Policing and the right to protest

Published November 13, 2022
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

IT appears as if Imran Khan has deliberately slowed down the pace of his party’s ‘long march’ on Islamabad. But the challenge of providing security to the protestors and maintaining law and order has been mounting for the law enforcers, especially after an assassination attempt on Mr Khan injured the former prime minister. As things stand now, the federal capital has been placed on high alert. The PTI governments in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Kashmir denied help to the Islamabad administration, mainly on political grounds, making the task of the Islamabad Police gruelling and complicated.

Alternatively, Islamabad Police requested Sindh Police and the FC to assist it in maintaining law and order in the capital during the PTI demonstrations. The PTI workers had blocked all major highways of KP and Punjab leading towards Islamabad, thus making commuting very hard in Islamabad, with life coming to a virtual standstill.

The PTI is not halting life in the federal capital for the first time; nor is it the first political party using coercive measures for its political demands. Almost all political and religious parties have used this tactic in recent times. However, it has been the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan whose protests yielded something for it in the end. Though the TLP leadership complains that the state institutions did not fully honour their commitments, many of its demands were, in fact, fully or partially fulfilled.

The PTI has a long history of protests, but as compared to the TLP, its cadre has remained less violent, despite the fact that its followers appear very charged. One probable reason is that the PTI chairman uses the protests only to build pressure on state institutions and keeps motivating its support base in this regard. However, frequent or prolonged demonstrations have multiple implications. They not only lead the country to a protracted political crisis but also affect the economy and state business, besides disturbing the cycle of daily life.

‘Public order’ is a tricky term and can be interpreted in many ways.

Whenever such a situation arises in Islamabad, it triggers a debate about the legality of the protests and their political and security-related dimensions. Recently, Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court made important remarks regarding the closure of roads during protests, saying that the right to freedom of expression cannot be exercised by affecting the fundamental rights of fellow citizens. He observed that the state is not only responsible for facilitating the demonstrations, but its foremost responsibility is to protect the fundamental rights of every citizen.

Indeed, this is a critical observation in accordance with Article 16 of the Constitution, which gives every citizen the “right to assemble peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the public interest”. However, maintaining public order during a political crisis is a multifold challenge.

Ensuring public order is a core responsibility of the district administration, and it can deny permission for a demonstration if a party fails to satisfy the administration. The parties often challenge district administration decisions in the courts and get relief in most instances.

In November 2019, the Islamabad High Court observed that a peaceful protest staged by unarmed persons is a constitutionally protected right. In extraordinary and exceptional circumstances, the state can only restrain a person from exercising their right to protest on the grounds of national security. The blockade of the roads is not unlawful in many countries, including India. Interestingly, a supreme court bench in India had given a similar verdict on a petition seeking the removal from the roads of farmers protesting the controversial farm laws in 2020. The court had restrained itself from interfering with the protest in question while observing that “‘there can certainly be no impediment in the exercise of such rights as long as it is non-violent and does not damage the life and properties of other citizens”.

However, the courts in India and Pakistan categorically avoid defining the public order enshrined in their respective constitutions. For example, the Islamabad High Court had recently directed the Capital Police to continue its actions as per the law, in line with the long march call given by the PTI. Law-enforcement departments can interpret it according to the circumstances and open the door for political considerations.

‘Public order’ is a tricky term and can be interpreted in many ways. In the Pakistani context, the police and local administration often use brute force to disperse peaceful protests of teachers, farmers, young doctors and nurses; they do not even spare demonstrations held by those who are visually challenged. The best excuse they have is that the protestors use force to disrupt the public order. However, they react differently whenever religious and political parties launch demonstrations. The religious parties appear more privileged in that regard as local administrations become very confused while dealing with their protests.

Apart from the long history of violent and non-violent political and religious movements in the country, the establishment has remained important for provoking and supporting certain protest movements. It has used both religious and political parties to destabilise governments, which then went out of their control, or to facilitate certain narratives for national and international purposes.

In such cases, policing becomes a complex challenge, and police commands hesitate to fulfil their legal obligations. The civilian governments also use police in such cases as is happening now; the Punjab and KP Police are reluctant to extend their support to the Islamabad Police. The police in the capital are trying to handle the situation alone.

A depoliticised police force is often recommended as the only solution to all internal security challenges, including maintaining public order in times of political turmoil. Such a police force is a long-awaited dream in Pakistan, but neither the government nor the establishment nor judiciary have taken the issue seriously. The police are merely a cushion between them and the masses, and must be held responsible for their failures.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2022

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