After the concluding speeches were made, final slogans were raised and last prayers were offered, there was still something left to do. And a contingent of several thousand people set out – hands flailing in anger, voices raised in protest and feet stamping in earnest – to do just that. The security cordons parted; the barricades evaporated; the police vanished — as if some invisible force was at work to help. Driven by a zeal only the most devout have, encouraged by a lack of resistance only those on a divine mission expect and spurred by a rage only the wronged can muster, a crowd arrived at Islamabad’s largest and most significant public space.
It smashed bus stations, put vehicles on fire and disrupted whatever life it could find around the square that links the state of Pakistan with the society of Pakistan. For the better part of a week, that link was broken — with the state having retreated into the deepest recesses of its heavily-guarded and intensively-fortified bunkers and the society having moved along as merrily, or morosely, as ever. The mob, a few hundred strong, knew it had no agenda to pursue, no plans to follow and no leaders to obey. It only vaguely believed that it could not have been there without a reason. The reason? Dissent. Defiance. Disruption.
Dissenters, by their definition, do not belong to the majority. Defiance cannot occur against a state that has no backbone left — or at least is unwilling to show one. It was sheer mindless disruption. And yet, it had a purpose — a worldly purpose. The mob wanted to talk to the people watching the idiot box in the comfort of their homes. It hankered after a version of itself augmented by creative camera techniques. It desired for a voice amplified by mics capable of turning a whisper into a windstorm.
It needed coverage. The coverage that was denied to it by a state that never fails to give the impression that it is not in charge, that it is doing someone else’s bidding, that it is a puppet whose masters keep changing — from moolah to military to moulvi and back again. And as it changes masters, so it goes about doing its business: loving and hating, accepting and rejecting, colliding and colluding with different sections of the society at different times and in different spaces, depending on who pulls its strings.
Those in the state apparatus who thought they would muddle along through the bluff, bluster and blackout of the news. They were so blinded by the brilliance of their ideas that they could not even see what was coming their way until it came and sat on their chest like the heavy burden of failure. Their liberal backers – living in the tiny space covered by the op-ed pages of the English language newspapers, operating in a reality that calls itself ‘virtual’ for a reason and thriving on the unhealthy diet of micoblogging – were deafened by the sound of their self-congratulatory voices until they were drowned in the noise from Islamabad’s high-security zone. Their foreign minders – guided by political righteousness, driven by ideological correctness and spurred by cultural authoritarianism – were deluded by the obedience of the minions, except that the disobedient soon outshouted the obedient.
If only those mourning for Mumtaz Qadri were given as much media coverage as every semi-literate mullah is getting, we would not be mourning the death of the state now. The rules start losing relevance when too many exceptions are made in their implementation. When, however, exceptions become the rule, then thinking of implementing the rules is not only impossible, it also become counterproductive as we have seen in the case of 1,500 clueless mobsters blocking the heart of the capital, as long as they did not tire of their own tiny spectacle. They saw the media blockade of their activities as a sectarian move, selectively slapped by a state that has allowed every halfwit to rave and rant on the telly for hours and days on end. And if anyone thought that not allowing the media coverage of Qadri’s funeral has taken the edge off the blasphemy issue, they must share their thoughts with anyone on the street — and expect their illusions to shatter instantly.
By grimacing at the cameras, shouting at mics and talking to the people watching, the crowd would have dispersed after the funeral at Liaquat Bagh. They were, instead, made to snatch the proverbial limelight — smashing television vans, kicking journalists and forcibly diverting the attention of the television audiences from a massive tragedy that was unfolding right then at Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan is sounding victorious with the benefit of hindsight, patting himself on the back that he did not negotiate, did not compromise and did not give into any demands by the mob. He does not realise they had nothing to negotiate for, nothing to give and take and nothing to demand for. That a 1,500-strong mob can manage to get as much attention as it likes for well over three days is what they were looking for, and that is exactly what it got.
And after having done all that, they did something else: they showed the space that once connected the state with the society has become a vast no man’s land — available to anyone with the will, the verve and the capacity to create violence to grab, hold and destroy.
This was originally published in the Herald's April 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.