The political situation in Pakistan would be easier to understand if only there was a scene from an Amitabh Bachchan movie that could depict the number of U-turns a government can take in 10 days. Ideally, that scene could also shine light on how to maintain the writ of the government in response to an angry mob attack.
But wait, the only scene that did make it to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Instagram was of some rather naughty Indian ‘core commanders’ planning to oust a government for Rs 50 lakh. It was a clip from Amitabh Bachchan’s 1984 film Inquilaab and was posted because it “accurately reflected the current situation and the unrest of the opposition”, according to Khan’s digital media adviser. Looked like a sweet deal. But as all good things come to an end, or a U-turn in this case, the post was pulled down and Rs 50 lakh saved.
What couldn’t be stopped, however, was the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government going in circles over things it promises but later realises it wasn’t its promises to make or keep. The issue that began at the end of 2020 has now consumed the country at the cost of lives and mockery of the State. Last November, when the government signed a deal with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in the aftermath of anti-blasphemy protests against France, it thought that had it cleverly avoided a bigger problem. It hadn’t. That fire is alive again.
Bargaining with a banned group
Promising a far-Right group with the expulsion of the French ambassador within three months, not appointing Pakistan’s ambassador to France, officially endorsing the boycott of French products and releasing TLP workers, was just a practical joke that the Imran Khan government thought it was playing when it signed the agreement with the TLP.
As three months closed in and the TLP started reminding the government about its promises, the first deadline of 16 February was extended to 20 April. Little did the government realise what was heading its way, nor did it have a plan to deal with it. In fact, there was a sense that after the death of the Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP under 26-year-old Saad Hussain Rizvi will lose its sting.
The new TLP chief was arrested eight days before the deadline, which brought the entire country to its knees. The protesters took police officers hostage, killed four, injured hundreds, and destroyed public and private property. The TLP was outlawed and it was declared that the party was involved in terrorist activities. Then, during a police crackdown in Lahore, the group took 11 policemen hostage and released them, as the government continued to negotiate with an outlawed group.
In an address to the nation this week, PM Khan claimed to understand the hurt of the TLP. He said his objective was the same as the TLP but the method was different. Odd for a prime minister to align his objectives with a group that is now a terrorist entity, according to his own government. He convinced people that the idea of expelling a French ambassador would have repercussions for Pakistan. The interior minister probably didn’t get that memo. Within 12 hours of the PM’s address, Sheikh Rasheed announced that a resolution to expel the French ambassador would be tabled in the assembly. Taking yet another U-turn and striking a deal with a banned group, the government released more than 600 rioters. In the end, Rasheed was congratulated by the PM for negotiating with a banned group.
Now the question is: Why did the Imran Khan government go through all this pain when it eventually had to table a resolution to discuss the French envoy’s ouster in the assembly? It might have cleared the streets but at the cost of yet again capitulating to a mob that yields power in the name of blasphemy. Such is the command of this banned group. Only time will tell how long the ban remains and the mob remains off the streets. Probably, until there is an international blasphemy that needs a reaction from the Pakistan government.
When the PM asks why no one amongst the 50 Islamic countries in the world demands the expulsion of their French envoy, he forgets no other government signed a deal promising an ouster like his.
Back in 2011, during an interview with Karan Thapar, Imran Khan, while referring to Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s assassination, said, “A governor gets shot, his assassin becomes a hero. There’s no point in becoming a hero in this country where there is no rule of law. Life is very cheap here.” Herein lies the reality and the hypocrisy of the issue of blasphemy. While every politician now sees a vote bank in the cause of Tahaffuz-e-Namus-e-Risalat (Protecting the Prophet’s Sanctity), the fanning of blasphemy against opponents is considered fair game. Today’s rulers complaining about religious parties joining hands with the TLP were themselves willing to be part of the same group’s protests when it suited them.
Since the people’s representatives are also vulnerable to vigilantism, you can’t even expect a discussion on the impact of a weaponised blasphemy law in Pakistan. Its space has shrunk. It is viable to tell the West what not to do rather than deal with the consequences of the blasphemy law at home.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.
Edited by Neera Majumdar.