Protestors, to get the message across, learn your rights
A lathi charge was called on and tear gas thrown at the women and children protesting against the Abbas Town tragedy.
The peaceful demonstration for the Abbas Town tragedy at Teen Talwar on Monday, under the calligraphic engravings of Quaid-e-Azam’s motto, was bound by faith and discipline. Around 50 people gathered at the roundabout, holding placards which called for peace and justice - but the day didn’t have a happy ending.
The small crowd of 30 to 35 people that stayed post-maghrib was asked repeatedly to disperse by the police. At first, they were told that they would not be provided security until 7:30pm, but people responded that they would stand at their own risk. Later, they were informed about a ‘mob’ on its way to wreak havoc, followed by news of a terrorist threat. Four police vans arrived outside the nearby markets but the crowd refused to disperse.
At about 8pm, traffic was cordoned off by the police vans so that the area around Teen Talwar was completely isolated. In 15 minutes, there was a bitter verbal exchange between some of the demonstrators and police - and within five minutes, there was a lathi (baton) charge.
Tear gas was fired at the demonstration, which mostly consisted of women and a few young students, who eventually dispersed. By 8:45pm, it was almost as if nothing ever happened.
In this unfortunate chain of events, it is evident that the group meant well, but lacked the unity and organisation required for any demonstration. To begin with, there was no leader - these were a miscellaneous group of people who were unsure about their goals and strategy.
Moreover, their agenda was unclear - were they continuing the day’s earlier fund collection, was it a dharna, was it exclusively for Shias or for Sunnis as well, and was there a list of demands that were being set forth.
What was also problematic was that these protesters were unaware of their rights. Article 16 of the Constitution prescribes that,
‘Every citizen has the right to assemble peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of public order.’
Since a handful of people posed no threat to public order and did not even disrupt the traffic, a call for restriction was not reasonable.
Pakistan has recently ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which requires the state to ensure the safety of its citizens and maintain law and order, in particular to prevent the loss of life or other personal or material damage and which recognises the right of peaceful assembly.
“No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
This proves that since the Course Section 144 was not invoked, the lathi charge and tear gas was completely uncalled for.
What is needed is a concerted effort to inform the citizens about their inherent right to protest and demonstrate within the legal set-up allowed to them under the Constitution. This could be done through pamphlets and websites so that the next time a group of people, however small, congregates to register their presence, they are united, with a common sense of purpose.
It was highly unfortunate that these people at Teen Talwar were dealt with so violently. But such is the state of affairs. It is up to the people to bring about a change - perhaps a small group of thoughtful and committed individuals that, as Margaret Mead reminds us, is the only force that has ever brought about significant change in the world.
The writer would like to thank Asad Jamal for helping provide some details of the legalities of protest for the purpose of this article.