Fiasco in Islamabad

Another dharna in Islamabad has ended after having achieved its ostensible goal of the resignation of the law minister, in the process weakening the government and PML-N further; whether it will diminish PML-N’s chances of winning in the senate and general elections remains to be seen. But the latest version of the dharna could have far more pernicious consequences than the previous ones, as this one was held by extremist religious parties.

The government, having acceded to their demands, sets a dangerous precedent. What next—a dharna for banning education for women, forcing women to cover themselves from head to toe, banning sports and music, forcing minorities to wear badges? Where do we stop?

All that’s needed is to gather a few hundred thugs and block some key intersections in Islamabad in the name of religion. This has now become a proven and effective formula. In the initial phases of the sit-in, the government seemed paralyzed and confused and a belated crackdown against the protestors was ill-planned and poorly executed. After allowing the dharna to gain momentum for three weeks perhaps it was too late to take meaningful police action in any case.

The persistent proverbial learning moment is knocking on the door yet again; it has not given up on us despite its innumerable failures. So what can be done to contain, or prevent, such an event in the future? I have always maintained that the strength and stability of a democratic set-up is girded in the parliamentary process, and that’s where the government could begin, getting to the all-important task of legislating and revamping our laws to reinvent Pakistan’s social fabric on a more solid, peaceful and people-oriented footing. Right to peaceful protests is part of democratic societies, that right being enshrined in the concept of freedom of speech. Yet strict rules must be established to ensure the unencumbered life and liberty of citizens. In this vein all protests in public areas such as streets, highways and major intersections, that affect the life of ordinary people adversely should be banned. Instead designated spaces that do not affect mobility and livelihood of residents should be marked as protest or procession sites. A permitting process that requires protestors to detail their objectives and logistics should be put in place, and no entities, political parties, or religious outfits should be allowed to hold a protest without these permits. Furthermore, the application for such a permit should be submitted several weeks before the planned protest.

The dharna also exposed the civilian authorities’ ability, or lack thereof, of enforcing law and order. Police seemed to be ill-equipped and inadequately trained for such events. Laws are of no use if the law-enforcement arm of the government is ineffective. It’s high time our law makers initiated substantial police reforms, which could include higher wages, training, and the use of latest technology.

There was a strange moment during the dharna, when the Army chief advised the government that both sides should resolve the impasse peacefully, seemingly equating the government with the protesters whose actions had been deemed terrorist activity by the Islamabad High Court. But perhaps more troubling than the content of the tweet was the fact that the army chief thought it okay to impart advice in this manner, as if the army was an entity separate and above the government. This surely exceeds the military’s realm of authority.

It begs the question: what should be the role of armed forces in Pakistan? An open debate on this issue, in parliament and society as a whole, would be good for the country’s national interest and cohesion. The founding father had something to say about the it:

“Do not forget that the armed forces are the servants of the people and you do not make national policy; it is we the civilians, who decide these issues and it is your duty to carry out these tasks with which you are entrusted.”

Ceding to the protestors’ demands, whatever they may be, is not the way forward. Negotiating and agreements with extremists in the past have mostly been to the detriment of Pakistan. Sadly the dharna claimed several lives, but there was one culling of a life that was especially emblematic of the problem with these types of protests. That of a child who died in an ambulance because he could not be transported to the hospital due to the closure of streets. Who is responsible for this innocent child’s suffering and death?


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December 2017
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