A nervous breakdown?

A nervous breakdown?
By Ghazi Salahuddin
The News, April 1, 2007

We now know what this military-led government cannot do. It cannot establish its writ in the very heart of the capital, when challenged by female students of Jamia Hafsa seminary. It also cannot prevent the Talibanisation of Pakistan, as certified by the attack by hundreds of heavily-armed militants on security forces in the town of Tank in north-west of the country.

Ah, but you should also look at what it can do with its immense power and authority. It can organise a public meeting for President General Pervez Musharraf to address and take care of such details as to close down the educational institutions, commandeer a large number of buses and vans to bring people from near and distant places to attend the meeting and deploy over 8,000 security officials in and around the meeting place, Rawalpindi's Liaquat Bagh.

A lot has happened this week to demonstrate the power and the powerlessness of this government. And all this falls into a pattern. We have seen how the coercive power of the state is used in the vested interest of the ruling party and how this show of force truly reflects the deflation of government's authority. We have also witnessed how this drift has finally precipitated a serious crisis of governance.

What happened on March 9 -- the day on which the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan was shown seated in front of the chief of the army staff -- has only served as a catalyst. How this issue was tackled on that day and during the next two or three days may be diagnosed by the social scientists as a serious malady, verging on a nervous breakdown of the administration.

So much else has happened since March 9 to essentially deepen the national sense of gloom. In many ways, the cricket fiasco has dominated the popular mood, particularly with reference to the mysterious murder of Bob Woolmer and the speculation that it is generating. We have intimations here of how our institutions are cracking up. At another level, you may want to think of how insistent, if not militant, religiosity had intruded into our cricket affairs. When we talk about institutions, our imagination also flies with PIA.

But let me look at all this in the two mirrors provided by the role that Jamia Hafsa's female students played on Tuesday and Wednesday and the public meeting in Liaquat Bagh that Musharraf addressed on Tuesday. For whatever reasons, we were not able to benefit from sufficient investigative reporting on these events. What linger in our minds are visual images seen on television and in photographs published by the newspapers. Incidentally, one published photograph of male Lal Masjid students beating a plainclothes policeman is starkly reminiscent of how the policemen deal with opposition protesters. Isn't interesting that these roles can sometimes be reversed?

Beyond any doubt, the stick-wielding Jamia Hafsa students, all draped in black burqas, presented a very dramatic sight. This was, of course, not the first time that they had demonstrated their clout, forcing the administration to give in. Still, there was a qualitative advance in their religious activism when they, with support from their Lal Masjid collaborators, kidnapped an old woman, her young daughter, her daughter-in-law and a six-month-old granddaughter on Tuesday night from a house in the neighbourhood. Their charge was that the women they had picked up were indulging in immoral activities. When the police arrested two teachers and two drivers of Jamia Hafsa on Wednesday, the male and female madressah students kidnapped two police functionaries and confiscated two police vehicles. This showdown ended with the surrender of the mighty administration.

While the Jamia Hafsa episode is an emblem of shame for our government and our apathetic civil society, the message conveyed by the Liaquat Bagh meeting is no less disturbing. If you look at it carefully, you will see how it exposes the moral basis of the democratic pretensions of the government. The idea was to show that Musharraf and the party he has assembled with the help, mainly, of turncoats and defectors, are very popular with the people. By the way, do you remember that referendum that became the fig leaf of legitimacy to the president?

Information to be gleaned from some reports published on the inside pages presents a weird situation. Roads leading to Liaquat Bagh were closed and only vehicles carrying the ruling party supporters were allowed to pass. The district administration, it was alleged, had told the shopkeepers in the area to pull their shutters down for security reasons. Hotels and restaurants in the vicinity were vacated and the hotels were told on Sunday that they would not rent their rooms for the next two days. During the meeting, police and army personnel were deployed on rooftops.

As for official resources invested in the public meeting, an article posted on BBC's Urdu.com estimated, in a lighter vein, that the cost per minute was about one million rupees -- calculated on the assumption that the meeting continued for three hours. Reporter Wusatullah Khan, not a novice by any means, took into account the publicity that had continued for a week, dominated by full and half-page advertisements in newspapers and the cost of security arrangements. There were large hoardings on all important thoroughfares. These calculations, guesstimates to be sure, included the cost of bringing people to the meeting place in commandeered vehicles.

Let me conclude with a quote from an article published by an English daily on February 16. It was an account by Tasneem Noorani, a former interior secretary, of his visit to India. Its title: "Primacy of law in India". As an aside, it should be noted that all our senior and expectedly learned and bright bureaucrats find it possible to speak their mind after they retire. You may also include retired military officers in this country. Look at the long list of retired officials who write for our newspapers and you will find that almost all of them are critical of the official policies. Why aren't they so perceptive when still in the gilded cage?

In any case, this is what Tasneem Noorani wrote: "Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Amritsar to address a political rally to support Congress candidates. It was reported in the press that the attendance at the prime minister's political rally was rather poor. Finding it odd I asked someone as to why the district administration was sleeping. Were they that incompetent that they could not arrange an audience for the rally of the prime minister? I was told that this did not happen in India. If the DC had tried to be efficient and to show his loyalty to the prime minister, he would have lost his job".

The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

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