Photo: PTI/Twitter
Photo: PTI/Twitter

Governments need to stop fearing Pakistanis' constitutional right to protest

If we've learned anything over the past couple of years, it's that all Pakistani governments fear protests.
26 May, 2022

The Pakistani government fears protests, no matter what party is in power and no matter who is protesting — be it the PTI, PTM, Hazaras or PDM. But to protest is our basic right enshrined in Article 16 of the Constitution of Pakistan. But while the right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed by the Constitution, it is not guaranteed by the government, as we have witnessed in the past 24 hours.

Visuals of tear gas, bloodshed and violence have been pouring in via social media and they should give you pause. Whether you support the PTI or not, you should support democracy and upholding our constitutional right to protest peacefully. Seeing pictures of former Punjab health minister Dr Yasmin Rashid, a cancer survivor and all around badass, grinning as she drives her car to the protest with the windshield smashed show us what a protest should be. They show us that resilience in the face of resistance resounds far more than any act of violence ever can. Even videos of Dr Rashid being harassed by the police show her telling them they should be ashamed of themselves but not resorting to expletives or foul language.

The use of violence — on either side — is condemnable and must be stopped. This is no war zone and both sides have a responsibility to ensure a peaceful protest.

But the greater responsibility lies on the shoulders of the government. If you believe the PTI is wrong and has little support, then let them protest. Let what you believe are their dwindling numbers prove your point rather than reacting with predictable violence and vitriol. How are you any better than your predecessors if you try to quash their resistance? We all have a right to resistance, whether you agree with it or not.

We cannot be sure of who threw the first stone, but the side with tear gas and guns should be the one to exercise more caution. The government may disagree with the PTI's politics and Imran Khan's rhetoric but the people who are on the streets are ordinary Pakistanis. They are men and women and children who are exercising their right to peaceful assembly and do not deserve to be attacked for it just because their politics differ from the incumbent government.

And while the government bears most of the responsibility, the protesters and the PTI also have their part to play. Violence should not be tolerated on either side. A video of a woman, purportedly a PTI supporter, walking alongside a policeman in Lahore and repeatedly calling him a "piece of sh*t" show us the other side of the protest where the law enforcers who are following orders also face harassment. Both sides have a responsibility to ensure civility, if nothing else. The policemen there at the protests are there because it's their job, not because they are supporters of a particular party. To mistreat and demean them is akin to violence as well.

The protesters should also remember that their right is to peacefully protest and ensure that their demonstrations are peaceful.

If there's one thing both sides need to remember, it's do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Mistreating any group of people is a recipe for disaster and something that's going to come back to bite those in power.