Who’s afraid of protests? – 10 Mar 2023

March 8 should have been a day for freedom of protest and freedom of assembly to not just be ‘allowed’ but be celebrated as women took to the streets to peacefully engage in raising a voice for their rights in keeping with International Women’s Day. Things, however, took a completely different – and in one case, an allegedly deadly – turn. The Punjab Home Department decided to impose Section 144 in Lahore, once the PTI’s election campaign rally was announced to also take place on the same day. What ensued is for all to see. Roads were blocked, PTI workers beaten up by the police, water cannons used to ‘disperse’ protesters, and overall a state of chaos in the city. The PTI has also said that one of its workers was killed allegedly at the hands of the Lahore police. It goes without saying that such a disproportionate response to a protest was not just unseemly but a throwback to our dark authoritarian past. Even one life lost at the hands of law enforcement is one too many, and a taint on any government that professes democratic credentials. The incident must be thoroughly investigated and brought to justice.

All this could have been avoided had Section 144 not been imposed and PTI and other rallies allowed to carry on without hindrance. Article 16 of the constitution of Pakistan guarantees the right to freedom of assembly: “Every citizen shall have the right to assemble peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of public order.” Successive governments in the country, both civil and military, have had a less-than-stellar record when it comes to allowing protests to take place peacefully. Whether government workers or farmers, labourers or nurses, teachers or students – whichever government has been in power has favoured an iron hand over negotiation, not realizing that quashing a protest has never led to any kind of peace or reconciliation. Ironically, our governments have meekly allowed regressive protests to block roads and indulge in violence but have never accorded the same treatment to those that have gathered peacefully for political or socio-legal demands.

The way Section 144 was imposed also raises questions about the caretaker setup in Punjab. If a political party is not allowed to campaign when the election schedule has been announced in the province it will naturally lead to doubts about the setup’s impartiality. Instead of passing the buck to just the police and administration, the caretaker government needs to take responsibility for Wednesday’s happenings and an impartial investigation needs to look into the matter. The violence was not limited to Lahore. We also saw how the Islamabad police beat up the participants of the Aurat March. While action has been taken against those officers who baton-charged the women protesters, and they have been suspended, the larger question still looms: if law enforcement itself targets the Aurat March, what hope is there for the safety of women who are already battling hate speech and unfounded attacks by a large section of society? In Lahore, due to Section 144, many participants of the march couldn’t even make it to the event because roads were blocked. And those that did – women, transgender persons, allies – were then faced with belligerent social media personnel or ‘YouTubers’. Whether it be the PTI or the Aurat March, why are government, law enforcement and self-styled gatekeepers of ‘honour’ so afraid of a people’s right to assemble and voice their demands? Even in a minimum democracy, the right to protest must be guaranteed both at the administrative and the private levels. Wednesday was not a good day for democracy.

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