On December 2nd, an angry mob besieged the office of Dawn in Pakistan’s capital, held its staffers hostage for three hours and misbehaved with the Dawn TV employees when they arrived there. The reason? A report carried by this daily which mentioned that Usman Khan, the London Bridge attacker was a “man of Pakistani origin,” which despite being a statement of fact still agitated a section of Pakistanis with a misplaced sense of patriotism.
Though opposition political parties did come out strongly in support of the media and criticised the besieging of Dawn’s office, yet it’s apparent that their sole intention was political posturing. Media coverage was subdued and this incident hasn’t generated much discussion. But then, why should it? After all, the whole incident went off peacefully and the protesters didn’t physically harm the staffers or cause damage to any property. Furthermore, the law enforcing agencies didn’t have to resort to use of force to disperse the crowd as negotiations with the protesters did the job. So, since this was a classical illustration of the old adage that ‘all’s well that ends well’, why unnecessarily make a hullabaloo?
But though the local administration and police may be patting themselves on their backs for having amicably diffused a potentially volatile situation, the modus operandi they adopted raises several questions. Firstly, one isn’t sure whether the organisers had obtained prior permission to hold this protest. But since media reports reveal there was no presence of police or local administration officials at the site when the crowd besieged the Dawn office, it’s obvious that local administration officials and the police were unaware of this protest. In addition, the administration would have under no circumstances allowed the protest to be held outside the gates of the Dawn office in the national capital!
Therefore, it appears that prior permission for this protest wasn’t taken by the organisers and since this makes the protest unlawful, it should have spurred arrest of the organisers. But unfortunately, this wasn’t done and instead, the authorities chose to commence negotiations with law breakers in a bid to call off an illegal protest, which is a disturbing thought. In the end no one knows who had organised this protest and whether the protesters’ demand of an apology from Dawn was accepted by the authorities.
Yet, it would be incorrect to indict the local administration and police for mollycoddling louts who held Dawn staffers hostage for three long hours, because it was the Pakistan Army that set this precedent.
Readers would recollect that in November 2017, a three week long countrywide strike organised by various religious groups was called off after the Pakistan Army brokered a settlement. What came as a surprise was that Maj. Gen. Faiz Hameed of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was the one who signed the agreement in the capacity of ‘guarantor’. A bigger surprise came when videos surfaced in which Maj. Gen. Azhar Navid Hayat of Punjab Rangers was seen distributing money filled envelopes to protesters and saying “This is a gift from us to you” and in an obvious effort to placate them even going to the extent of saying, “Aren’t we with you too?”
Pakistan Army boasts of its unconditional commitment to military professionalism and soldiering. But what defies explanation is how can a General fall so low as to not only publicly identify the army with protesting religious groups but also try to ‘buy’ their support by distributing cash and act as a tout in brokering agreements between the government and such groups. But whatever be the reason, the undeniable fact is that it’s the Pakistan Army itself that has set the precedent of employing ‘quick-fix’ methods of achieving normalcy by appeasing dissenters. Though very effective in the short term, this policy is fraught with danger as its continued use emasculates rule of law. Also, by encouraging those in power to take the path of least resistance, it finally ends up compromising the government’s determination to impose its writ.
The Pakistan Army has mastered the art of behind the scene manipulation of the country’s domestic and external policies, but it has intelligently avoided any direct involvement. But under Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army seems to be getting inextricably involved in political affairs. In April, Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (DG-ISPR) Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor conveyed a warning to PTM (Pashtun Tahafuz Movement) –an ethnic social movement, in mafia style during a press conference by saying, “Their time is up!” In the recent “Azadi March,” DG-ISPR again tried to intimidate protesters by stating, “We do not want conflict with our institutions. But we also want to see them to stay neutral. We give two days to the institutions to decide if they will continue to support this government.”
On this issue, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s observation that such politically loaded statements violate neutrality of the army has merit and his view that “This statement (of DG-ISPR) should have come from some politician and not from the army,” conveys a very pertinent message. Logically speaking, this should set alarms bells in Rawalpindi ringing, but one wonders if the Pakistani Generals will take some time off from planning how to run the country and introspect on its increasing involvement in politics!
Tailpiece — Why should what Pakistan Army doing inside its own country bother an Indian, the DG-ISPR would ask. His query is valid. And the answer is simple: The people of both India and Pakistan are being held hostage to Pakistan Army’s ill-considered devices that have consistently sabotaged rapprochement between the two countries. As it is, by its continuing patronage of terrorist groups in J&K, Pakistan Army has already created an atmosphere that’s unfavourable for talks. Now, by pampering hardliners, the army is only strengthening the clout of the anti-Indo-Pak dialogue lobby. This will make it difficult for Islamabad to create public consensus for engaging with New Delhi, because such pressure groups perceive Islamabad’s confidence building measures and cordial diplomatic overtures not only as unpardonable compromises but also a complete “sell-out”!
Rawalpindi’s pandering to fringe groups and negotiating with louts is strengthening factions which are averse to Indo-Pak amity and since this is affecting normalisation of Indo-Pak relations, Maj. Gen. Ghafoor sahib, it is the policy of appeasement being by followed by your army that becomes a genuine cause for concern for every peace lover, irrespective of his or her nationality!