A hectic day in Islamabad, on Thursday, has deepened my perception of the dark clouds that are hovering over our destiny. How long ago it now seems when in early spring we were celebrating the outcome of the February 18 elections. There was, then, music in the air. But in just a few weeks, with the advent of our long, hot summer, our fortunes are dipped to an unfathomable level of depression and anxiety.
And it is in this environment that we are entering into the critical phase of the lawyers’ long march, beginning on Tuesday. There is also the national budget, though it can be a routine matter with the provision of some marginal and rhetorical breathing space for some people. However, it is the lawyers’ movement that has assumed the importance of a defining clash of political forces in the country.
President Pervez Musharraf certainly plays a role in this wrangle, though he has been pushed behind the curtains. He still lingers in the wings, executing his exit in slow motion. And this week was particularly marked by retired general Jamshed Kiyani’s stunning interview on Geo, in which he demanded a trial of Musharraf. Hence, the debate now is on whether he, Musharraf, should be provided a safe exit or tried on charges of treason. That Jamshed Kiyani and other retired officers of the army should demand his trial is something one would not have believed possible even a few months ago.
There are, of course, so many other crises bubbling in the cauldron. On Monday, a car bomb exploded in front of the Danish embassy in Islamabad, with a number of casualties, and fresh questions were asked about the security situation in the capital. On Friday, Sanaullah Baloch of the Balochistan National Party (Mengal) resigned from the Senate. He had just returned from exile. If you look at it against the perspective of what is happening in the aggrieved province and hear the noises that its nationalist leaders are making, you should be very worried indeed.
I am offering you this mix of maladies that are afflicting our body politic to underline the message that I received during my latest visit to Islamabad – and I am a frequent domestic traveller. But Thursday’s visit became a little more intense because of my interaction with a fairly large number of activists from civil society and the media. Partly because of the imminent confrontation between the PPP part of the government and the lawyers and the frantic speculation about Musharraf’s fate, strong emotions are coming to the surface.
Unfortunately, this surge of concern about what is happening is breeding a pessimistic outlook. Anyhow, I was in Islamabad to participate in the launching of a media project – Munsalik – by Rozan, an NGO that is working towards gender justice for the last ten years. Led by a small group of committed and accomplished women, Rozan has devised some innovative ways to support victims in the domain of violence against women and child abuse.
The launching of Munsalik, a project to sensitise media on gender and gender-based violence through training of journalists in selected districts, was titled: ‘Pakistani aurat ki kahani, media ki zabani’, also launched a lively and somewhat emotive debate on the role of the media in Pakistan. Naturally, the focus was on the news channels and their breathless and rapid-fire coverage of ‘breaking news’ and combative talk shows that sometimes recycle the same thoughts.
But does this mean that the deep depression in which the nation finds itself at this time is the making of the media? I sense that individuals who, for whatever reasons, are critical of the lawyers’ movement, share the rulers’ proverbial inclination to ‘shoot the messenger’. They also tend to lose their temper because they find themselves overwhelmingly outnumbered. In many cases, this attitude is a camouflaged support for Musharraf – a position that is becoming more and more difficult to defend.
One very tragic consequence of the debate about the lawyers’ campaign for the restoration of November 2, 2007 judiciary, interlinked with the media coverage of current events, is the predicament of the supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party. With other civil society activists, they were in the forefront of the campaign that began on March 9 last year. They also realise that it was this campaign that had largely set the stage for the verdict delivered on February 18.
As an aside, let me just say that one point I raised in my remarks at the launching of Munsalik was about the glaring deficit in our intellectual environment, as reflected in the absence of what may be called our intellectual infrastructure. This is not the occasion to go into this matter in any detail. However, the problems that we confront in conducting a rational debate on any emotive issue are evident.
As I see it, the simple fact is that people are more directly exposed to the raw winds that blow in their real lives than to what they see on news channels. Electronic media was in state control for so many decades, beginning with Ayub era, and it did not help the rulers. Musharraf’s draconian steps in the wake of November 3 ‘martial law’ did not help, too. I also feel that even though it seeks to mirror the society, the reality is much more depressing than what we see on the mini-screen.
I referred to crises that we face as a country and as a society. They are too many to count. Our system has become dysfunctional. One only wishes that the PPP leadership had kept the promise it had made in Bhurban on March 9 and that Zardari had meant what he told the Press Trust of India about two weeks ago that people are telling his party that they want Musharraf to go more than they want bread or electricity. It was very possible to protect the nation from the depression it now suffers and to forthrightly attend to economic problems and to deal with extremists and terrorists.
Yes, it was reported on Friday that sources close to the PPP have confirmed that Musharraf “is prepared to go and go with dignity”. Meanwhile, the argument that he should not be allowed a safe exit is gaining strength, at the cost of PPP’s credibility. Also, there is the question of how long will it take for the nation to get this issue out of the way. The launching of the long march is around the corner. So is the budget, prompting a deep concern not only about the economy of the state but also of the ordinary citizens. We are in a dire situation and the rulers are losing time in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in their voluminous constitutional package.
The writer is a staff member.