THE scenes witnessed on television screens the other day were a disturbing reminder of state excesses that have 6 been the hallmark of dictatorial regimes. While the capital city`s law-enforcement personnel were baton-charging women marching for their rights, the Punjab police were shelling protesters, destroying private property and beating up citizens gathered to engage in what normally would have been a very ordinary political activity. It is shameful that participants of an Aurat March were assaulted right under the federal government`s nose. It appears that despite the long struggle to create spaces that allow ordinary women to express themselves publicly, the state continues to view them with contempt. The scuffle between the women and police officers reportedly broke out over a vehicle fitted with loudspeakers, which the police wanted to seize. Just what threat the state perceived from those loudspeakers, likely only playing women`s rights slogans, is anybody`s guess. The government can now apologise all it wants, but the fact is that its hyper paranoia is turning it against its own citizens, even if they only remotely threaten its control.
While the action was quick against the low-ranking officers blamed for scuffling with the women in Islamabad, the Punjab regime appeared less remorseful. It must be asked why the caretaker set-up ruling the province felt the need to go to such extremes to thwart an announced political rally. The death of a political worker during the Lahore clashes is particularly concerning. The PTI has claimed the civilian was killed in police custody, and the post-mortem report suggests foul play.
The matter must be investigated thoroughly. It is not for interim Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi and his government to decide which political party can engage in what political activity in Punjab.
That is antithetical to the simple responsibility entrusted to him under the Constitution. Imposing Section 144 on Lahore and then sending in the police with orders to use violence reeks of bad faith.
Two cities, two different examples of organised public expression, met with the same response. The general ugliness of the state`s reaction suggests that those in power are frustrated to the point that they are willing to terrorise ordinary citizens to maintain their control. With the police forces acting as if they have carte blanche against ordinary civilians, there is real danger that future confrontations will spiral into more extreme violence.