Looking to the future

With the eruption of protest on the campus of Punjab University in the aftermath of Imran Khan’s arrest, resistance to martial law has entered a second phase. Students have not only maintained their unexpected protests, but have actually become bolder as the fear associated with martial law has dissipated. In this case at least, the protesting students truly have shown themselves to be the conscience of society.

The lawyers are regrouping, some returning from jail, others emerging from hiding. Protests inside the premises of the courts in major cities and small towns are once again gaining steam. Regardless of when they come back onto the streets, lawyers have proven that the utmost in state repression has not quashed their resistance.

Journalists have also jumped into the fray as the gagging of the media continues. Following the shutting down of Geo and ARY (now back on air) journalists have intensified their protests and the most recent incident of state excess in which over 100 journalists were beaten and arrested in Karachi has been tantamount to adding fuel to an already raging fire.

No doubt that the resistance remains scattered. The absence of a political force capable of cementing other fronts together is obvious. The mainstream parties continue to suffer from a trust deficit, and have not joined those protesting on the streets. In many cases political workers of various denominations have been contributing to the movement in spite of their party leaderships.

Nevertheless the regime is tottering, unable to fathom why protests have not subsided. In some ways the attitude of the military leadership can be likened to those Americans who continue to ask: “Why do they hate us?” No one could have predicted a little over eight months ago that the Musharraf regime would crash and burn as it has. The demise has largely been a function of its own shortsightedness. This is the first time in Pakistan’s history that the state has been subject to such serious internal contradictions, and it is unfortunate that there is no organized political movement that can spearhead a genuine effort at transformation in the structures of power.

Accordingly even though the government has lost all moral legitimacy, it is still holding onto power. Ostensibly the plan is to persist with the emergency till 3 weeks or so before the January 8 election date. Then there will be the pretence of a period of campaigning, and, like magic, ‘free and fair’ elections will be held, with the military’s role as arbiter consolidated and the ‘international community’ placated that the ‘democratic process’ has been restored.

Of course there is the small matter of how the small yet influential anti-government movement will respond. If the political prisoners are released, including the leadership of the legal fraternity, the movement will enter a decisive phase. In any case, there is little question of unrest subsiding until sacked judges are restored. Indeed, it is important to recognize that this struggle will continue indefinitely with the target being the elimination of the military’s political role.

Thus the political leaderships should be wary of looking at elections as an end in itself. There will be serious consequences if there is any major compromise on the principles that have emerged to guide the resistance movement. Not only will the larger movement for democratisation be set back, the American supported military will remain in control, which means the so-called ‘war on terror’ will spiral out of control.

The parties should recognize that in the course of the past few months there has emerged a critical mass of professionals, political activists and citizens that are able to prevent a return to a military-dominated political system based on the long-standing institutional imbalance in the state that has seen the administrative-executive dominate the legislative and judicial arms. This critical mass may not be able to push out the military on its own but its emergence should be considered an historic shift in the paradigm of Pakistani politics.

If the current wave of politicisation is not a flash in the pan then one can expect that it will no longer be a standard knee-jerk action to welcome the military into the political arena on account of the ‘ineptness’ of politicians. There is also the prospect of systematic accountability of the military’s independent corporate activities (or for that matter any individual or institution involved in enterprises based upon the abuse of power). If one is thinking into the distant future, there may even be an overhaul of the prevailing legal system, which, in colonial fashion, does not serve the public but subjugates it.

But for all of this to actually happen, it is imperative that the wider society also takes a renewed interest in politics as has happened recently. Indeed, as the edifice of this particular manifestation of military rule comes crashing down, too many people have been heard expressing their cynicism about what will come next. The prospect of Benazir Bhutto — and to a lesser extent Nawaz Sharif — becoming prime minister for the third time is a less-than-appealing image for many Pakistanis.

It is important to note that in much of rural Punjab, there has been no unrest similar to that in cities and towns. Indeed, one might find that a number of Pakistanis in rural areas do not even know that the state has unleashed a wave of repression on thousands of political dissidents. Political alignments in much of Pakistan are a function of who can provide access to the state to resolve disputes, secure livelihoods and more broadly enhance ‘izzat’. This well-entrenched political order has not been interrupted by the events since November 3rd.

It will only be through a conscious effort to articulate an alternative politics that the benefits of a political system with a marginalized military can be realized. In other words, in the same way that the critical mass overcame its alienation from politics to play the crucial role that it has presently, so must all Pakistanis. The urban professionals and citizens that have been at the forefront of the mobilizations since March 9th have rallied around the vision of a Pakistan not subject to arbitrary whim, guided by the ‘rule of law’.

This is not a slogan that necessarily appeals to a broad cross-section of society. Indeed, the last time that an alternative political vision made inroads into Pakistani society, the slogan that captured the public consciousness was ‘roti, kapra aur makan’. Notwithstanding the PPP’s retreat from the populist politics of its early years, it can be expected that a similarly popular politics can capture the public imagination and thereby make a dent in the current political sphere.

Presntly no political force is articulating a politics of this kind. But one can rest assured that without the establishment of an open political process new political alternatives cannot emerge. Pakistan’s political history has been a vicious circle of direct military rule interspersed with civilian government with little power. Only when the military and its insidious agencies are no longer the arbiter in politics will we able to move beyond the limited options that confront us today.

Published in The News, Pakistan, November 24, 2007
Writer: Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, a political activist associated with the People’s Rights Movement who also teaches colonial history and political economy at LUMS.
Email amajid @comsats.net.pk

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