Right to protest

July 16, 2018

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ON Friday I joined around 100,000 people in central London to protest against Donald Trump. The gathering was peaceful, festive, and funny — the US president inspires the wittiest, naughtiest placards, the best not fit to quote in print. Helicopters hovered above us throughout, a reminder that for some the protest was a potential tinderbox. But for me — and I suspect most other attendees — it was an exercise in catharsis.

As global politics becomes more antagonistic and divisive, as news headlines tell of ever more suffering and inequality, and as political leadership almost everywhere becomes more self-serving, compromised and beholden to corporates and the ultra-rich, I enjoyed the relief of standing among thousands who feel as I do, who reject authoritarianism, racism and sexism, and welcome immigrants, refugees, diversity and debate.

The protest gained more poignancy after London’s mayor Sadiq Khan was forced to defend his decision to allow a blimp depicting Trump as a baby to fly over parliament. His reminder that democracies must facilitate the freedom of expression, even if it offends the high and mighty, could not have been more timely.

I also valued the protest more because while I was able to amble up to Trafalgar Square — and even ask a policeman to direct me to the baby blimp — my compatriots in Lahore were being denied the opportunity to peacefully gather in support of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, and express their perception that the PML-N has been denied a fair playing field ahead of polls.

The powers that be have interests to protect.

That too should have been a bittersweet mobilisation, a show of support for a political leader. But our state is finding ever more unnecessary, excessive and perverse ways to remind us that we as citizens no longer have the freedom to express our views, or make our own choices. The powers that be have interests to protect and ideologies to buttress; our role in all this is tangential at best, obstructionist at worst.

As Abbas Nasir wrote in these pages, the sky wouldn’t have fallen if PML-N workers had been allowed to assemble to receive Nawaz and Maryam. The outcome would have been the same. Father and daughter would still have been ushered to Adiala. But at least the democratic right to protest would have been upheld.

There are those who say protests don’t matter, that they are meaningless, nostalgic acts hankering for a past when collective action worked, or self-serving acts aimed at promoting feelings of moral righteousness at a time when any engagement with the messy world of politics feels compromising. True, protests, particularly the types rallied by Twitter hashtags, are too ephemeral to tackle the systemic, deeply embedded problems in political systems and economies. Research studies show that protests work best when they are organised by well-entrenched and strategic institutions such as political parties, NGOs and unions as opposed to spontaneous civil society movements; after all, it takes structure to fight structural problems. But they’re still necessary.

The feeling of solidarity that protests inspire has value. It buoys the spirits when hopelessness threatens, and enables people to renew their commitment to uphold their political ideals and values even when the fight for those will be prolonged, perhaps even inter-generational. It is one of Pakistan’s many tragedies that the right to mobilise seems reserved for religious political parties and extremist groups, fuelling their fervour to the point of zealotry.

Protests also help raise awareness about alternative points of view. A lone voice arguing with dissenters can easily be intimidated or harassed into silence, or worse, co-opted. But a group that comes together to take a stance must be acknowledged even by those who disagree.

In Pakistan’s case, the most important reason to enable protest is because the act spurs political participation. According to a 2011 study by Harvard economists, protests don’t work (as is widely presumed) because crowds let policymakers gauge the political climate; they work because they promote grass-roots political engagement. Where protests are successfully organised, there is a longer tail of political activism, often culminating in further mobilisations and higher voter turnout. And in a nascent, struggling democracy such as ours, any activity that encourages interaction with the political system must be supported.

Ironically, the caretaker government’s failure to uphold PML-N workers’ right to assemble and express underscores the importance of the upcoming poll. In the absence of free speech, open dissent and public protest, all we are left with is our ballots. And more than 100 million ballots, if cast purposefully, can deliver a strong message, no matter what the pre-poll environment has been. Rather than be discouraged by the blockades in Lahore and the anti-democratic message they delivered, Pakistanis should come out in ever greater numbers on July 25 to ensure that they are heard.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2018