the opposition to jail. These claims serve to strengthen the impression that the opposition is being targeted. The “one page” claim, repeated again and again, made the opposition’s suspicions stronger.
Regardless then, of how this sit-in ends, who is responsible for its creation? The government and all its main players.
Fazlur Rehman did give a two-day long deadline but refrained from using the word ‘sit-in’. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chose to stay away and instead just gave a couple of token speeches. This strategy left the door open for the government to try and bring things under control. This march may be a display of Maulana’s political strength, but it does have the ethical backing of the two biggest opposition parties in the country.
However, their distance from the Azadi March has left Maulana completely responsible for his actions.
The Rahbar Committee still gives the government a chance to get matters settled before they take a turn for the worst and PPP and PML-N can play a constructive role. Should the ruling faction decide to ask them for help.
Fazlur Rehman has decided what the goals of his march are. The government, most likely, has formulated a response strategy. Should both sides chose to stick to their positions, matters will reach a confrontation.
The JUI-F supremo has laid down four demands; the resignation of the Prime Minister, fresh elections after restructuring the electoral process, setting free all political prisoners, and the protection of all Islamic clauses in the constitution. During his first speech he also adopted media freedom as part of his demands. “If the restrictions placed on the media are not lifted,” he warned, “Then we will also not pay heed to any restrictions.”
The government, of course, is not even willing to listen to the first two demands. The fate of the third demand was made clear by the Premier at the Gilgit rally where he once again said that he will put all the opposition in the jail. No response has been made on the fourth demand. Regarding the demands about media freedom, the government is itself quite confused about who is supposed to formulate policies. During a meeting with media personnel last week, the Prime Minister expressed ignorance about restrictions of coverage of the JUI-F chief and said that he supports media freedom. Cabinet members, though, had something different to say. Any remaining doubt about the PTI-lead government’s intentions about media freedom were laid bare when Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a notification asking news anchors not to appear on each other’s shows as analysts.
There is no other possible route for matters to be resolved but via dialogue. If both sides stick to their own versions of wins and losses, then matters will only become worse. If the government has to adopt a softer tone to appease the opposition’s suspicions, then it should do so. Maulana Fazlur Rehman too, should drop the demand for resignations and instead focus on becoming true opposition by negotiating with the government on economic and state policies.
The demand for electoral reforms is one that the PTI once championed. A mutually agreed upon road map for electoral reforms will benefit both the government and the opposition in the long run. As for the demand about freeing political prisoners, that one would require the courts’ acquisition, the government can’t do much. What it can do though is to dispel the impression that it is using accountability for revenge, and make the process of accountability more transparent. To achieve that, Imran Khan must stop repeating that he will send all opposition leaders to jail.
There are no foreseeable problems that could be a roadblock in the protection of Islamic clauses.
And finally, as to the curbs placed on the media, the government could do well to remember that power is not eternal. One day they too will have to sit in the opposition. The example they will set today for media freedom will, in the future, come home to roost.
This article first appeared in Urdu in Daily Dunya.