Monday, February 15, 2010, Safar 30, 1431 A.H   ISSN 1563-9479
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Opinion Archive
The News International Pakistan

 Dharna: sounds better than it is
By Ayesha Ijaz Khan
The writer is a London-based lawyer.

The lawyers' long march was a highly successful show of strength and a clear message to those in power that backing down from the promise of the Bhurban Accord will result in dire political consequences. It is slightly unfortunate, although perhaps unavoidable given the large numbers involved and the democratic nature of this movement, that there was much ado about the difference of opinion on how to culminate the protest. With the majority of the senior leadership in favour of dispersing the crowd at the end of the three-day agitation, some from within the legal fraternity were disappointed that there was no call for a dharna, or sit-in, till their demands were met. As a lawyer who, since the inception of this movement, has whole-heartedly supported the demands of the legal fraternity and the courageous stand of its participants in the face of adversity, I would have to say that the decision not to go for dharna was a wise one.

I fully understand and sympathise with the frustrations of the lawyers, in particular the junior lawyers, who have been the backbone of this movement and without whose exceptional valour and willingness to sacrifice and endure hardship it would have been impossible for this movement to gather continued momentum. However, would a dharna have helped or hurt the movement?

It is wishful thinking, and perhaps a little na´ve, to think that a few days of dharna would result in immediate restoration of the judiciary and Mr Musharraf's resignation. No one expected the long march to conclude with a meeting of the demands. However, those of us supporting the movement did wish for a large show of strength. A clear demonstration that public opinion is on our side. In reality, we got more than that.

We did not only get a large sea of people come out in support of our demands, we also managed to change some people's minds. Those who previously argued with me about the importance of this movement, now acknowledge that they have the ability to mobilise large crowds. More importantly, some who were previously on the fence or non-committal about their support to the restoration of the judiciary, or at least of the opinion that it was not possible "in a place like Pakistan," are now rethinking their position. Still others have finally acknowledged flat out that this movement stands for principles and that it is worth supporting.

Let's assume for a minute now that a call for the dharna had been given. The overwhelming majority of the people would have left; a few would have stayed. It is quite likely that authorities would have tried to forcibly evict them, as is often the case with sit-ins. This would have created a law-and-order situation that would have led those who have recently enlisted their support to this cause to turn against it. They would have used those examples to deride the movement and its leadership. The government would have come out and given its side of the agitation and how they had to put an end to it for the sake of rule of law, and thus in the eyes of some at least the movement would have lost its moral high ground.

The fact that three days of mass agitation and the participation of 500,000 people in Islamabad ended without incident is a huge victory! No one can point their fingers at this movement because nothing went wrong! The Western press did not cover the march as they should have, but that is good news. With the exception of the alternative media, they generally like to cover Pakistan when things are going haywire. Of course, The New York Times will run an article on Dr A Q's nuclear network but remain guarded about the strides made by the lawyers. If, however, things had gone wrong, they would have been there with their cameras and microphones. It would have been yet another story on how Pakistan is uncontrollable and may even have resulted in a statement from Mr Musharraf harping on how he is still required if things are to be kept smooth. Instead, the lawyers and many others who participated should congratulate themselves that he has not got that chance and has instead been besieged into silence.

Those who called for the dharna are nevertheless admirable because they exhibited clear readiness to put country before self, to endure extreme hardship for the sake of what is right. But they must preserve their patriotic strength and not risk burnout at this stage. Sit-ins were a common form of agitation in the American Civil Rights Movement when blacks sat in at white-only establishments in a plea for an end to segregation. Inevitably, they clashed with the authorities, who tried to forcibly evict them. The idea was to evoke enough sympathy for the deprived so that public pressure would result in overturning the discriminatory laws. More recently, the longest sit-in at Harvard University lasted three weeks and the protestors emerged victorious as they had agitated for an increase in the pay of the lowest paid workers at the university to $10.25 per hour.

In both cases, however, it should be noted that those sitting in had a very close personal nexus to the demand. If the demand is broad enough, such that it effects the future of 160 million, then perhaps a sit-in may not even be the most effective mechanism of achieving the goal, as it may not evoke as much sympathy on the part of others as a sit-in needs to in order to be effective.

Sit-ins and hunger strikes are also very common in India, as dharna was used frequently by Mr Gandhi in the Indian Independence Movement. It thus continues to be a key form of agitation in India today and almost inevitably results in clashes with law enforcement authorities there. Thus, the idea that a dharna could have been peaceful is also highly unlikely. India's longest sit-in, and perhaps the longest the world has seen, continued for over a decade and resulted in no solution. The demand was for the promotion of Indian languages and an end to the elevated status of English in India. It started in 1988 and by 1999 seven students who had suffered because they had not been selected in the civil services only because they could not clear the mandatory English exam still continued to sit-in. The authorities let the seven souls be and civil society brought them food, but their demands were not met.

It is therefore, in my opinion, a good decision that the lawyer community took by deciding against dharna. There are far more effective ways to continue to apply pressure on the powers that be. Pakistanis have already sent a loud and clear message to Mr Zardari: If they can long march in the heat of June, they can certainly do it at any other time of the year. So beware!

The discussion of whether or not a dharna was appropriate was nevertheless important because it is essential to evaluate all options. As the lawyers' movement enters its second year, it is impossible for it to be monolithic on every little issue. It is crucial only that there is no ideological difference with respect to the restoration of the Nov 2 judiciary without any ifs, ands or buts, and of that there is no risk. Differences on how to achieve that goal, the modus operandi, make for healthy debate and are not cause for concern or disunity in the ranks.

Mr Zardari, however, has far more to fear. With more and more members and workers of the PPP speaking out in support of the lawyers' demands, he faces isolation, not just in the country but also within his party. Had the Mohtarma been alive, she would have been too politically astute and reached a consensus position far before the long march even took off. Time is running out for Mr Zardari.

The writer can be contacted through her website:

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