a) Closing down a country: the Islamabad stand-off

Around three thousand unarmed men, of a recently founded group, the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), have been able to close down key parts of Pakistan’s main cities, which include Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. On account of state action taken against this very tiny group of Islamic protesters on Saturday near Islamabad, the Government of Pakistan closed down all television news channels for a day, except Pakistan Television (PTV), and shut down Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Moreover, in Islamabad and Lahore, education institutions have had to be closed for two days, one day in Karachi. The fact that the three-week-long dharna, even by just 3,000 unarmed men, has created such a major crisis for a government which is trying to stabilise itself under a new Prime Minister shows how a minuscule political entity can have such major consequences. Either non-mainstream actors and parties now do politics outside the rules of democratic politics or, the rules of democratic politics have changed to include disruptive and threatening gestures which might completely destabilise democracy itself.

In the shadows

In the case of Pakistan, in particular, the threat of destabilising democracy by extra-democratic means, has loomed large since the ouster of the military and the return to democracy in 2008. In 2014, a dharna organised by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, a cleric who lives in Canada and flies into Pakistan at times of political crises, lasted four months. Much evidence since that time clearly suggests that the dharna was supported by very senior members of Pakistan’s Army, who had clear designs to use the agitation as a means to dismiss Nawaz Sharif and his government. The fact that the then Chief of Army Staff, Raheel Sharif, decided not to intervene and dismiss the government may have been on the basis of expediency and prudence, rather than the military’s support for democratic practices. The Imran Khan/Tahirul Qadri dharna was peaceful, had many tens of thousands of participants including women, and did not cause any death on account of it. The current protest, in contrast, is tiny, but accounted for at least six deaths and 187 cases of injuries. Moreover, the 2014 dharna was confined largely to Islamabad (with some protest in Lahore), while the consequences of police action on this current protest in Rawalpindi and Islamabad instantly mobilised TLY group members and sympathisers in many cities across Pakistan, paralysing parts of Lahore, Faisalabad and Karachi, and even parts of Sindh and Balochistan. For a small, apparently insignificant group, to be so well coordinated across diverse cities suggests that it has a cadre which responds well and quickly when members of the group need support. Of course, such well-coordinated action also gives rise to speculation that it is actually the military which is behind the protest of the TLY and is trying to further destabilise a weak government. Of course, nothing could be farther from such fantasy.

The background

The background and the reasons for the protests in Rawalpindi and Islamabad — which have brought much of Islamabad to a standstill since key routes in and out of the city have been blocked — rests on the demand for the Law Minister to resign on account of a supposed change made in the oath by Members of Parliament about the finality of Prophet Muhammad, as per the Elections Act 2017. A change was made by Parliament in the oath to be taken, where the old “I solemnly swear …”, was replaced by “I believe…”, and where the legal consequences remain the same. Parliament even realised that it had apparently made a “mistake” in approving this change, and opted to reverse its decision going back to the earlier wording. Islamists accused the Law Minister of blasphemy for this change in the wording of the electoral oath, and called for his blood. He refused to resign and they started their protests. As happens in such stand-offs, it was expected that through some cajoling and over time, the protesters would disperse. They did not despite the rain that came and stayed put. The government then decided to push the protesters out, and security personnel were called in to remove them. Clashes occurred and the government soon backed off, leaving the protesters holding firm, with protests launched in other cities as well. The civilian government called in the military “for law and order duty according to the Constitution” but the military was nowhere to be seen, a clear act of disobedience. The government has been criticised for taking such a long time in removing the protesters and making a mess of the situation. With swift action it could have chased off the protesters. Instead, the organisation consolidated itself, gaining strength and support as it continued to resist.

Reaction and coverage

The reporting and analysis in the English language press has been indicative of the strong reaction towards the Islamist group. They have been called “zealots”, “fanatics”, “hard-line Islamists”, “bigots” that they have “dark passions”, are “hot blooded”, and much worse. What is also interesting is how Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Ahsan Iqbal, has quite bizarrely stated that his government has evidence that the protesters have “contacted India” and was “investigating the matter”. Before social media went off the air, there was strong reaction to the numerous remarks made by military spokesmen as well as the Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Before the actions against the protesters started, Gen. Bajwa said that violence should be avoided “by both sides”, i.e., the protesters and the government, which got a strong reaction from many on social media, pointing out that it was the protesters who were being violent, not the government. When the civilian government asked for the military’s help in removing the protesters, he said that since the people “loved the Army”, the Army could not become part of any such action. He stated that the Army “cannot take action against its own people”, a statement which invited a barrage of criticism reminding the General of the military’s action against its own people, in East Pakistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Balochistan, Karachi, and against the Okara peasants. The protest, or siege as many called it, ended on Sunday night following an agreement between the protesters and the government. The agreement was mediated by a Major General of the Inter-Services Intelligence, and the Law Minister resigned. The signed agreement concludes with: “we are thankful to him [Gen Bajwa] for saving the nation from a big catastrophe”, crediting the Army Chief and his representative team for their “special efforts”. The Islamabad High Court in its proceedings on Monday morning criticised the Interior Minister for giving the military the role of “mediator”, especially since the military had turned down the civilian government’s request to intervene earlier. The judge asked: “Where does the law assign this role to a general?” The rather brave judge said that this was “proof of the military’s involvement”. Even this tiny incident in Islamabad allows one to make a number of observations about the political economy of Pakistan: religious groups and parties are far better organised and committed than their liberal cousins, and civil society; the present government is suffering from the absence of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister, and the current leadership is weak; the military overrules its chief executive, the civilian government; and the military is needed to ensure agreements between the government and protesters. The role of Imran pro-military Khan and his party has been particularly opportunistic and pro-military in this encounter. It seems now that the nature of democratic politics in Pakistan is also changing, and even though elections are to be held next year, the ballot box will no longer be the only forum to determine political outcomes.

b) Sink your differences: on the executive-judiciary relationship

It is disconcerting that differences between the executive and the judiciary are emerging often in the public domain these days. By raising the question whether the judiciary does not trust the Prime Minister to make fair judicial appointments, and harping on the need to maintain the balance of power between the executive and the judiciary, representatives of the Union government have risked the impression that they are putting the judiciary on the defensive. Read between the lines and the executive’s profound dissatisfaction with the state of play in relations between the two wings is evident. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is undoubtedly entitled to hold the view that the Supreme Court’s 2015 verdict striking down the law creating the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) reveals the judiciary’s distrust in the Prime Minister and the Law Minister. His question whether an audit is needed to determine what has been lost or gained since the collegium system was created in 1993 is not without merit. However, it is debatable whether these issues should have been raised in public, that too in the presence of the Chief Justice of India and his fraternity. Chief Justice Dipak Misra seemed coerced into responding that the judiciary reposes the same trust that the Constituent Assembly had in the Prime Minister, and that the judiciary indeed recognised and respected the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution. There was really no need for such a public affirmation of first principles in a democracy. However, it does not mean that major concerns over whether there is real separation of powers, whether public interest litigation has become an interstitial space in which judges give policy directives, and whether the country needs a better system than the present one in which judges appoint judges should be brushed aside. The present collegium system is flawed and lacks transparency, and there is a clear need to have a better and more credible process in making judicial appointments. It is clear that differences over formulating a fresh Memorandum of Procedure for appointments are casting a shadow on the relationship. It is best if both sides take a pragmatic view of the situation and sink their differences on the new procedure, even if it involves giving up a point or two that they are clinging to. For a start, they could both disclose the exact points on which the two sides differ so that independent experts will also have a chance to contribute to the debate. If it is the right to veto a recommendation that the government wants on some limited grounds, the Collegium must not be averse to considering it. Resolution of this matter brooks no further delay.


1) Unarmed

Meaning: Not equipped with or carrying weapons.

Example: “he was shooting unarmed civilians”

Synonyms: Defenseless, Open

Antonyms: Armed, Protected

2) Minuscule

Meaning: Extremely small; tiny.

Example: “a minuscule fragment of DNA”

Synonyms: Tiny, Small

Antonyms: Vast, Huge

3) Disruptive

Meaning: Causing or tending to cause disruption.

Example: “disruptive pupils”

Synonyms: Unruly, Troublesome

Antonyms: Well behaved, Manageable

4) Gestures

Meaning: An action performed to convey a feeling or intention.

Example: “Maggie was touched by the kind gesture”

Synonyms: Action, Act

5) Destabilise

Meaning: Upset the stability of (a region or system); cause unrest or instability in.

Example: “the accused were charged with conspiracy to destabilize the country”

Synonyms: Undermine, Weaken

Antonyms: Strenghten

6) Dharna

Meaning: A mode of compelling payment or compliance, by sitting at the debtor’s or offender’s door until the demand is complied with.

Example: The activists organized a dharna in front of the college.

7) Agitation

Meaning: A state of anxiety or nervous excitement.

Example: “she was wringing her hands in agitation”

Synonyms: Anxiety, Disquiet

Antonyms: Calmness, Relaxation

8) Expediency

Meaning: The quality of being convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral; convenience.

Example: “an act of political expediency”

Synonyms: Convenience, Advantage

Antonyms: Disadvantage

9) Prudence

Meaning: The quality of being prudent; cautiousness.

Example: “we need to exercise prudence in such important matters”

Synonyms: Wisdom, Judgment

Antonyms: Folly, Recklessness

10) Confined

Meaning: Keep or restrict someone or something within certain limits of (space, scope, or time).

Example: “he does not confine his message to high politics”

Synonyms: Enclose, Incarcerate

Antonyms: Release

11) Sympathisers

Meaning: A person who agrees with or supports a sentiment, opinion, or ideology.

Example: “a Nazi sympathizer”

Synonyms: Supporter, Advocate

12) Paralysing

Meaning: Stop (a system, place, or organization) from operating by causing disruption.

Example: “the regional capital was paralysed by a general strike”

Synonyms: Disable, Immobilize

13) Speculation

Meaning: The forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence.

Example: “there has been widespread speculation that he plans to quit”

Synonyms: Conjecture, Supposition

14) Fantasy

Meaning: The faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things.

Example: “his researches had moved into the realms of fantasy”

Synonyms: Imagination, Creativity

Antonyms: Truth, Realism

15) Standstill

Meaning: A situation or condition in which there is no movement or activity at all.

Example: “the traffic came to a standstill”

Synonyms: Halt, Stop

Antonyms: Start

16) Blasphemy

Meaning: The action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.

Example: “he was detained on charges of blasphemy”

Synonyms: Profanity, Curse

Antonyms: Reverence

17) Cajoling

Meaning: Persuade (someone) to do something by sustained coaxing or flattery.

Example: “he hoped to cajole her into selling him her house”

Synonyms: Persuade, Coax

Antonyms: Bully

18) Backed off

Meaning: To stop being involved in a situation, usually in order to allow other people to deal with it themselves.

Example: She started to criticize me, then she suddenly backed off.

19) Mess

Meaning: A situation that is confused and full of problems.

Example: “the economy is still in a terrible mess”

Synonyms: Predicament, Problem

20) Consolidated

Meaning: Strengthen (one’s position or power).

Example: “the company consolidated its position in the international market”

Synonyms: Strengthen, Secure

21) Indicative

Meaning: Serving as a sign or indication of something.

Example: “having recurrent dreams is not necessarily indicative of any psychological problem”

Synonyms: Expressive, Symbolic

22) Zealots

Meaning: A person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.

Example: “reforming zealots destroyed a vast collection of papers”

Synonyms: Fanatic, Extremist

Antonyms: Moderate

23) Fanatics

Meaning: A person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal, especially for an extreme religious or political cause.

Example: “religious fanatics”

Synonyms: Zealot, Extremist

Antonyms: Moderate

24) Bigots

Meaning: A person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions.

Example: “don’t let a few small-minded bigots destroy the good image of the city”

Synonyms: Partisan, Sectarian

25) Hot blooded

Meaning: Showing strong feelings very easily and quickly, especially anger or love.

Synonyms: Passionate, Impassioned

Antonyms: Cold

26) A barrage of

Meaning: A great number of complaints, criticisms, or questions suddenly directed at someone.

Example: The TV station has received a barrage of complaints about the amount of violence in the series.

27) Mediated

Meaning: Intervene in a dispute in order to bring about an agreement or reconciliation.

Example: “Wilson attempted to mediate between the powers to end the war”

Synonyms: Arbitrate, Conciliate

28) Catastrophe

Meaning: An event causing great and usually sudden damage or suffering; a disaster.

Example: “an environmental catastrophe”

Synonyms: Tragedy, Crisis

Antonyms: Salvation, Godsend

29) Opportunistic

Meaning: Exploiting immediate opportunities, especially regardless of planning or principle.

Example: “an opportunistic political lightweight”

30) Ballot box

Meaning: Democratic principles and methods.

Example: “the proper remedy was the ballot box and not the court”

31) Striking down

Meaning: If someone is struck down, they die suddenly or start to suffer from a serious illness.

Example: He was struck down by polio when he was a teenager.

32) Collegium

Meaning: An organization for people who have similar interests or who do similar work, especially in a university.

Example: No one wanted to miss the inaugural meeting of the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers at Vanderbilt University.

33) Fraternity

Meaning: A group of people sharing a common profession or interests.

Example: “members of the hunting fraternity”

Synonyms: Profession, Group

34) Coerced

Meaning: Persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats.

Example: “he was coerced into giving evidence”

Synonyms: Pressure, Constrain

Antonyms: Persuade

35) Litigation

Meaning: The process of taking legal action.

Example: “the company wishes to avoid litigation”

Synonyms: Action, Lawsuit

36) Brushed aside

Meaning: To refuse to consider something seriously because you feel that it is not important.

Example: She brushed their objections aside, saying “Leave it to me.”

37) Pragmatic

Meaning: Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.

Example: “a pragmatic approach to politics”

38) Contribute

Meaning: Give (something, especially money) in order to help achieve or provide something.

Example: “taxpayers had contributed £141.8 million towards the cost of local services”

Synonyms: Give, Donate

39) Averse

Meaning: Having a strong dislike of or opposition to something.

Example: “as a former CIA director, he is not averse to secrecy”

Synonyms: Against, Unwilling

Antonyms: Keen

40) Brooks no

Meaning: To not allow or accept something, especially a difference of opinion or intention.

Example: She won’t brook any criticism of her work.