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One Step Forward, Marching to the Brink: A Rejoinder

This rejoinder to the article by Haris Gazdar ("One Step Forward, Marching to the Brink", 11 April 2009) criticises the argument that the lawyers' movement was confined to the rich north-central part of Punjab. It argues that it is time the popular political parties prove that they can run clean and effective governments. With the supremacy of parliament, independence of the judiciary and a free media the people of Pakistan can send the military back to barracks.


One Step Forward, Marching to the Brink: A Rejoinder

Nadeem Khalid

consensus for building of democratic institutions. It is conveniently overlooked by the opponents of the lawyers’ movement, that the movement started gaining m omentum in Punjab against Musharraf’s military regime and played a key part in forcing him out. People turned up in huge

This rejoinder to the article by Haris Gazdar (“One Step Forward, Marching to the Brink”, 11 April 2009) criticises the argument that the lawyers’ movement was confined to the rich north-central part of Punjab. It argues that it is time the popular political parties prove that they can run clean and effective governments. With the supremacy of parliament, independence of the judiciary and a free media the people of Pakistan can send the military back to barracks.

Nadeem Khalid ( is a social activist in Karachi, Pakistan.

his article, “One Step Forward,

Marching to the Brink” Haris Gazdar

(EPW, 11 April) has made an absurd claim that the lawyers’ movement in Pakistan was confined to the richer segments of the richest region of north-central parts of Punjab that has traditionally held power through its control of military and civil e stablishments. According to him, the Punjabi elite has dictated its terms on smaller, suppressed nationalities by successfully campaigning for the restoration of the judiciary. The author also argues that, by focusing on the restoration of the judiciary, the important issues of fighting terrorism and extremism have been compromised. He laments the presence of right wing parties and elements among the supporters of the movement and lambasts civil society for undermining the parliament and taking people to the streets.

The assertion that the independent j udiciary’s restoration was not a popular cause in Sindh, Balochistan, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and southern Punjab is not supported by facts. An extensive survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in October 2008 showed that an overwhelming majority of 83% of those interviewed all over the country supported the restoration of the judiciary. In an earlier survey in N ovember 2007, a similar majority expressed the same opinion. So the decision of the top leadership of the Pakistan Peoples P arty (PPP) to make a U-turn on this popular cause did not affect the support base for an independent judiciary and was not even supported by Peoples Party voters.

This popular movement had the support of all segments of civil society, irrespective of religious, ethnic or political leaning and that was the beauty of it. N ever before in the history of present Pakistan has there been such awareness and mobilisation against military rule and

May 23, 2009

numbers in the Punjab against both military rule and for the independent judiciary, a moment which celebrates the awakening of the Punjab for democratic causes. This is not a mean achievement considering that there were no mass movements against the imposition of martial law in 1977 or 1999 in any part of the country.

Right Wing Support

Gazdar’s arguments objecting to the support of the movement by right wing p arties and elements are again without substance, as these forces became a part of the movement against the military dictatorship and for the restoration of an independent judiciary much earlier, in 2007. The PPP or other democratic forces did not stop o pposing the military regime because these right wing forces were also against it. Most of the analysts question the m otives of different shades of political parties in supporting the lawyers’ movement, but the fact that this support improved the stature and standing of these political parties in return, is often ignored. It is true that by supporting the lawyers’ movement, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML(N)) won over sympathies of a vast majority of people. It is also a fact that the PPP unfortunately had to pay a heavy price for the folly of its present leader ship and lose its support in the masses. Other parties, too, have benefited greatly by their support of the movement and have recovered some of the ground lost due to their unwise decision of boycotting the elections. It is a sad fact that it took president Zardari just a year to fall to the dismal a pproval ratings of Musharraf, who took eight years of misrule to achieve this d istinction.

Issue of Terrorism

As far as ignoring the issues of terrorism and religious extremism by civil society are concerned, Haris Gazdar makes the argument made repeatedly by Musharraf,

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who accused the political parties and civil society of creating impediments to the war against terror by emphasising the i mportance of the constitution, elections, democratic rule and the restoration of the judiciary. Needless to say, the best defence against extremism and terrorism is a demo cratic society with flourishing democratic institutions and it is the absence of these institutions for a long time which has brought the country to its present abyss. It is unfortunate that first Musharraf, and later, Zardari focused all their e nergies to conspire against their political opponents and failed to address the growing threat of militant jihadis, who have now enveloped the whole country.

When the military establishment was humbled by a mass movement in 2008 and general Musharraf was shown the door by a united civil society, there was a sense of euphoria and optimism among democrats. After a long time in the wilderness, the nation witnessed the coming of age of a vibrant, mature and united civil society, which delivered a heavy and deadly blow to the military establishment and kicked out one of the most hated symbols of its domination. Political parties representing the masses in all the four provinces d emonstrated enormous maturity by contesting elections and defeating fundamentalists and the cronies of the military r ulers, thus nullifying the impression g iven to the world that uncontrolled democracy will bring fundamentalists into power. The popular parties may have differed in their tactics but unanimously a rrayed against the military dictatorship in street struggle, in negotiations, in elections and in the boycott of elections, contributing to the same objective: the restoration of democratic rule in the country. This unity has also awakened civil society which had been dormant for some years.

Honeymoon Period

Will the people of Pakistan be successful this time or will this opportunity be lost again owing to mutual distrust, internal r ivalries, opportunism and reluctance of political parties to strengthen democratic institutions for short-term gains? What can make the difference this time? Recent history is a testimony to the fact that mass support, powerful constitutions, two-thirds majorities, pliant judiciary and both the key positions of prime minister and president with the ruling party, have all failed to sustain democratic regimes and the military establishment has been able to brutally trample the limited gains of the Pakistani people time and again. Unfortunately, PPP apologists do not find a single word to emphasise the need of unity among civil society and political parties, who have a stake in the current democratic dispensation. They unwillingly start playing into the hands of the military establishment which wants to see the democratic forces divided. Moreover, it is a pity that some elements are trying to pitch different provinces against each other at a time when an overwhelming majority in all provinces including Punjab, has shown remarkable unity against the military dictatorship, thus paving the way for a meaningful federation with equal rights for all nations.

Surprisingly, unlike in the past, when oppressed nationalities have led such movements, this time the leadership of this movement was with urban and rural middle classes in Punjab. It is, perhaps, the development of trade and agriculture on modern capitalist lines in central P unjab, which is slowly and gradually evolving into a politically potent combination of a local bourgeoisie, traders, small land owners and working classes in urban and rural areas, who want to assert themselves and get their share in running the country without the crutches of the military establishment. S ocial scientists need to study the phenomenon and nature of change in central Punjab beyond simply the support for political parties and voting patterns in this region.

As Haris Gazdar argues, there is no doubt that Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N) has a murky past of collaborating with military rulers and close ties with religious parties. However, it is trying to shed this image by its struggle against military rule over the last eight years and it still remains to be seen whether it succeeds in this or not. It is true that it has not been sympathetic to smaller nationalities rights also, but how can we forget that despite being a party of the dispossessed and smaller nationalities, it was the PPP which denied democratic rule to east Pakistan and then B aluchistan and NWFP with the active help of the military in the 1970s. Importantly, it is difficult to brand these popular political parties as leftist or rightist given their past record. In the recent times, both have moved towards centrist positions and have proven their democratic credentials beyond doubt and the masses need them to remain united.

It is the time for popular political parties to prove that they can run clean and effective governments so that the military does not have the courage to dislodge them under the pretext of bad governance, incompetence and corruption. One thought that this time enough lessons had been learnt and the popular parties would be extremely careful about public perceptions and their image. It all started very well and soon after its formation the coalition government undertook several initiatives including a peaceful solution of the Baluchistan insurgency, commitment to restore the independent judiciary, commitment to adhere to the Charter of D emocracy by repealing the 17th Amendment, a removal of the ban on trade and student unions, etc. These measures rejuvenated hope among the masses as all these steps were geared towards p roviding a strong foundation to the new demo cratic set-up. However, the honeymoon period was soon over.

The elections of February 2008 brought PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N) into p ower. Credit for this development goes to the unprecedented people’s movement led by the pro-people political parties and civil society organisations led by the lawyers’ movement in its vanguard. Any attempt to return to the old script with Asif Zardari replacing the role of Musharraf as president, will be a betrayal of the people’s e xpectations and will be vehe mently o pposed by the people of Pakistan. This time the establishment faces a much more formidable challenge in the form of a civil society which is able to d efend its achievements.

As a secular and progressive party, the PPP should put its weight behind civil society and complete its five years in office by building alliances with all democratic forces. Only such an alliance has the p otential to defeat the scourge of terrorism, religious extremism and military rule, which are all interlinked with a common thread. Let us settle the question of supremacy of parliament, independence of judiciary and free media once forever and send the military permanently back to barracks.

Economic & Political Weekly

may 23, 2009 vol xliv no 21

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