I was in senior year of college when President Pervez Musharraf declared Emergency on November 3, 2007, after the legitimacy of his re-election the previous month was challenged by the Supreme Court given that he was also serving as the Army Chief.
Though there were some small-scale protests organised by the law and political societies in our college, life went on as usual for most students. But as the military regime started rounding up political and civil society workers, one incident changed everything on our campus.
A video on Facebook showed one of our professors and his wife being manhandled by the police and arrested. Overnight, the atmosphere in our university changed. The protests became much bigger. A police cordon was stationed outside the campus as the students inside chanted against the dictator.
Quite unexpectedly, an elite business university in the country found itself at the forefront of a student movement. Our student leaders wrote to those organising protest marches in their universities. Our professor was released after a few days and received a hero’s welcome. The immediate goal had been achieved but the movement was only starting. Restoration of democracy in Pakistan was our next goal.
I remember checking my official student email one day to find an email from Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to all the students of the university, congratulating us on our effort and urging us to continue our struggle. By then, she had already spoken of a long march against Musharraf from Lahore to Islamabad and requested students to join her.
However, she was arrested soon after and the plan fizzled out. In the next few days, as our university remained in the political imagination, we received emails from former cricketer and politician Imran Khan and Fatima Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto’s niece, acknowledging the role of our university and its contribution to the political process.
Democracy was finally restored in Pakistan in February 2008, when the Pakistan People’s Party came to power. After nearly a decade of military dictatorship, Pakistan seemed to finally be back on track.
However this optimism was short-lived. The army, sentiment against which was at an all-time low after the Musharraf debacle, has been reinstated in the public eyes.
While political leaders score low on popularity charts, the current Army Chief General Raheel Sharif overtakes all of them. Recently, a new political party – ironically, named Move on Pakistan – put up banners in many cities exhorting the army chief to step in and overthrow the system. In less than a decade since Musharraf’s ouster, the perception of people had come full circle.
Failure on the economic and international fronts is one of the main reasons why the credibility of the democratic regime has suffered. However, both these failures can be explained by forces that were beyond the control of our civilian regime.
When the People’s Party of Pakistan came to power in 2008, the global economy was facing its worst recession since the Great Depression of 1930s. As America’s economy crashed, dragging along with it those of several smaller countries, Pakistan had no chance of surviving the downturn.
On the international front, the democratic regime’s hands have been tied by the military establishment, who dictates our foreign relations with India, Afghanistan, the US and China. It is due to the failure of the strategic assets of our military regime that today, Pakistan finds itself politically isolated, as it watches with longing as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cozies up to world leaders.
While I am willing to forgive our government on both fronts, it is on the issue of religious minorities that they are squarely to be blamed. After 9/11 terror attack in the US, Musharraf increasingly wanted to project himself as a liberal-moderate Muslim, a trustworthy ally of America, to which end he passed legislations in favour of women and minorities.
Extremist organisations like Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, known for their Sunni extremist ideology and their violence against members of the Shia sect were banned. In 2010, when I started working with the religious minorities of Pakistan, particularly Hindus and Sikhs, I found out that under the Musharraf era, several of these communities for the first time found a space for religious expression. Many Hindus and Sikhs, for the first time, started publicly celebrating religious festivals that they were earlier reluctant to engage in.
However the situation changed after the coming of the democratic regime, which once again started flirting with extremist organisations. In 2011, Pakistan’s Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah admitted that the Punjab government had been disbursing money from the government exchequer to the family of Malik Ishaq, the former head of Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, who was killed in a police encounter on July 29, 2015. The minister claimed that the money was being transferred as per a court order, but further investigations found that there was no such directive.
It is no coincidence that the activities of this terrorist organisation increased exponentially after the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) came to power in Punjab after the 2008 state elections.
The Laskhar-e-Jhangvi has been linked to the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore and several other attacks on Shia Muslims across the country. It is also interesting to note that Laskhar-e-Jhangvi emerged as a militant offshoot of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a political organisation that is opposed to Shia influence in the country. Laskhar-e-Jhangvi still maintains a close relationship with its parent organisation, while Sipah-e-Sahaba is politically affiliated to the PML-N, which is currently in power in Pakistan.
The dark side
This is an unfortunate aspect of democracy, for all its merits and accountability.
Democratic leaders the world over are willing to associate with extremist organisations or ideologies if that gives them a wider vote base. That is the reason why PML-N maintains a close relationship with Sipah-e-Sahaba. In Myanmar, for all her democratic rhetoric, Aung San Suu Kyi is willing to turn a blind eye to the plight of the persecuted Rohingya community because of the national sentiment against it. Perhaps Suu Kyi feels that by supporting the Rohingya Muslims, who are not recognised by their government and have been forced to flee their country in thousands, she might lose her popular support amongst the Burmese community.
In the US, we have seen how the political rhetoric against Muslims and other ethnic minorities has increasingly become more poisonous. It is a rhetoric that sells, one that garners votes and one that Presidential candidate Donald Trump has tapped into.
Even in India, Modi’s name has been linked to the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat during the 2002 riots, something that continues to haunt his legacy.
This is not to say that minorities necessarily fare better in dictatorships. Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, Hitler’s Germany, and Mullah Omar’s Afghanistan come to mind as a few examples of dictators that had wrought havoc with the lives of the minorities.
The issue is primarily that of ultra-nationalism, which has become a feature of almost every nation state in the 21st century. Minorities often don’t fit into that narrative of national identity and hence they are secluded and persecuted. The difference, however, between a dictatorship and democracy is that the regime of a dictator does not require popular legitimacy of the populace. It can choose to ignore the ultra-national sentiment and define its state in whichever way it wants. It does not have to resort to populist agendas to garner political support. This is why they usually tend to be economically more efficient too.
A democratically elected government, on the other hand, requires a constant legitimisation. It needs to cater to nationalist agendas to win over the support of the people so that the party can return to power again. This unfortunately sometimes resorts to ultra-nationalist rhetoric that put the lives of the minorities in those communities at peril.
This is an ugly feature of our democratic modern nation-states that is rearing its head in several countries, both developed and developing. As the world today celebrates the victory of Turkish democracy against an attempted military coup – a remarkable feat indeed – one needs to be conscious of this tendency of democracy to quickly turn into a tyranny of the majority, which can be seen in the aftermath of the failed coup as well.
The ongoing purge in Turkey, where military personnel, police officials, civil servants, judges and teachers have been suspended, and the oppression of the ethnic minority group of Kurds in Turkey paints a grim picture of the future of democracy in the country.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities