As I wrote these lines, Islamabad was still under siege. A handful of activists from two religious groups were holding close to eight million people of the twin cities hostage. The senseless protest has already taken the life of an eight-month-old child, who could not be taken to hospital in time for medical treatment because of the road blockades. Despite the tragedy and public suffering, the government has done precious little.
Instead of dealing with protesters strictly according to the law, the authorities have placed shipping containers and roadblocks. If the number of protesters was in the tens of thousands, the panic within government circles would have been understandable. Therefore, it does not make any sense that the government abdicates its authority in the face of a few hundred individuals. The plausible reason behind the government’s reluctance to take the protesters head on is attributed to the fear of a backlash.
Having said that, no matter what may be the excuse, the state cannot and must not allow a small number of people to hijack the entire government machinery and society. For so long, Pakistan has tolerated these zealots, who often use religion as a tool to further their agenda. There are many holy cows in our society but clerics arguably are at the top for getting preferential treatment from the state despite their mockery of the law and the Constitution.
Remember the Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz who could not be convicted despite facing several terrorism-related charges. He is now living a comfortable life. There are also many other such instances where the law has failed to take its course. Such bad examples have surely emboldened other clerics and gave them the licence to challenge the writ of the state.
The spectacle of sit-in in the heart of Islamabad also speaks volumes of our failure to implement the National Action Plan against terrorism and extremism. Pakistan may have achieved phenomenal success in the fight against terrorism by eliminating their hideouts and sanctuaries in the tribal areas, but it is far from winning the battle against extremist mindsets. It is this extremist ideology that makes the country still vulnerable.
Rumours are doing the rounds that these religious groups are being propelled to dent the vote bank of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in the next general elections. The Tehreek-e-Labaik rose to prominence in the recently-held by-election in Lahore. The group’s candidate secured more votes than the Peoples Party’s contestant. Similarly, in the Peshawar by-poll, the group managed to make its presence felt. Let’s hope their protest is not part of any such ‘dirty game’ because Pakistan cannot afford to commit another blunder.
The standoff, nevertheless, warrants urgent steps by all state institutions. First, the government needs to establish its writ at all costs. Second, there is a need for urgent legislation to set rules for protests and sit-ins. Everyone has the democratic right to protest for their voices to be heard but this liberty must not be allowed to impinge on the fundamental rights of others.
To ensure this balance, a place needs to be designated for protests in the capital. The Parade Avenue can fulfill that purpose as political parties have often used the venue for public rallies and demonstrations. Anyone violating the code of conduct must be punished. Third, the Supreme Court also needs to step in since it is a matter of public importance and at stake are the fundamental rights of majority of the people. The apex court can tell the government to restore normalcy if it continues to look the other way and fails to discharge its legal and constitutional duty.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2017.