THE democratic right to protest has been hijacked and the federal capital and the country’s fourth most populous city, Rawalpindi, have virtually been held hostage. It ought to have been an unacceptable state of affairs. But a misguided protest by far-right religious parties, led by the freshly minted Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, and a mishandled response by the federal government have snowballed into a full-fledged political and law-and-order crisis. Leave aside for a moment the reason for the protest and the demands of the protesters who have made life miserable for hundreds of thousands of commuters between Rawalpindi and Islamabad for over two weeks now. If it were any other group of citizens — nurses, teachers, government employees or farmers — would their protest have been allowed to disrupt the lives of the denizens without any end in sight? Why, then, is this impunity afforded to a gathering that has threatened violence, made extreme demands and undermined the democratic order in the country?

To be sure, the democratic right to protest must be protected against undesirable and illegal encroachment by the state. However, the core of the TLY’s complaint has already been addressed by parliament and demands such as the sacking of federal ministers cannot be countenanced; it would set a terrible precedent and encourage future protests. Just as clearly, the protesters must not be evicted in a violent manner. The clumsiness of the state security apparatus could trigger violence that may spiral out of control. A negotiated settlement, with all institutions of the state firmly lined up to bring a peaceful end to the protest at the earliest, is the only sensible path out of the crisis. The failure to do so until now is a reflection of the lack of coordination and communication among state institutions. A firm, united message from all major institutions has not been in evidence so far.

The problem, however, clearly goes beyond the latest siege of Islamabad. Whether it was the PPP and PML-N’s ‘long march’ politics or the PTI’s several attempts to paralyse life in the capital, the democratic right to protest has morphed into dangerous demonstrations of street power. There is a line between legitimate democratic protests and protests that destabilise democracy or are anti-democratic — and it appears that line has been crossed in Pakistan. Quite how new rules can be negotiated among the political class is unclear, but it is apparent that this new phase of politics of sieges is unsustainable. Making parliament the locus of political activity could be one way of pulling back from the brink. Another possibility is that the mainstream parties determine new rules for protests in Islamabad that allow protesters to make their point without massively disrupting daily life. If the danger of escalation is not addressed, some kind of dreadful violence may materialise sooner than later.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2017

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