One picture did for me what weeks and months of printed reports, blogged rants and clipped videos couldn’t. It slipped past my cynicism about the exaggerated sighs bemoaning Pakistan’s ‘slide’, and got me by the short-and-curly. It was a picture of 20-foot steel containers running a continuous, impenetrable ring around the President’s House in Islamabad. It wasn’t a great shot at all — it was matter-of-fact reportage, from a distance. But it did it for me.
On the one hand, it portrayed the helplessness of the state in ensuring order and safety. (‘Container democracy’, screamed a newspaper front page.) And, on the other, it underlined the fact that one could not take any chances in Pakistan. Anything is possible, anyone is game.
But wait a minute. Who were the authorities guarding against? Well, there you have the supreme irony. It was not just a posse of lawyers and belligerent Nawaz Sharif supporters marching towards President Asif Zardari’s abode. That’s possibly how the security forces saw it. But those being kept out also happened to be citizens marching in support of a more accountable democracy, for an unfettered judiciary — and against the so-called slide into chaos. There aren’t too many occasions like this, ones that force us to pause and think about the basics of democracy and nationhood.
Ah, now you probably can see me sighing deeply. Just as well.
First march, first rites
The ‘long march’ demanding the reinstatement of Pakistan’s Supreme Court judges started last June. It swelled to gather crowds that the bureaucratic capital of Pakistan hadn’t seen in a long while and thus blew the horn of a determined resistance. That was just the first wave, one that seemed to have died down in the winter. But after negotiations off the streets failed, it sprung to life again this month.
The danger at the door
If the fractious democracy doesn’t get strengthened in Pakistan, it would be staring at one of two options: the rule of the Taliban or the army. For a reminder of what first option might mean, watch this recent Al Jazeera video on Swat, the province that recently came under the Sharia. One snatch shows cops and even musicians putting out newspaper ads declaiming their trades. Another shows a local version of ‘instant justice’.
Short arm of the law
The Pakistani army got its legitimacy to take over the reins every time democracy proved chaotic. For every Indian pointing out how efficient everything was in India during Emergency, there are several Pakistanis willing to sing the same tune. This is, after all, a country that has been under martial law for longer than it has been under civilian democratic rule. This time, too, such a ‘case’ is being made.
Deepest end of the pool
We must not be oblivious of the worst-case scenario: when nobody holds the centre. Mere anarchy is loosed upon Pakistan and everyone fends for himself or herself. Some ‘infrastructure’ for feeding such a state is already there. Watch this video on the gun mart in Darra, one of the biggest illegal markets in the subcontinent, in the North-West Frontier Province. An AK-47 is readily available, the price a mere $180.