By Barun Das Gupta
Some recent developments in Pakistan leading to the forced resignation of the country’s Law Minister, Zahid Hamid, have not received much attention in India. A ‘movement’ for the sacking of the minister was launched by a small and little-known party of recent origin – the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY). The party demanded the removal of Hamid because of a change he purportedly made in the text of the oath of affirmation by members of parliament, which allegedly related to the finality of Prophet Muhammad as enshrined in the Elections Act of 2017. The change replaced the phrase “I solemnly swear…“by “I believe…”
The TLY was founded two years ago, in August, 2015, by Khadim Hussain Rizvi. ”It whipped up a campaign against Hamid and, with just a few thousand followers coming out in the streets of Islamabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi, brought life to a standstill in these cities. They also shut down all private TV channels, Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Then something strange happened. When the civil government of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi asked the army to remove the protesters from the streets, the army said it could not turn against its own people who loved the army. To put it bluntly, the army refused to obey the government’s orders.
Instead, the army proffered its help to the government to resolve the crisis. It was Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa who came forward to ‘negotiate’ with the protesters and eventually brokered a deal between TLY and the government. The Law Minister resigned and the movement was withdrawn. It was clear that the army was directly interfering in politics through its proxy TLY.
The TLY is a hard-line Islamist party, which opposes any change in the much-criticised blasphemy law of Pakistan. It demands that the Sharia law should become the law of Pakistan. It is a party of Sunni Muslims belonging to the Barelvi school of thought.
The Pakistani media has been unsparing in its criticism of TLY and the controversial role the army played in brokering peace with the government. Pakistani commentators have dubbed TLY as ‘zealots’, ‘bigots’, ‘fanatics’ and ‘hard-line Islamists’. Its members have been called hot-blooded’ and driven by ‘dark passions’.
Even the judiciary is perturbed over the role the army played as a mediator between the civil government and the TLY protesters. Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court demanded to know: “Who is the army to adopt a mediator’s role? Where does the law assign this role to a major-general?” The angry judge pointed out that the COAS, instead of following the orders of the government, chose to become a ‘mediator’. The document of the agreement with TLY, which was submitted before the court, bore the signatures of Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, Interior Secretary Arshad MIrza, TLY suspremo Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Major-General Faiz Hameed.
The role of the army has come under the scanner for several reasons. First, it is none of the business of the army to act as a mediator between political organizations and the civil government. Secondly, the subterranean connection between TLY and the army has also come under the scanner. Is TLY actually the political façade of the army?
Thirdly, the excuse given by the army in not carrying out the orders of the government to remove protesters blocking the roads was pretentious, to say the least. The army said it “cannot take action against its own people.” But the record of the Pakistan army is full of instances of turning against the people of Pakistan. In 1971, when the Bengali people of East Pakistan had voted overwhelmingly for the Awami League and its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it was the Pakistan army which turned against its own people and killed tens of thousands of Bengalis when they rose in revolt against the conspiracy to prevent Mujibur Rahman and his party from coming to power.
Again, it was the army which ‘acted against its own people’ in Baluchistan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and more recently (in early 2016) in the Okara district. A militant, but peaceful, movement was launched by the peasants of Okara in the Sahiwal division of Punjab to get back the 14,000 acres of farm land under the occupation of the Military Farms Administration. The army suppressed the movement with a heavy hand. Most of the peasant leaders were arrested under anti-terrorist laws; scores were thrown behind the bar while dozens went ‘missing’. The civil authorities in Punjab, working in tandem with the army, declared the agitators ‘terrorists’. With such a record, the excuse that the army could not act against ‘its own people’ is hypocritical and ludicrous. No one was deceived by it.
The larger and more disturbing question is whether the Pakistan army is trying to create a political proxy for itself, which will eventually supplant the democratically elected government to become the civilian façade of army rule. The recent developments in Pakistan have to be viewed in this larger context. (IPA Service)