Qadri, Qadeer and the media
By: SAIDA FAZAL
Tahirul Qadri who flew in from his home in Canada with the stated objective of saving this state from politicians and the unstated aim of derailing the democratic system by launching his January 14 subversive ‘long march’ and a sit-in but managed to barely save his face, continues to make provocative claims.
While threatening to launch more marches, he asserted at a press conference on Sunday that by calling off his sit-in he had allowed the Constitution and democracy to succeed. How? Had the government not come forward to negotiate, he said, he would have let loose his men on Islamabad, in which case the country would have been placed under martial law “within five minutes.”
No one asked him as to why the military would have imposed martial law. The normal thing to expect in the event of the marchers going on a rampage was for the police to stop them from attacking the Parliament, the declared target. Why would the soldiers come in to demolish the democratic system and impose yet another martial law? In saying what he said, did Qadri give away something? How did he know the military had any interest in the goings-on? Or was he hallucinating? In that case, the media should have refrained from giving him extensive coverage – all the more so because he has no standing as a political leader.
Encouraged by the kind of publicity Qadri has been receiving, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan of the nuclear programme-fame but non-entity so far as politics are concerned, also jumped into the fray the other day. Calling the ‘long march’ a provocation, he said that Qadri had no right to hold protest demonstrations in Pakistan since he is a foreigner. Fine. But Dr Qadeer has his own delusional fantasies of power reinforced by the attention he receives as a celebrated nuclear scientist. So, to grab an opportunity he thought could become available, he said he was ready to become caretaker prime minister, not just for the stipulated three-month period but for three whole years. Unlike Qadri who has been quoting copiously from the Constitution and brazenly distorting it to suit his purposes, the scientist felt no need to get into constitutional intricacies. He just wanted to be prime minister for three years because he must have heard it, like the rest of us, that the establishment is once again getting impatient with democracy and wants a trusted person to head a technocrat’s setup for three years. Fortunately for us and unfortunately for the ever publicity hungry Dr Qadeer, his prime ministerial ambitions did not get much media attention.
But Qadri’s assaults on the democratic system continue to get hours of air time and extensive front page display in the print media. An endless media circus now tells us that he is to hold “long marches against corrupt leaders” in every district across the country. The manner in which his camping is being projected raises serious questions about media responsibility. The coverage of the march was justified as a democratic right. Indeed, protest is a democratic right, but inciting public to storm the Parliament to press for extra-constitutional demands is not. That falls within the definition of sedition.
It is also important not only to see what is being said, but who is saying it and why. As a foreign national, he is disqualified under the Constitution to even stand as a candidate for an assembly seat. Except for a brief stint as a National Assembly member, he has shown little interest in politics, ie, until he announced from his adopted country, Canada, that he was coming to save the state. What the motivation might have been is not difficult to guess, given this country’s sordid political history. More to the point, Qadri has built his reputation as a spiritual leader rather than as a politician. So why should he be given so much importance at par with leaders of major parties. If the coverage is justified on the basis of the large crowd that accompanied him to Islamabad, it must not be forgotten that the marchers comprised his Minhajul Quran followers not political activists. There is nothing unusual about adherents of a religious group or cult following their leader to anywhere, even to mass suicide. There are several examples from advanced countries too, like the US, where members of religious groups committed mass suicide (People’s Temple in 1978, Branch Davidian in ’93 and Heaven’s Gate in ’97) at the urging of their respective leaders.
The media’s role is not just to give generous time and space to anyone capable of gathering large crowds but also put issues and personalities in perspective. Its role is to inform and educate the public and never to allow itself to be carried away by events and political antics of politically insignificant individuals. That is not to say that Qadri should have been ignored completely, but that he does not deserve live coverage each time he opens his mouth to attack the democratic process. It should be commensurate with his stature.
Admittedly though the reason he has been getting much attention from the more responsible sections of the media as well is the suspicion that there is a lot more to his campaign than meets the eye. Which is obvious also from Dr Qadeer presenting himself to head a technocrats’ government for the next three years. Both the PPP and the Nawaz League have been saying a conspiracy is afoot to derail the upcoming general elections. Both have stopped short of naming the forces, they say, are behind the conspiracy. If anyone has trouble figuring out who those forces might be, Qadri’s ‘five minutes from martial law’ utterance offers a solid clue. Still, it is too serious a matter to be left to conjecture.
Notably, right from the start of Qadri’s campaign rumour had it that his was an establishment-backed plan to delay the elections by installing a trusted individual as caretaker prime minister – his most consistent demand was to include Army in consultations for the caretaker setup’s selection – who would do the establishment’s bidding. Such a caretaker prime minister would use some pretext, such as the law and order situation in Karachi, to postpone the elections, letting the Army to run the country according to its own lights. As the suspicions turned into definitive statements, the ISPR felt it necessary to issue a statement to say the Army had nothing to do with the man. Now that Qadri has talked of a martial law threat hanging over the democratic system, the ISPR must clear the air once and for all.