Dark days

Published May 26, 2022
PTI Yasmin Rashid smiles as she drives a car after Punjab police officers break the vehicle's windshield. —PTI official/Twitter
PTI Yasmin Rashid smiles as she drives a car after Punjab police officers break the vehicle's windshield. —PTI official/Twitter

THE chaotic scenes witnessed in major cities yesterday are yet another reminder that political fights should be left to the ballot, not the streets. The PML-N-led government’s violent attempts at thwarting the PTI’s march on the capital accomplished little more than to add more acridity to the political climate. It had no grounds to forcibly deprive PTI supporters of their right to protest as long as they were being peaceful. Simply repeating that the party was involved in violent incidents in the past was no justification for deploying thousands of security personnel and expending state resources on such a massive scale. Rather, it showed that the government had completely panicked when confronted by the political challenge the march had initially represented.

Read more: 'Gangsterism': Criticism pours in on police action to contain PTI's Azadi March

The PML-N should have perhaps listened to stalwarts from its allied parties when they said there was little threat posed by the long march. It would have allowed it to focus its energies on preventing transgressions of the law if and when they happened.

Instead, the government severely disrupted life in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Faisalabad, Sialkot and parts of Karachi with unnecessary roadblocks and forced suspension of routine activities. Visuals broadcast by news channels early in the afternoon of civilians being beaten up and cars being wrecked by men in plain clothes accompanied by some overzealous policemen in Lahore’s Bati Chowk area set the tone for the day. Later, protesters clashed violently with police, resulting in the destruction of private and public property. All this was promptly turned into visual fodder for social media, where it will fuel more resentment against the state.

The PTI, on its part, does not seem to have been prepared to face such a large deployment of state machinery. This shows that it still has much to learn when it comes to street mobilisation. While its small turnout in Punjab may be explained by the intimidation tactics used by the state, the turnout in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the party faced no challenges, was similarly disappointing.

Mr Khan’s claim that he would march with 2m to 3m people ended up falling quite flat, considering that the crowd accompanying him seemed smaller than even some of those seen in his recent jalsas. Perhaps PTI leaders did not realise that a few-hours-long public meeting is one thing and to expect supporters to give up entire days of comfort while risking violence and arrest quite another.

Read more: From PPP to PML-N to PTI — A history of long marches and sit-ins in Islamabad

The seeming collapse by Wednesday evening of a Supreme Court-brokered compromise on relocating the site of PTI’s sit-in from D-Chowk to another venue was a troubling sign. In defiance of an agreement to move to a park near H-9, angry demonstrators proceeded to D-Chowk anyway. Were they instructed to do so, or are they no longer listening to their leaders? With the system wracked by chaos, there is no knowing what tomorrow will bring.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2022

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