FARANGI IN TOWN: A march of the powerful —Ella Rolfe

A link between the economic growth of a country as a whole and a decline in the vociferousness of violent protests might help to explain the disjuncture between expected violence and the actual anticlimax that was seen in Islamabad as the Long March carnival passed through

It is with a somewhat delayed reaction that I am about to ruminate on a recent trip to Islamabad — my first — which unfortunately coincided with the lawyers’ Long March. This is not deliberately meant to mimic the delay in the lawyers actually getting to Islamabad — I moved a Thursday morning meeting to Friday morning to avoid them, only to find that I had beaten them to it and was being advised to rush through my meeting and get out of the city before they arrived — but it provides a handy excuse.

What has kept me from writing on this subject is that I didn’t really have much to write about — as far as I could see, very little happened. On the way back to Lahore I met some students who had ridden along with the convoy; they said it had been exciting, but not momentous. No earth shattering disruption or civil disobedience; no clashes with police; nothing for the lawyers to struggle against really. No wonder their ‘march’ ended up as a bit of a lame duck.

So, I have spent the last couple of weeks wondering: why the palpable nervousness in Islamabad as the convoy approached? The city is not known for its frenetic buzz; but when I was there it was dead. I was told most people had opted to stay indoors.

The last vaguely comparable event in the UK that I can remember was the wave of huge protests against the Iraq War in 2003. Hundreds of thousands of people descended on several cities, especially London, almost every weekend for a time during the summer. Yet none of these cities came to a standstill; they seemed confident in their ability to absorb a few hundred thousand protesters without threatening the very fabric of their civil existence, as seemed to be the fear in Islamabad a couple of weeks ago.

What was the fear factor in Pakistan’s capital based on? Expectation of violence? Was there reason to believe that things would turn nastier than they did?

In the UK, there is certainly that expectation. Although the 2003 protests went off remarkably peacefully, more recent protests (as tempers have frayed even more and activists start to place hope in a post-Bush world) were marked by such an obvious expectation on the part of the London police force that, at the first hints of violence during protests throughout June 2008, police have reacted with a disproportionate brutality which has provoked wide condemnation.

This may well stem from the UK’s history of protests and rallies turning violent; specifically turning into race riots. This was first seen in the 1960s — a 1962 anti-immigration rally by the extreme right-wing British National Party (BNP) turned into a pitched battle between whites, blacks and police — and continued through riots in the 1970s and the countrywide series of clashes, including the Brixton riot, in 1981. Race riots were revived in a big way in 2001, with violence in several cities.

The latter two examples departed from the model in that they did not begin as organised rallies at all — they were largely spontaneous bubblings over of frustrations with high unemployment, poverty, and police abuse of stop-and-search laws. But they were enough to leave a legacy of anticipation which surrounded later protests, even though these were not explosions of popular enemy-bashing.

Is it the same in Pakistan at the moment? Has the violence of the protests that took place during the Benazir/Nawaz years meant that protests marches leave a bad taste in people’s mouths?

Interestingly, during the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s rule, a period of economic growth in the UK, protests and riots of all sorts declined. This is not to say that economic growth makes for a contented populace — in fact economic inequality increased during the Thatcher years, a source of much opposition to her.

But a link between the economic growth of a country as a whole and a decline in the vociferousness of violent protests might help to explain the disjuncture between expected violence and the actual anticlimax that was seen in Islamabad as the Long March carnival passed through.

Has not the country’s economy, famously, grown under Musharraf? Yes, the lawyer’s protest is still a large and loud undertaking: there are still economic and other problems in Pakistan. But it is just possible that economic growth may have taken the sting out of the lawyers’ tails.

A final question for you the reader, who undoubtedly knows this country better than I do because it is yours. What about fear of a small, vociferous, powerful protest group? Do you think a Long March by butchers would have got the same reaction? The lawyers and their grievances represent a section of society that is inextricably linked with Government and Justice; and with those high-ups who dispense both.

In a status-focused society like Pakistan, I would not be surprised if the notion of the powerful fighting each other for power over the rights of the ordinary man adds an additional sense of apprehension in the minds of ‘ordinary people’ watching the protest. Perhaps people feel helpless as they watch the lawyers and the government playing volleyball with their rights.

The writer is a staff member at The Friday Times

Source: Daily Times, 30/6/2008


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