Public Space is a Municipal Issue not Security Issue
Protests, demonstrations and dharnas (sit-in) have become common practice in Pakistan. Any group, be it political or religious can gather a handful of mob and capture the avenues, public spaces, the Capital’s Red Zone or wherever they deem more nuisance can be created. Currently there is a queue of road demonstrations that has been announced by the leaders of different political & religion-political parties in the country. During the past eight months we have also seen two protests that dismissed functional lives of the citizens of the capital city Islamabad. Previously it prolonged over 126 days and this time it spread over a week.
A common argument stands to justify the demonstrations/dharnas’ in the name of democratic and political rights enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan to the people: article 16, freedom of assembly; article 17, freedom of association; article 15, freedom of movement, and article 19, freedom of speech and expression. It is indeed the beauty of democracy that groups and association have the right to peaceful protests and demonstrations. All the models of democracy allow these rights around the globe so is the Constitution of Pakistan. Yet the opponents will argue that at the same time these public demonstrations also violate and restrict other constitutional rights: article 15, freedom to movement; article 9, security of person; article 26, non-discrimination in respect of access to public places; and article 24, protection of property rights, etc.
There is visible tension between the two set of rights. This leads to whimsical administrative orders (local administration, police, rangers, etc). Decisions are largely taken by the administrative positions which are arbitrary and subjective in its nature and bear complete tendency of being partisan or politically motivated that cannot be resolved unless a clear legislative framework is laid down that protects rights of both the pro-protest lobbies and the citizens at large whose lives are forcefully disrupted in public spaces due to protests and assemblies. So far the officials manipulate or handle demonstrations as they wish and the agitators have little respect for the public rights creating huge botheration and a scary and ironic situation in this country.
If we examine the way it has been handled at the state level we may find answers to these questions. Tracing the legacy of our governance structure that comes from British Colonial era could be seen as one of the reasons; where people of the region were treated as subjects and rule of law was framed in that particular order of dealing with the subject by the master. On the other hand, current situation is completely changed. We are a new born democracy where people are citizens of this country and state’s role has to be of servant to its people. Unfortunately we have not gone through revision of governance structure the way it should have been. For example Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance 1960, section 144 of police act that says all kinds of gatherings of five or more persons, processions, rallies and demonstrations at public places, distribution of hand bills and pamphlets, wall chalking, use of loud speakers and display of arms and ammunition within the limits of the federal Capital are prohibited. This law is laid down by the British Colonial Masters – forgetting the fact that even an average family in our society exceeds 5 persons. We see certain amendments to the rules and acts but yet they depict essence of colonial regime. Current scenario is passing through an irony of relationship between government and state structures. This is the second consecutive democratically elected government working within the paradigm of colonial influenced governance structures. All the elected representatives are answerable to the people and they cannot avoid this fact of interacting with lay men, literate, illiterate, friends and foes so on and so forth on daily basis. Contrary to that governance structure is still cannoned within four walls practically out of the reach of common people.
Particularly looking at the dharnas’ picture so far – which is declared as an emergency state of situation, law and order situation – often, the writ of the state seems to be weaker. This is alarming as a security situation, a constant rift mounts between citizens and government & state; it smells of animosity between the two. Police is called upon to disperse the people considering it an offense – though no legislation exists to manage the situation. It’s ridiculous to deal with it under section 144 Police act or consider it an offense. It’s a fundamental human right, political right & constitutional right of the people.
What can be the way forward? I would make a suggestion to mark spaces across the country at district levels for protests – again, this can be seen as administrative point of view that still requires legislation to make it a municipal concern under local governments’ domain rather than police domain. Local government should facilitate it as public issue and citizens’ right to mobility, assembly & expression with logical code of conduct of do’s & dont’s.
Since we like taking examples from developed countries as Great Britain and United States of America very recently there was a protest against British Prime Minister where large number of peaceful protesters gathered holding play cards and wearing costumes, were allocated marked space and usually a fence is put along side roads for the peaceful demonstration which no one can cross. In case of violation to the marked space strict rule of law is applied without discrimination. Another recent example is of Washington DC demonstration by Democracy Spring where 400 citizens’ were arrested due to “unlawful demonstration activity” that was a protest against the relevant authorities. Since they have gone through legislation to facilitate their citizens’ they can apply strict rule of law in case of violation.
Peaceful protests and demonstrations are never wrong. Legislation can make distinction between a mature democratic act of expression/demand or nonsense nuisance of mob lying on public properties & roads producing garbage & filth, damaging public properties, destroying country’s image and dismantling lives of thousands of citizens with equal rights but out of those sit ins’.