Who gets to protest?

Published June 9, 2022
The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

WHAT we call the ‘right to protest’ in everyday parlance is essentially an amalgam of various civil and political liberties: the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, which allows us to gather in public or private or online spaces; the right to freedom of expression, which gives us the ability to declare our sentiments for all and sundry to take note; the right to freedom of movement, which provides us with the power to mobilise in the first place, and the right to non-discrimination, which makes sure that all citizens are able to enjoy the aforesaid without any distinction as to their religion, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation or ideology.

Protests are very tricky business. They are meant to challenge the status quo and hence, always carry with them a certain risk of disruption. This is to be expected, tolerated and protected, for without it, the right will be stripped of its essence. That said, all protests must be peaceful and must not threaten public order (a difficult term to define in practice, but which should generally be taken to mean the state of peace and security necessary for the public-at-large to carry on their lives). Sustained disruption, like the occupation of public highways or thoroughfares, cannot be allowed. Nor obviously can hate speech, incitement to crime or violence of any sort. And a revolution of course, can never be permitted to masquerade in the guise of a protest.

Policing such assemblies often requires a balancing act. State authorities have to ensure that protesters have the ability to congregate in a place of their choosing, preferably within sight and sound of their intended audience, with open access to media coverage. Reasonable restrictions may be imposed to safeguard the rights of the general public, but they must be legal, necessary and proportionate to the threat they intend to contain.

Unfortunately, the range of tactics we see typically deployed are anything but. Blanket bans are imposed throughout districts or entire provinces. Containers are commandeered and used to block and deter potential participants. Cellular services are jammed or disrupted. Raids and pre-emptive arrests are conducted to detain organisers. And the use of force is usually erratic and exceedingly excessive, something that has resulted in countless avoidable deaths, and at times, even full-scale massacres like Model Town and Kharqamar.

Our state remains armed with a colonial governing apparatus designed to crush protests.

A key problem is that our state remains armed with a colonial governing apparatus designed to crush protests, not to facilitate them. This has only been buttressed by successive periods of military rule, which have left problematic relics of their own. The first weapon of choice is always Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which allows governments to impose wholesale bans on assemblies using the flimsiest of pretexts. Once invoked, demonstrators can simply be picked up by law enforcement, shoved into police vans and later prosecuted under Section 188 of the Penal Code for disobeying an order issued by a public servant.

In second place is a gift from the Ayub-era — the dreaded Maintenance of Public Order. Devised by a dictator to take his dissenters to the cleaners whenever he wanted, no democratic government has had enough foresight or willpower to repeal it so far.

The draconian law allows for people to be preventively detained on mere suspicion of ‘acting in a manner prejudicial’ to public safety or order. No crime is required to have been committed and detention can last for months. It can also be used to exercise an Orwellian level of control over the movement of individuals, once again on nothing more than a whim.

Sadly, no party has been impervious to the temptations that it offers.

Complementing all this is a bouquet of vaguely defined and outdated offences — some that impose collective responsibility on every member of an assembly for acts committed by a few, and many others that place unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech (like sedition, for instance, that awful crime of not loving the state hard enough). Taken in conjunction, these laws keep the right to protest dangling in very fragile territory, susceptible to arbitrary interference and constricted within a legal framework that blatantly violates international standards. In such circumstances, it is not principle but political expediency that determines who gets to protest and who does not.

Consequently, violent protests often go unpunished, while peaceful protests that rub the wrong quarters (or are simply not fashionable enough) are mercilessly suppressed. Over the past several years, the TLP was allowed to take the entire country hostage, not once, but on numerous occasions. Each time, the state capitulated to their demands, hastily signing agreements brokered by high-ranking officials. On at least one occasion, they were even provided bus fare home.

Editorial: TLP protests

Meanwhile, nonviolent protests arranged by students, farmers, teachers, health workers and government employees were routinely subjected to state-sanctioned thuggery, not to mention criminal charges on top.

It is also worth bearing in mind that when basic liberties are doled out as favours, it is always the marginalised who suffer the most.

Take the case of the PTM. Since its inception, it has been openly hounded by the state, censored from national television, snubbed by newspapers, branded as ‘foreign agents’ by the ISPR and slapped with sedition charges again and again. Most of its leadership has been in and out of jail several times, while one parliamentarian, Ali Wazir, has been languishing in prison for the past 18 months.

Read: Demystifying the PTM

A very similar attitude is visible in demonstrations organised by relatives of missing persons, which, though always peaceful, are harassed, intimidated, detained and permanently blacked out from mainstream media.

Political parties need to end their myopia. Whenever they are booted out of power, they become vocal champions of fundamental rights. Yet, as soon as they find themselves parachuted back into office, they immediately revert to their autocratic ways.

The right to protest must be secured for all. And parties must realise — the holes they refuse to fill up for others, are the very ones they will keep finding themselves in.

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2022

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