The freedom of speech and expression entitles everyone to protest within certain parameters of law. Peaceful protests to express grief, to mourn or to propose demands are welcomed because such efforts are an evidence of the public’s cognizance and are considered a way to reach out to the authorities that perhaps are otherwise not approachable.
Given the current state of affairs in Pakistan, with inflationary pressures squeezing the leftover life out of the public, ethnic cleansing wiping out entire generations of families, civilian killings by drone strikes and unemployment, congregations of people protesting has become an extremely common sight.
Being a devout preacher and advocate of human rights, I personally believe that people when feel that they have been wronged and denied justice, have the right to protest and raise their voices so that their issues can be addressed. I also understand that the plight of victims of the injustices of our system is difficult to be curtailed, which is why protests seem an appropriate outlet to discharge human emotions.
However, protests when turned violent or protests that disrupt business and day-to-day operations of any entity and harm public interest in general should not be taken as tools to manipulate figures of authority and government officials.
The recent protest which took the entire country by storm was the one organised by nurses and paramedical staff, who were very rightly demanding an increase in their wages and perks from the government. Though the protest and subsequent march were peaceful, it was unnecessarily and very inhumanely disrupted by police officials, who attacked female paramedical staff with water cannons. Additionally, the three children who lost their lives because of the absence of paramedical staff remain an unpardonable offence.
In order to serve our own interest, which perhaps is only human nature, we tend to disregard the welfare of other people who do not play any role in the injustices carried out against us. People who are killed or injured in the aftermath of protests, staged against any form of unfairness, are also citizens of the same country and are perhaps embroiled in their own struggle to survive as individuals and families.
Whilst talking to a friend who works for Karachi Electric Supply Company as a Manager and has been a victim of multiple protests organised by the labour union, also called CBA, said on condition of anonymity, “The first and most violent protests occurred on January 20, 2011. Our head office at Sunset Boulevard was ransacked by leaders and representatives of the labour union.”
“They started pelting stones at the building which is made of glass. They invaded the parking lot, attacked and torched our cars, vandalised property and left us all in a state of shock. All I remember is shrapnel and shards of glass scattered everywhere and bashed cars which were beyond repair. When they left the premises of our office, not a single car, door or window was intact,” she added
“I understand that their contract was terminated and they were angry towards the management but what was our fault? We are also a part of the same unfair system and have no say in the management’s decisions, then why punish us?”
Shortly, the head office and other regional offices of the utility provider were shut for over a month whereas the issue, along with the violence, still resurfaces from time to time.
We have a tendency to blame most of our wrongs on illiteracy and lack of awareness; however, it is not unwise to say that students, who are considered the epitome of knowledge and tolerance, are involved in the same hooliganism. Storming into restricted regions of educational institutions and vandalising school property to influence the administrations are not new stories in our society either.
Organisations and government agencies, that feel threatened by the presence of miscreants, seek judicial help and request the court to impose section 144. Section 144 of the penal code of Pakistan clearly states that a group of more than four people cannot gather outside main operational centres of an organisation that has requested for security under the aforementioned clause. This clause is found to be futile in many cases.
The question is when we assault and hurt other people; do we not realise that they could also be victims of the same system? Why is it that our plight always supersedes everyone else’s woes? Isn’t it irrational to be aggressive towards people who not only cannot help you but are most probably looking for help themselves?
I am not against protests provided they adhere to the legal framework and do not harm anyone. Perhaps silent protests are far more effective than violent demonstrations because they do not invite retaliation. Candlelight vigils, circulation of brochures, signing petitions and wearing black bands, to shed light on an issue, are possibly the best ways to ‘be heard, not hurt’. Resorting to peaceful means to reach out to the silent majority can be essentially important and can bring more citizens on-board.
Hence, it is consequential to focus on evicting the problem collectively, and not the people or their property — the sooner we realize that, the better.