Sher Afgan Niazi, a minister in the previous government and member of the Musharraf-allied Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), was attacked at a lawyers movement rally this evening in Lahore. After being assaulted, the tires of the ambulance sent to take him away were punctured and its keys were stolen.
Though the lawyers movement has always been a bit rowdy, they have been the victims of state violence. The impression given by this event is that they have now become perpetrators of violence.
Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), desperately tried to stop the beating of Niazi. He made his way through the mob to reach Niazi and even climbed on to the ambulance to call on those in the rally to cease their attacks. His call was not heeded. After exhausting all efforts, Ahsan then announced his resignation as president of the SCBA.
In my opinion, there is a high likelihood that the violence was perpetrated by provocateurs not associated with the lawyers movement. Why?
One, video images of the rally show an unusually high presence of plain-clothed individuals, not the black suit lawyers that have become a symbol of the lawyers movement. One of the most aggressive attackers was a plain-clothed man who was hitting Afgan with a shoe. Aitzaz Ahsan has said that upwards of 60% of those in the crowd were not lawyers (he asked the lawyers to raise their hands), and said these individuals were the most violent.
Two, the incident occurs in the midst of a campaign to discredit Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the lawyers movement. [Note, for example, how Justice Iftikhar's meeting meeting with Asif Zardari was immediately spinned in the media to taint him as "political." But not too long after that, the PPP's Ahmed Mukhtar defended Musharraf as "cashable." If seems as if Justice Iftikhar's credibility can be tarnished by as little as a speeding ticket, while Musharraf can go off scot-free, as long as he remains 'useful'.]
At the very least, the violence today is extremely convenient for those who seek the movement’s downfall. Images of Niazi being pushed and pulled in various directions are fodder for sensationalists in Pakistan’s media. Television producers bring out their favorite red pen to mark a circle around Niazi as he’s inhumanely tossed like a volleyball. The violence is then said to be associated with the lawyers movement and even with democracy.
So, what needs to be done?
One, senior leaders of the lawyers movement — Aitzaz Ahsan, Munir Malik, and others — should meet with Sher Afgan tomorrow. They should apologize for the violence inflicted against him, yet make it clear that the lawyers movement’s rank and file was not behind the incident. They should directly engage, with concrete evidence, the question of whether outside provocateurs were behind the attack on Afgan.
Two, the lawyers movement should preserve its leadership, cohesiveness, and overall objectives. The likely goal of the violence, if it was done by provocateurs, was to get the lawyers movement to give up on its goal to restore the deposed judges, particularly Justice Iftikhar, deposed by Pervez Musharraf in November. The new government has 21 days left to bring the judges back, according to the Murree Accord.
Three, the lawyers movement should revamp its public presence. Lawyers should behave like lawyers. Their rallies need to be more tame. Though it is likely that authentic lawyers movement members were not behind tonight’s violence, the previous aggressiveness of the lawyers movement makes the idea that the lawyers are responsible for today’s violence, in the eyes of the general public, more believable. For example, the enthusiasm of Ahmed Ali Kurd is much appreciated, but his firebrand rhetoric is often excessive.
Finally, the movement needs to develop a strategy to push for broad-based judicial reform in Pakistan. Restoring the deposed judges is significant for Pakistan’s political development. It is in Pakistan’s national interest. But beyond the judges and the Supreme Court, there is the Pakistani majority that benefits little from the justice system. If wronged, the average Pakistani does not have any legal resort. And so, in order to maintain an independent bond with the people of Pakistan and continue much needed political reform, the lawyers movement should push for the rule of law and justice for the common man.
UPDATE – 3:40PM (New York): Take a look at the two photos above. Both clearly show a plain-clothed young male on the right assaulting Sher Afgan. Both lawyers in suits and plain-clothed people are also shielding Afgan. They are clearly doing more work than the police (controlled by the pro-Musharraf interim provincial government), who Aitzaz Ahsan says were vastly short in number.