VIEW: Protest, violence and the state —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
The growing alienation and resentment in the lower strata of society are likely to find expression in sudden upsurges of street violence or localised violent challenges because of the eclipse of nationwide civilian political leadership and networking independent of the military. Islamic rhetoric and institutions provide a sanctuary to the alienated youths, making them vulnerable to extremist and sectarian appeals
February 14 was a sad day for Lahore. A day after the festive atmosphere of the Indo-Pakistan Cricket match which was attended by 3,000 visitors from India, Lahore witnessed unprecedented violence in the commercial areas. While it had nothing to do with the cricket match or the visit of Indians, it spoiled the city’s peaceful and hospitable environment and raised questions about governance and political management as well as the dynamics of violence.
The protest march against the Danish newspaper cartoons was organised by the Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Rasalat Mahaz, a conglomerate of Islamic parties and groups, madrassa establishments and militant organisations. The protesters engaged in unprecedented violence against government and private property, ransacked shops, banks, hotels and restaurants and travel agencies. They looted cash and goods and set on fire property, including some rooms in the Punjab Assembly building. They also burnt or damaged scores of cars and motorbikes. Two people were killed and many more were injured. For a couple of hours there was total anarchy in some areas.
Lahore has never witnessed such massive damage to property in one day. Even during the anti-Ayub and anti-Bhutto movements (1968 and 1977 respectively) this much damage was never done to public and private property on a single day. The intensity of the violence was as surprising as the failure of the provincial and city administrations. The administration later considered (but dropped) the idea of imposing a curfew. Instead it summoned the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force, and calm returned.
This was not the first instance of violence. For the last couple of days protesters in several places had resorted to violence against private and state property and blocked trains or pelted them with stones. Some violence was expected in Lahore but the administration did not believe so.
Given that the caricatures published in Denmark and other European states offended people from all walks of life, the federal and provincial governments had endorsed street protest. Their senior leaders issued hard-hitting statements on the issue to claim credit for supporting a popular cause and denying the initiative to the Islamic elements. Even after widespread violence in Lahore, the Punjab chief minister publicly endorsed plans for more protest marches on this issue.
The government’s bid to project itself as the champion of Islam proved counter-productive for the official endorsement emboldened the Islamic elements who decided to take to the streets and expand their agenda to make specific political demands like economic and diplomatic measures against European countries. The government’s refusal to accept these demands enabled them to brand the former as a lackey of the West.
The government’s endorsement of the protest had another impact. It dampened the local administration’s zeal for controlling the protesters. Many police officials in Lahore admitted to going “soft” for fear that the government would be angry if strong action was taken against the protesters.
The parliamentarians’ march on the Constitution Avenue on February 14, too, was an ill-advised move. Although it was described as a silent march, some parliamentarians raised slogans and issued unguarded statements. This encouraged Islamic activists and other young people in Islamabad and elsewhere to adopt a more defiant posture. Some students entered the high-security Diplomatic Enclave and damaged property.
Because they could not manage their followers, the organisers of the protest marches in Lahore and elsewhere should be held responsible for violence, looting and arson. Religious leaders issued emotional appeals and used mosques for popular mobilisation on this issue. Some of the Islamic parties also mobilised their student/youth wings, militant groups brought their activists and some madrassas activated their students.
There is no evidence to suggest that the leaders tried to restrain their followers from violence. When the protesters went berserk they were missing.
Most of the Islamic elements were favourably disposed towards the Musharraf regime in the past and benefited from General Pervez Musharraf’s policies. However, they later developed serious differences with the government on a number of issues including the official emphasis on religious and cultural moderation, registration of madrassas, expulsion of foreign students, pro-US foreign policy and the military operation in Waziristan. Islamic parties, groups and madrassas viewed these measures as an attempt by the Musharraf government to weaken them.
The newspaper cartoons gave the Islamic hard-line elements an opportunity to pursue their political demands — including changes in the government’s domestic and foreign policies that restore their advantage in the political system — by bringing Muslims of all denominations to the street. They are expected to keep the pressure on the government, in fact, intensify it so that it peaks the day President George Bush reaches Islamabad in March.
Its current predicament is a product of the Musharraf regime’s policy of undermining mainstream political forces and curbing the growth of autonomous civilian institutions and processes. The political space has thus been occupied by hard-line Islamic elements and sectarian groups. This has also strengthened parochial and ethnic forces.
In Pakistan, political mobilisation is possible either as part of a ruling coalition or under the banner of Islam. Now the Islamic elements have decided to take on the government. PML, the only group supporting the government openly, has not shown the political acumen needed to address the current situation because it can barely function independently of the state apparatus.
The gangs ransacking public and private property in Lahore comprised mainly boys aged 13-25 years. Not all of them belonged to Islamic seminaries. A good number of them came from state schools or were unemployed and under-employed. They represented a major section of Pakistani population that has nothing to look forward to. They are alienated from the current socio-political and economic system that has created islands of prosperity in an ocean of poverty, underdevelopment and misery.
The unprecedented economic assistance to Pakistan from the West has accentuated socio-economic inequities in Pakistan. The spiralling prices of goods of daily use and deteriorating law and order situation against the backdrop of commercialisation and consumerism ruthlessly practised by the moneyed and the ruling classes have accentuated resentment in the lower levels of the society.
The growing alienation and resentment in the lower strata of society are likely to find expression more often in sudden upsurges of street violence or localised violent challenges because of the eclipse of nationwide civilian political leadership and networking independent of the military. Islamic rhetoric and institutions provide a sanctuary to the alienated youths, making them vulnerable to extremist and sectarian appeals. The people of Pakistan need to be given some hope that they can change their destiny by peaceful and political means. This may not be possible without drastic changes in the current military-dominated power arrangements.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst