“If you choose to put political expediency and politics ahead of the men and women on the ground, for that, you’ll have to answer to yourself. I find it morally reprehensible”―Michael Richard Pompeo
Under Article 16 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a fundamental right of the citizens is freedom to assemble. It says: “Every citizen shall have the right to assemble peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of public order.”
Members of a free nation have the authority to express their indignation over anything that hurts their sentiments whether impelled by the government, a local or an international event. To protest is to vent feelings and there are innumerable examples of public demonstrations that despite their huge numbers have been highly peaceful.
The early ones started in 1913 during the Suffrage Parade in the United States of America that represented over 5,000 women, demanding the right to equal political participation. In 1930 in India, the Salt March by Mahatma Gandhi over 280 miles towards the sea to pick a handful of salt, only because the British government then had imposed sales tax—“it remained a major contentious issue throughout the period of British rule of the Subcontinent”. In the late 1960s, Cesar Chavez led a five year strike in Delano, California that brought together over two thousand farmers, demanding minimum wages especially for underpaid and overworked Filipino farm workers. Its impact was that more than 17 million Americans boycotted California grapes thus enabling unions to secure better wages and facilities for farm workers. In Cesar’s words: “I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of humanity, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non violent struggle for justice.”
Even the peaceful solitary action of one person can revolutionize conditions. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama led to the Supreme Court’s decision a year later in 1956 declaring segregation on public buses, unconstitutional. Estonia, a country with just 1.5 million people regained its independence from the Soviet rule in 1991 after 100,000 Estonians in 1988 gathered for five nights singing its protest, popularly known as the Singing Revolution. For this ferociously independent nation music and singing were means to preserve their culture while it countered invasions from Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the Soviets.
These examples prove that if there is commitment to one’s cause, patience, sensibility and best of all, a peaceful approach then there cannot be any misgivings that the objective would be achieved. The idea that violence can be resorted to actually leads to diffusing the entire purpose of dissent besides causing unspeakable damage to property, serious injuries, disability and even death. The series of demonstrations by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) beginning in November 2017 and continuing in April 2018, October 2018, November 2020, January 2021, April 2021 and the latest in October 2021 resulted in a loss of Rs. 35 billion to the economy because of extraordinary damage to public and private property (including 360 vehicles) other than closure of businesses. According to Press report dated October 21, 2021, these protests left seven policemen dead and 250 injured in country-wide clashes. 620 First Information Reports (FIR) were lodged against more than 100 miscreants out of which 20 were members of a religious political party and a writ petition filed in Lahore High Court in private capacity seeking compensation with regard to destruction of public property and violation of citizens’ fundamental rights of protection of life and wealth,
Meanwhile, the government vowed to take stern actions against the perpetrators and ban the party, a move taken in April 2021 under anti-terrorism legislation following arrest of the founder’s son, Saad Rizvi. The government spokespersons emphatically claimed that no direct talks would be held with the party as it had been engaged in disrupting peace, violating law of the land and attempting to jeopardise Pakistan’s position in international polity by insisting on expulsion of the French ambassador and cessation of trade with France.
Just when the people of this country, having suffered the most at the hands of these protestors were expecting to get some justice even if it meant exemplary punishment to killers and destroyers of public/private property, the government completely deviated from its stance. A ‘secret’ agreement was reached with TLP by virtue of which, not only was Rizvi released along with arrested party workers but the government also revoked the declaration of banning the TLP. In other words, the nation watched aghast the game of political yoyo being played by the government. Perhaps this is the reason Friedrich Durrenmatt, a Swiss dramatist opined: “Religion and political expediency go beautifully hand in hand.”
As of today, there are 130 political parties registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan. Once any political, religious or social issue arises in the country, there sprouts a party resolving to tackle it politically. The problem is that regardless of a limited following or unimportant status, a political party can exert sufficient influence to affect, if not change, a particular situation. The innocent people of this country are so emotional by nature that they do not even check whether the party they are affiliated with observes all the rules and regulations that it is obliged to, once it is registered because that should be the yardstick to judge a party’s sincerity with its objectives and the country. We are yet to hear of any adverse action being taken against a defaulting party. This is the principal reason that anyone can just stand up and look into the eye of the government without any fear. The future political arena of the country would probably hold more of such theatrical performances as we have seen during 2021.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).