No room for dissent

Published May 26, 2022

WHILE political turmoil roils the land, a number of incidents over the past few days have demonstrated that though governments may come and go, the state’s lack of tolerance for divergent and critical voices remains the same. On Tuesday, a small group of civil society activists in Karachi calling for the recovery of Baloch missing persons was briefly hauled away and detained before being released by the police. The law enforcers apparently moved in after the Sindh government banned rallies and political gatherings in the province under Section 144 to thwart the PTI’s Azadi march. While the administration may well have been jittery about the PTI’s plans, there was no need to sabotage a small peaceful protest. Similar demonstrations were also held in Balochistan last week. Moreover, PTM MNA Ali Wazir — a lawmaker who is not in the good books of the establishment — remains incarcerated despite having secured bail from the Sindh High Court and the Supreme Court. Mr Wazir has been in detention since December 2020 for allegedly making remarks against state institutions at a rally in Karachi’s Sohrab Goth area. As he faces a number of cases, despite the bail orders from the highest court in the land, he has not been released in another case pending bail. Interestingly, production orders were issued for the lawmaker when the no-confidence motion had been moved against Imran Khan in the National Assembly last month.

The common thread tying the aforementioned incidents is the establishment’s unwillingness to tolerate dissent, though it should be mentioned that civilian administrations past and present have been just as intolerant of opposing views. Peaceful protest, as well as lawful criticism of the state, are rights protected by the Constitution and cannot be taken away from citizens. In addition, the administration, particularly the establishment, needs to contemplate the reasons why people have taken to the streets to highlight these issues. Whether it is the case of Baloch missing persons or the PTM’s concerns, the state has been dismissive of these grievances, often linking them to an invisible ‘foreign hand’, instead of constructively engaging with the protesters. Demonstrators must be free to raise a voice for the return of missing persons, while there should be no reason to keep Ali Wazir and other political prisoners behind bars when the Supreme Court has ordered their release. In the longer term, the state needs to address the underlying factors fuelling discontent.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2022

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