Clearly the past few days’ developments on the streets in some parts of Pakistan in an unprecedented way demonstrated the ability of agitating crowds and groups to threaten, intimidate and harm other citizens, to paralyze normal life and to undermine law enforcement by violently attacking the police. The scale was unprecedented as was their ability to wreak rampant violence, which we saw in the form of viral social media posts.
While peaceful protest is constitutional, violent protests that hold citizens and the state hostage and make unreasonable demands are not. Yet Pakistan’s present is full of examples where decision-makers – elected or unelected – have either ignored or even encouraged such violence and unconstitutional protests that have often attacked other citizens.
Interestingly, not much was said by the current government’s representatives regarding the situation in the country – even after the cabinet session. In the press conference after the cabinet the discussion was primarily on finance and politics; however, finally in response to a question Minister Fawad Chaudhry did say that all would be well and that no one can dictate terms to the government.
The TLP supporters’ love for our Beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is naturally entirely shared in the country and beyond. In the recent situation, though, they (the TLP) were misled and misguided – holding the people of Pakistan hostage, attacking state functionaries, opting for violence and demanding a policy action. In November 2017, during the PML-N government they misunderstood a small phrase-change which led to their first sit-in at Faizabad during which they had blocked traffic etc. However, to diffuse the situation the government of the time relented, the institutions engaged with them and as law-breakers they (the TLP) faced no penalty. Opposition parties of the time – including the PTI – spoke in their favour.
The same situation was repeated in 2018 after the Aasia Bibi judgement. The government diffused the situation by promising to put Aasia Bibi’s name on the ECL. Similarly, in 2020 TLP leaders demanded the French ambassador’s ouster as well as other measures of censure in bilateral ties between France and Pakistan. The government agreed to the TLP demands in a written statement signed by government ministers, and recently the deadline for taking the matter to parliament was moved to April 20. Finally, a few days back the current TLP leader issued a video message announcing a country-wide strike on April 20 if the matter were not taken to parliament. This was followed by a crackdown. Which was then followed, on Wednesday night, by the government announcing it is banning the TLP.
The fact is that discussion and dialogue is acceptable – but not threats. The state’s writ cannot be challenged. In any case, the government says that the matter regarding the diabolical French president has been raised vociferously by Pakistan with the French and globally as well, including passage of an OIC resolution.
There are several issues that arise from the recent TLP protests. Three are important. One, the constitutional right to protest given to every citizen in Pakistan is a right that must operate within parameters that do not undermine the rights of other fellow citizens. If a group or party chooses to hold protests that mean blocking off roads, preventing medical aid to the seriously ill and preventing the public from going about their daily lives then they are not practising their right to constitutional protest.
This has also been expressed in judgments of the highest court in the country as recently as 2020 when the JUI-F had organized its anti-government dharna. Even before during the PTI’s 2014 long dharna, the Supreme Court had issued similar orders allowing parliamentarians access to parliament when the PTI had blocked the area around parliament. Similarly, during the lawyers movement in 2006 the administration had moved into several places to disrupt gatherings which it argued were hindering normal traffic.
Two, the right to protest in order to force policy change also needs to be examined. A policy that undermines the fundamental rights of citizens or a group interest which is guaranteed by the constitution of Pakistan appears to be a valid point for protest. However, would it be valid to protest to demand a change in foreign policy? Foreign policy is the business of the government and the state and the question of whether the conduct of foreign policy is supportive of the citizens of a country and promotes their interests and fundamental rights is determined by how policy decisions in the realm of foreign policy help promote the interests of a citizen as safeguarded in the constitution of Pakistan.
There is also a complex context, bilateral and global, within which foreign policy is conducted. Bilateral and international law, treaties and agreements influence policy decisions and how they impact national interest. Foreign policy decisions cannot be dictated by unreasonable anger on the streets.
This ought to be the business of the government and parliament where all national interests and fundamental rights including the right to uphold all principal elements of faith in the highest esteem – as every government has done whenever the issue of blasphemous disrespect has risen.
Three, the confused and twisted approaches of elected and unelected decision-makers have often rendered the business of state weak and detrimental to Pakistan’s interest. These decisions have to be discussed using parliamentary forums including parliament, committees and cabinets.
Often – to control policy decisions – the protest route was taken by those who chose to patronize sub-state groups. Such practices, snowballed in the Afghan jihad period, reached a high in recent years. We hardly seem to have learnt any lessons from the Lal Masjid tragic debacle. Hopefully, now we will – given that there are multiple internal and external compulsions to change our blundering ways of the past.
Powerplay has often trumped the compulsion to establish rule of law, with such groups engaged in power contests with the incumbents – and often patronized by institutions historically engaged in said powerplay. Such groups have had utilitarian use in the realm of national security as well.
In a region where sub-state actors have been used by states against each other against each other as foreign policy tools, state patronage would be inevitable. Perhaps the political journey of the TLP, it’s contest and protest against the Nawaz Sharif government, the understanding and support it got from different groups and institutions, the subsequent engagement and agreement it had with the current government and where it stands today – all most profoundly illustrates the missteps taken in the past and the consequent problems that we face today.
The past has been complex, and to some extent self-destructive, when it comes to the government and the state trying to establish rule of law. The question now is if all those involved in Pakistan’s powerplay have concluded definitively that patronizing, pushing or deploying sub-state groups to fight internal power battles is a way of the past.
Tail piece: Fortunately, it is given to the human race to opt for correction and go back to the drawing board to produce a better model by re-imagining, redesigning and re-implementing. However, it takes great leadership to ensure that. Pakistan is in no shortage of that, provided no sinister game playing stops it from happening.
The writer is a senior journalist.