The state of the siege – Zaigham Khan


Maulana’s brigade has lifted the siege of Islamabad. His men are now obstructing highways, as part of what he calls his Plan B. In the meanwhile, the government’s siege of the opposition continues as the revolutionary brigade is unwilling to let a gravely ill man, said to be almost struggling to live, leave the fortification. There is something primal, something ancient in the way political titles and associated rewards are fought over in this country.

Every siege is both a physical and psychological process. It is often a zero-sum encounter for one party, and at times for both sides. In a siege, both sides aim at the attrition of the enemy and try to maximize their advantages at the minimum cost.

In 1345, Jani Beg, the leader of Mongols, laid siege to the Crimean city of Caffa. During the siege, plague spread through the ranks of the Mongol army, demoralized warriors. Mongols decided to put the corpses of their dead on their catapults and flung them over the defensive walls of Caffa. While the city could have outlived the siege, it was defenceless against the black death raining from the skies. The first biological warfare in history decimated the thriving port city.

As the warrior code does not exist in our power elite, biological warfare is used in every siege. When Imran Khan laid siege to the castle of the PML-N government, he claimed that the government had stolen the election and therefore it was illegitimate and could be forced out of power through undemocratic methods. The government, according to the PTI’s narrative, had not only stolen an election, it also represented a corrupt ruling elite that was responsible for all ills in the country.

While these allegations can be considered the normal ordnance of a democratic conflict, biological weapons were soon added. The rulers were not only corrupt, but agents of the enemy country as well and had business interests in India. And lo and behold, they were not only enemy agents, they were also blasphemers, ie not true Muslims, and enemies of the faith. The PML-N government died of the pandemic that was flung over their fortifications.

Maulana belongs to a tribe that has used biological warfare since time immemorial. He cannot withstand the temptation to use his best weaponry. According to Maulana, the rulers have sold out Kashmir and they are agents of Western interests. His Muftis have started using the post-truth ‘facts’ that were so far considered the PTI’s hallmark. The JUI’s ‘facts’ may sound funny to middle-class listeners, but they will have an unmistakable influence on the religious-minded classes just as the PTI’s fantastic claims had swayed its followers.

All defences can fail when corpses are flung over fortifications. Bhutto’s religious rhetoric, his efforts at uniting the Ummah, his Shariah-compliant constitution and religious provisions in the law provided him no protection against an assault led by Mufti Mahmood, the father of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Imran Khan’s tasbeeh is feeble protection against an assault by Maulana’s holy men. Very soon, their message will be amplified through thousands of mosques all over the country, as had happened in Bhutto’s case and of course in Sharif’s case as well. Maulana can’t be defeated on Maulana’s battleground. This is a lesson that Pakistan’s ‘secular’ elite has not learnt in seven decades.

Maulana’s politics of accommodation had reached a dead end and some martial activity was much needed. Maulna’s enemies made the mistake of judging him by his past intentions and not by his capability. No bigger mistake can be made in the realm of strategy.

According to the grapevine, Maulana was offered a similar accommodation in the current setup as well. His constant humiliation at the hands of the PTI can be one good reason for his changed attitude. Taking a break from the long party in the house of power makes good political sense. It revives his dignity and the dignity of his workers as inheritors of the Deoband movement that struggled against the British and two martial law regimes in the country, though Maulana provided vital support to Musharraf’s martial law.

Maulana has made huge political gains in a short time. Maulana’s political stock has gone up. He has already claimed airtime worth billions of rupees, perhaps more than the combined airtime of his whole political career. Such attention matters in the high octane of politics in our times. It has galvanized his supporters and may have won him support from a section of religiously inclined voters. It can also end up in the conviction that he is not a spent force that can be totally dumped in favour of a king’s party.

By not opting for an open face-saving, Maulana is not obliged to step back from his ‘movement’. Maulana ended his dharna on the day a cold front hit Islamabad and a spell of winter rains started. While Maulana’s dharna had achieved many of its objectives, the law of diminishing returns had set in and it was good strategy to declare victory and leave. Maulana clearly wants to save the energies of his followers for a long-drawn struggle against Imran Khan.

While Maulana is leading the assault on the fort, the two major parties are lending legitimacy to his cause. Their combined vote bank exceeds the votes received by the Kaptaan. When Maulana expresses a grievance on behalf of the opposition, it carries weight. That’s why Maulana does not grudge any benefits accruing to his partners in the opposition. While two parties get a breathing space in the gas chamber, Maulana is gaining in importance.

After holding a large dharna, Maulana wants to show that he can cut down Pakistan’s major trade and transport arteries and thus bring the country to a standstill. It may not be a good strategy as it inflicts pain on the common people, but it does expose the government’s helplessness and his own strength.

Will Maulana return to the capital soon for a spring offensive? Perhaps, he has Mahmud Ghaznavi as a model rather than Attila the Hun. And while Caffa may have built invincible walls, it has no defences against the biological warfare.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.