Year of the dharna

Source: Published in Politics on Thursday, January 1, 2015

ALTHOUGH confabulations on security threatened to steal the limelight in its final days, 2014 is likely to be remembered as the year of the dharna.

Derived from the subcontinent’s tradition of resistance, the dharna as a form of protest has long been known in Pakistan. It was used quite effectively during the 1977 agitation but was generally resorted to by disadvantaged sections of society to draw the rulers’ attention to police excesses or denial of basic amenities.

The new Pakistani version of the dharna, better identified as container dharna, appeared in 2013 when Maulana Tahirul Qadri drove to Islamabad to challenge the government and failed. The 2014 dharnas organised by Maulana Qadri and Imran Khan set a Pakistan record for extended protest.

The 2014 demonstrations led by Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan set a record in Pakistan for extended protest.

For one-fourth of the year, the dharna was the top story for the media and the government was largely paralysed. The latter tried to meet the challenge with two arguments. First, it made considerable noise about the dharna being an unconstitutional/illegal step but this plea had effect neither on the public nor on the powerful people that everyone believed were behind the dharnas. The freedom to organise dharnas was upheld by the judiciary till it started reminding the administration of its duty to protect the people against infringement of their rights by agitators.

Secondly, the government accused the dharna organisers of causing huge losses to the state, especially by creating a situation that prevented the Chinese president from coming to Pakistan and scared other investors away, and by diverting the administration from its normal work. While one does not have a correct estimate of the economic losses to the state the adverse political fallout of dharnas was quite substantial.

The container dharna reinforced the model of elite-dictated discourse. The dharna leaders posed as messiahs, spoke down to the people from raised pulpits and presented oversimplified answers to the country’s endemic crisis. While both Qadri and Imran Khan often correctly identified the failures of the government and the flaws in the system as a whole, they could not guide the people in their search for credible alternatives.

The formulas for the people’s deliverance from oppression, misrule, corruption et al were lost in shrill rhetoric that progressively lost meaning with excessive repetition. Even the poorest student of politics could not believe Pakistan could find salvation simply by having a new prime minister or a new election commission. The argument that Dr Qadri or Mr Imran Khan could by himself steer the ship of state out of the storm amounted to pushing the people off the path of democratic struggle for national advancement.

Of more immediate concern was the fact that the dharna aggravated the civil-military imbalance, weakened the civilian part of the establishment, diverted attention from the military operation in the tribal areas, disrupted the parliamentary agenda, and brought efforts to reform the foreign policy to a standstill. These losses are much heavier than those calculated by the two speaking members of the federal cabinet (the ministers of finance and interior).

However, the dharna also made some positive contribution to Pakistan’s politics. To begin with, matters of serious concern to the people — electoral fraud, corruption, indifference to the rights and interests of women, labour, peasantry, the jobless youth, policies of a client state, rulers’ extravagant lifestyle, etc, were brought into public discourse as basic issues that merited immediate action.

Secondly, the dharna triggered a wider debate on the right to protest. While it is doubtful that ordinary Pakistanis, like workers, peasants, political dissidents and human rights activists, will be allowed the freedom of Islamabad’s sacred avenues that Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri were favoured with, the space for peaceful public protest has been enlarged. A useful debate has also started on the rights of the people whose interests are adversely affected by the protesters or by official measures for dealing with them.

Thirdly, the ranks of traditional protesters against bad governance and denial of basic rights, usually underprivileged citizens, have been enriched with fresh young blood from both urban rich and rural poor stocks. They do have the potential to serve as carriers of ideas of progress to the masses and as communicators of the latter’s aspirations to the elite. But they need freedom from cultism and aggressive manners, and training in sustained political work as opposed to narrow electoral campaigning before they can qualify as agents of any meaningful change.

The crucial question is where does the dharna year leave the parties concerned?

The way the dharnas ended could not but cause some frustration at least among the active participants. If such a well-funded and well-backed agitation did not achieve its declared objective then the message to future change-makers is not very encouraging. This could deter many from taking up cudgels in defence of their rights.

The government showed some signs of learning from the close shave it had. For instance, the prime minister discovered parliament. But the government does not appear to have any patience for learning. Parliament has again been forgotten and there is no sign of improvement or change in the style of governance.

The military establishment played its cards well and perhaps gained more than it might have done by pushing the government over the brink.

The judiciary sent a wholesome message to politicians to sort out their problems themselves and if this leads to a fall in settlement of political issues through judicial verdicts it will be good for democracy.

While the dharnas have made avoidance of electoral reform impossible the prospects for a positive change in the political culture have not brightened. The difficulty is that the 2014 agitation appears to have been a replica of the agitation of 1969-70. The movement of 1969-70 lost its way in populist adventures and if the system survives the storms of 2014 the people will have gained precious little.

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Written by I.A. Rehman

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