IT has been some years now that the residents of Islamabad – and, for that matter, those of its twin city Rawalpindi – have thought every now and then about the need to move away from the lush green environs of Margalla Hills and from the serenity that used to characterise life in the capital city. The sit-ins – dharnas, as they are called in the vernacular – have made life tough to manage, and there is no single entity to blame it for. Multiple political parties – and consequently the administration, have done it time and time again, blocking main arteries and holding the city, its dwellers and commuters hostage for lengthy and, more critically, uncertain periods of time. Islamabad, the beautiful, is losing its charm as a destination of choice to drop anchor in one’s life.
While the residents are busy making lifestyle adjustments, their grumbles continue. “It is wrong to hold protests by causing trouble to other peaceful people in general and the residents in particular. Instead of blocking traffic, they should protest in a democratic way,” says Fazal Maula, a resident of sector G-10.
“Blockage of roads is not justified. It leads to problems and often ends up in violent activities. The police are scared of the crowd. Politicians try to gain support through this. It is the biggest problem being faced by Pakistanis. The authorities must take strict action so that no one stages a dharna and causes inconvenience to the people anywhere in the country,” says Mohammad Sharif, a civil servant.
“Dharna is, relatively, a new phenomenon adopted by political parties to register their protest and anger against any wrongdoing – perceived or otherwise – by the government or its departments. A civilised method needs to be followed by the protestors to spare the residents the agony and pain which are the results of blocked roads,” says Amjid Ghauri, a resident of sector G-9.
Islamabad, the beautiful, is fast losing its charm as a destination of choice to drop anchor in one’s life. Making lifestyle adjustments to co-exist with dharnas is diluting the fun that was once associated with life in the national capital.
As soon as anyone announces a sit-in plan, the district governments of Islamabad and Rawalpindi start sealing entry and exit points by placing containers. Security forces of all shades and varieties start manning various points for security and to guide citizens towards alternative routes, causing problems for the twin-city residents.
“Besides disturbing government servants and students, dharnas and protests bring misery and pain for the daily wagers whose families heavily depend on their earnings. When the city is closed and there is no activity, they remain idle — unable to work and resultantly unable to provide food to their families,” says Noman Ahmad, a government servant.
“It is indeed startling that despite the imposition of section 144, which bans a gathering of five or more persons, hundreds and thousands of political workers and supporters join dharnas. It reflects on the incompetence and helplessness of the authorities in enforcing the law to establish the writ of the state,” says Suhail Ahmed, a resident of sector G-8.
“Holding peaceful protests and dharnas is the right of people in democracy but the rights of other people should also be respected. No one should be allowed to block traffic. A spacious venue on the outskirts of the city should be provided for this purpose,” suggests Mushtaqur Rehman, a private school teacher.
“While blocking highways or expressways, one must realise that it can be fatal for others. One may not be able to reach the hospital in time, can miss a flight, a job interview, social functions etc. So blocking traffic should not be tolerated at all and the law enforcement agencies must make it a point to ensure it in letter and spirit,” comments Azharuddin, a retired government servant.
“The police and the district administration have a duty to facilitate the gathering, in which citizens exercise their fundamental right of public assembly. At the same time, living in a democracy requires following certain rules to allow the state to discharge its responsibility of maintaining peace and security for everyone at all times. Shifting from erstwhile ‘crowd control’ to ‘crowd management’ approach would need strategic planning at all levels starting from events and venues of mass gathering,” says Mohsin Ali, a businessman.
People living near the protest site face a host of problems, including restricted movement and insecurity. The residents are of the opinion that they are confined to their homes and the movement of women and children in particular is restricted every time there is a sit-in.
“When some roads, that are a lifeline to the city residents, are blocked, it seems the entire city has come to a halt. Blocking roads creates traffic jams, affecting commuters. Traffic jams by protestors cause sheer wastage of time for commuters. There is a need for empathy for others,” emphasises Malik Sabir, a doctor at a local hospital.
As for the sit-in sites, there are always clear indications that policemen, public at large, food vendors and even onlookers enjoy their day-to-day routines; a luxury that the locals do not have in such a scenario. The protesters set up a tent city of their own and continue with their cooking and washing regimes when their leaders are not giving speeches.
Jubilant participants, elders and youngsters alike, drawn from diversified social, ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds move around shoulder-to-shoulder and mingle with each other, demonstrating a unique scene of compassion. The ambience at the sit-in remains more fun-oriented which is sharp contrast to the lives of their victims the common people of the city.
Although the twin-city residents face innumerable problems, traders in and around the dharna venue do end up making money as their business activities get increased manifold due to the influx of hundreds of thousands of people. “The dharnas have a positive impact on our business. Small traders’ income gets doubled. We keep our shop opened round the clock for the benefit of our protesting guests,” says Akbar Shah, a shopkeeper of daily use items in sector G-9.
Though such souls represent a serious minority compared to the mass of sufferers, small vendors set up makeshift kiosks and shops serving eatables and utility items, especially umbrellas, fruits, scents, sweetmeats, fried beans, corncobs, cell phone gadgets like chargers, selfie sticks, hands-free etc.; not to forget paan (betel nuts) shops. The vendors surely are the happiest people every time there is a call for a sit-in. But for the rest of the city, its dwellers and commuters, such dharnas represent nothing but misery. Absolute, unadulterated misery.