In a population of over 137 million, theres only one person openly defying the illegal and unconstitutional military rule in Pakistan. That too a woman. No wonder Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif is being called the "only man" in the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) presently headed by her jailed husband Nawaz Sharif.
A woman defying the military junta is nothing new in Pakistan. Fatima Jinnah, sister of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had taken on Field Marshal Ayub Khan and even contested elections against him. It was the wife and daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who was hanged by another military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, who led bloody street battles and took asylum till he was alive.
Kulsoom is no Fatima Jinnah nor can she be compared with Nusrat and Benazir Bhutto who had the following of the masses. But shes learning fast. "I am not concerned with what the party does and doesnt do. Ill do all I can. Ill come out against the military government even if I am left alone. My struggle cannot be called a confrontation with the army. I do not have tanks or guns at my command. I love the army but not the army rule. I am fighting against a retired general who has seized power," Kulsoom said on her mobile phone as her Model Town residence was besieged by police and all other communication links cut off.
In fact, the Punjab Police made fools of themselves when in complete desperation the tyres of her car were deflated and she with other Muslim Leaguers had the vehicle towed away to an army mess completely surrounded by security forces. She refused to come out spending several hours inside.
It was a field day for the local and international media as they saw the determined lady refusing water and snacks from the authorities. Kulsoom had defied the authorities when she cleverly gave them the slip and managed to turn up to lead a procession supposedly to collect funds for drought victims. But with little mass following and the party sharply divided into three groups, what was Kulsoom hoping to achieve? "Even this was not possible a month back. Over a hundred buses were hidden at Nishtar Colony, later seized by the administration, hundreds of cars and hundreds of party workers and supporters were supposed to participate in the march. As long as I breathe, I shall go on making an effort for my country; I shall go on making an effort against army rule. Ill make the country free of this curse forever. We want our country to progress. We want democracy in our country. Someone had to protest. Kulsoom Nawaz did that. We shall not listen to them. They may do whatever they like," she responded when asked why she had tried to organise a rally despite the ban on it by authorities.
At a time when political leaders are tripping over each other for a photo-op with Pervez Musharraf and the people quite complacent and in no mood to agitate against military rule, Kulsooms not only drawing crowds but also admirers. It is another matter that plenty of cash is flowing without which she cannot assume the role of a female Robin Hood.
While Kulsooms usually on the front pages of the media in Pakistan, her detention and rough handling by the military leaders earned further sympathy for her. An editorial in the English daily The Frontier Post wrote: "In fact, only weak governments take resort as a first step to the instruments of the last resort-holding up normal traffic on public roads, locking up doors of domestic premises.... These are not preventive measures in civilised societies. By acting in an unnecessarily arbitrary manner, the government has achieved no worthwhile purpose. Strong-arm methods, when deployed in situations where the central figures might be women, are not only counterproductive but also damaging. One should have thought that under an enlightened government our public administrations methods of dealing with the people...would have become less uncivil. The deplorable scenes witnessed in the wake of that non-issue in Lahore brings no credit to the administration." Other newspapers had expressed similar sentiments.
Whys the government panicking when on the face of it there appears to be no formidable opposition? The answers simple. Theyve failed to deliver even after nine months in absolute power. The first signs were seen as the military junta sought to seek time by going in for "exploratory outings" with selective politicians. The economys in a shambles and relations with neighbours at an all-time low. Questions are being asked as to why the whole armed forces was being sullied as incompetent because of the incompetence of a few. The governments also at its wits end with the continuing traders strike. It was after there was realisation in the military camp that their campaign of distributing tax forms was an exercise in absurdity that Musharraf finally went into a meeting with small traders, releasing all those who had been picked up.
In the background is the pathetic state of the PML itself. Split in three factions, all eyes are now focused on the outcome of the helicopter case against Nawaz Sharif. If found guilty of avoiding taxes and showing his actual wealth, it could lead to his disqualification from politics for 21 years.
Then theres also the new law promulgated by the Election Commission that all parties should practice democracy at home, and go for elections within the party. Lastly, those true to the traditions of the Muslim League are becoming impatient to openly join hands with the government which would give the military breathing space.
Support for Kulsoom may be slow in coming, but its certainly increasing. Her arrest made even those Leaguers who openly disagree with her policy give strongly-worded statements against the government. In fact, it was her bold strategy to defy the government that woke up the slumbering party and caused it to pull its act together.
There was support from an unlikely source as well. The Jamaats Qazi Hussain took the government to task for bringing out such a huge show force against an unarmed and unprotected lady. From within the party, one faction is headed by Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, a Zia favourite. He has met with Musharraf and sees for himself a role as the new leader after Nawaz Sharif. Hating his guts is the other faction headed by Mian Azhar who wishes to see the last of the Sharifs in a quest for fresh leadership. That leaves Kulsoom with support only from the Sharif family. "Kulsoom Sharif has opposed the idea of holding elections in the party or appointing an acting president at the present juncture. Any attempt in this direction would turn the Muslim League into a Musharraf League," she insists. "The Muslim League is presently passing through a crucial period of its history. It is necessary to keep the party united. In case the principal leaders fail to realise their responsibility, the party might split. This would not only cause an incalculable damage to the two-party system that was gradually taking root in the country but also adversely affect the political careers of these leaders," wrote the English daily The Nation.
Meanwhile Kulsooms determined to fight it out, even if shes all alone. "Martial laws a curse; still more regrettable is that the menace revisits the country after every few years. Well resist it," says the feisty lady.