Down the spiral, again

Published October 29, 2016

ALL the wrong memories are being stoked. When police barged in on a PTI youth convention on Thursday, trying to make arrests, the government that ordered them to do so was repeating the mistakes of two years ago.

But when they followed up that action with the tear-gassing and violence in Rawalpindi yesterday, they compounded the folly, stirring memories of 2014 when police brutality led to the deaths of 14 people in Model Town, Lahore, and created a furore that has lingered to the present day.

Yet, today the PML-N appears hell-bent on repeating its mistakes. Protesters are once more being pursued with strong-arm tactics in a futile attempt to stall the PTI protest planned for Nov 2, and containers loaded with export consignments, are being impounded to be used as hindrances for the caravans that are set to travel up the roads connecting Lahore with Islamabad — roads ironically that Nawaz Sharif proudly presents as emblems of his successful rule.

For his part, Imran Khan is vitiating the atmosphere with his incendiary rhetoric. It is true that protesting against corruption is his right, and that the Panama Papers need to be investigated.

But the kind of firebrand language he is using does nothing more than poison the air and make any sort of engagement or negotiation impossible. In fact, there is good reason for the government’s insecurity, given the memories of the last dharna.

At that time too, Mr Khan had marched to Islamabad saying he was coming for a ‘peaceful protest’, but then proceeded to storm the red zone in the capital, with mobs from the PTI and PAT attacking parliament and the PTV buildings. He may claim that his followers engaged in no violence, but that is too fine a hair to split in the midst of such rancour.

This time around, when he says once again that his intentions are peaceful, there are grounds to be sceptical, especially given the fiery rhetoric he and his supporters are using to exhort people to join them.

Both parties need to calm down. Pakistan’s is still a fledgling democracy which needs to be strengthened in the face of all challenges; the ship of state should not be rocked beyond a certain point.

Anti-democratic forces are watching carefully from the sidelines, and it is always they who have benefited from turmoil in the political space. Protest is a right, but spreading lawlessness is not. Supporters of the PTI should recall that protest tactics like shutting down cities used to be something they disliked when others, such as the MQM, resorted to them.

Likewise, while the state has a right to take security precautions, it must realise that brute force of the sort seen over the last few days is counterproductive to maintaining peace.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2016

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