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Situationer: Metal boxes that signify resolve

Updated November 01, 2016

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Just as the ponderous boxes had revolutionised international commerce a few decades ago, shipping containers have now increasingly come to represent the ‘transformed’ nature of the Pakistani state’s response to political dissent. In the last few years, successive governments have extensively deployed the metal boxes — used to move cargo within countries or across borders — as mobile barricades to immobilise protesters and to stop them from spreading out over large spaces or to contain and hinder protesters from gathering in large numbers.

The instances of ‘revolution’ and general upheaval — cue to bring out the containers — have increasingly become the stuff of nightmare for exporters and transporters. As the appropriation of shipping containers in the service of the state catches on, there will be detractors.

The first time a government in Pakistan had used shipping containers in an overt gesture to repress opposition was back in May 2007, in Karachi, during the lawyers’ movement launched after the dismissal of then chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry by General Pervez Musharraf. Justice Chaudhry, who had flown to the city from Islamabad to lead the protesters, had been stopped at the airport and had to return.

The next time the containers would make an appearance would be at the federal capital and other large cities in the Punjab in March 2009, when Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chief Nawaz Sharif led a ‘long march’ to Islamabad. The Pakistan Peoples Party-led coalition government had begun dallying on its response to the popular demand for Justice Chaudhry’s reinstatement. Eventually, the PPP would buckle and Justice Chaudhry alongside other judges removed by the military dictator, were reinstated.

Since then, shipping containers have become a rather common feature at demonstrations where the government finds its back against a wall. Since its return to power in 2013, the PML-N has frequently used containers to cordon off anti-government protests in Islamabad and Lahore. Back in 2014, the Punjab government, under Shahbaz Sharif, had used containers to rein in protests by the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) in Lahore and in several cities of the province in the wake of the Model Town incident which had left 14 PAT workers dead. At the same time in the federal capital, the containers would be placed in front of important buildings and installations to ‘protect’ them from damage in case of mob attacks.

Yet these containers seldom serve the purpose they are so painstakingly placed to achieve — unless one counts the inconvenience faced by citizens and economic activity paralysed, sometimes for days. The mob attack at the PTV headquarters in Islamabad and the parliament, the June 2014 violence in Model Town, Lahore, and bloodletting in Karachi in 2007, are evidence that shipping containers are but unreliable tools when it comes to preventing a charged crowd from executing its will.

The more seasoned protesters have learned to cope. As Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak led the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s march to Banigala on Monday, his caravan included cranes capable of removing the heaviest containers on their way.

A Lahore-based political analyst, who does not want to be named, quips that there are two types of containers in Pakistani politics: “One to block the path of the protesters and the other which the protesters bring with them.” Both types of containers are supposed to represent a certain kind of permanence.

For the analyst, the first type of container symbolises the determination of those in power to stay that way, come what may. “They use the container to create an atmosphere of awe and fear, and instil a daunting feeling of resignation among those aiming to invade the hubs of power.”

The second category expresses the resolve of the agitators giving out a message that they won’t be going anywhere until they have achieved their objective.

Then there are those who do not think that the deployment of shipping containers by the government or the protesters holds any political symbolism. “They are convenient to use and move by both the government and opposition,” Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) professor Hassan Javid argues.

“Shipping containers, unlike traditional barriers like barbed wire, effectively barricade roads and highways as they are difficult to remove. They are even cost-effective, as we do not know of any government that pays the transporters who provide the containers,” he says.

A Karachi-based analyst, who also requested anonymity, explains that the use of shipping containers has been on the increase to create a “buffer zone” between law enforcers and the protesters.

“The idea is to contain political dissent by minimising direct contact between the police and the agitators (to ward off direct clash between them). In doing so, however, the government brings the economy to a screeching halt.” The containers themselves, a symbol of economic activity across the globe, stand solid without achieving any of the intended results.

Moreover, he contends, it signifies the government’s attempt at squeezing out “space for protest” by blocking roads and highways, and locking down cities. “Their deployment not only infringes on the political rights of citizens but also crams their economic rights.”

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2016