One option for every situation by Asha’ar Rehman

AN officer early into his career is posted to administer a small town in Punjab. He gets a chance to flaunt his authority during a visit to the bazaar to inspect if the conditions placed by the Covid-19 pandemic are being adhered to. Apparently, he soon finds an opportunity to make an example out of a violator.

Reports say the official fines a shopkeeper, with a more robust business than others, for not meeting Covid precautions. He might have taken some other steps during the visit to maintain discipline in line with his brief, but all that is not related to our story about successful parallel systems of governance, and about those who have shown remarkable elasticity to forever epitomise the ‘other’ system — the perennial alternative — in its various manifestations.

What is relevant here, and our account is based on details gathered from news reports and a close-by source, is that the shopkeeper who was fined happened to be one of many from one family or clan who traded in the same bazaar. When the officer came there on another round, a few weeks after he had pulled up the errant shopkeeper, they were waiting.

The FIR says the officer was surrounded by a group of chanting shopkeepers. His car was damaged, which is a serious accusation given the kind of respect the officer is expected to command and the security he must have as a state representative — especially when trade is slow and tempers and the weather in the Punjab plains tend to be hot.

Wouldn’t it be embarrassing for a government officer expected to run a town smoothly to be held hostage by a group of petty traders?

The FIR also says the protesters physically attacked the gunman and driver accompanying the officer on this mission on July 18, 2020. However, what must earn those responsible for this action a place in local folklore was their locking up of the officer and his staff for many hours.

This is what the FIR says. My source hastens to add that these police reports in Punjab can inspire the most incredible accounts of life anywhere, and insists that detaining a government officer, along with a gunman and a driver, who quite often has a more well-fed, menacing presence than his armed colleague, is a bit hard to imagine.

I have a question. Wouldn’t it be a bit embarrassing for a government officer of some stature expected to run a town smoothly to be held hostage by a group of petty traders of odds and ends merchandise? I know that especially in the post-Sharif period these guys are not the same banias who would stand with folded hands as the colonial-era sahib scolded them in front of everyone. The story in the paper, mercifully, says this is exactly the happy note on which it all ended.

The mischief-makers finally realised what mess their anger had landed them in. More accurately, they were made to see reason, by who else but a member of the family specialising in resolving all kinds of conflicts amicably. They have a remarkable ability to innovate and adapt, and can be far more creative in their thinking than the supposedly all-concluding catchline ‘mitti pao’ gives them credit for.

In recent times, the Chaudhries of Gujrat have been trying to re-establish and consolidate their already well-known and genuine claim on representing the religious right that has traditionally sided with Muslim League(s). This signifies an urge to expand upon the base the PML-Q has had to work with. They have managed to stay afloat as players who matter, but who cannot quite conceal the erosion of the party’s support even as an outfit of candidates with a genuine chance at the polls.

Like the damage it has done to the PPP, the PTI has been a favourite alternative stable for those who had collected in the PML-Q during the Musharraf days. What remains is a handful of lieutenants in the peripheries — such as Chakwal and Bahawalpur — who are part of the PTI-led government but who do not quite inspire any great dividends accruing from the ruling alliance to the masters of the low-heat Gujrat broth of politics at the moment.

Of course, the situation could change any moment. The veteran Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain-Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi duo will always be expected to take advantage of an opportunity. For now, they have several reasons to explore the territory that may fall vacant in case somebody else’s attempts to reduce the PML-N influence bear fruit.

This is how it has been in the last 10 to 12 years. The big parties clash and the impact throws up situations at the local level where some aspirants with a bit of promise see merit in aligning themselves with the old-school Chaudhries.

The appeal for this option is obviously rooted in the PML-Q leadership’s ability to sneak into a ruling alliance and still retain their identity as a distinct group, but for how long can this arrangement work? Greater Punjab, ties with India, agricultural reform — they are good themes that provided the right slogans for the right time. The moment calls for intensification.

The Chaudhries have acquired the certificate — that their family has been chosen for deen ki khidmat or the service of religion. They rise categorically in support of the right of the Tableeghi Jamaat to hold their congregation amid dire warnings about the spread of Covid-19. They oppose the mandir in Islamabad, as someone points out, especially when the chance to do so comes during a period of cold relations with Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Closer to home, the status quo is allowed since it suits local power wielders. The old parallel world persists with its mundane issues and if you will, its mitti pao logic. A young scion of the Chaudhry family educates a truce between the government officer allegedly held hostage and the trader-captors. It’s about observing the Covid-19 code but there is no need to invoke any serious moral principle to resolve what could be a tricky scene for the suspects to escape from anywhere else.

All that is required of them is to apologise in writing and they are off.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2020

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