The government has arrested hundreds of people for vandalism after countrywide protests against the release of a blasphemy-accused. The way the government writ was challenged and state institutions were ridiculed points towards serious flaws in governance and sent wrong signals to the world about Pakistan.
Hundreds of vehicles and shops were torched during the three-day sit-ins and the protesters dispersed only after the government signed an agreement with them after paralyzing the whole country for three days. Under the agreement, the government agreed to initiate the legal process to place blasphemy accused Asia Bibi’s name on the exit control list (ECL), not to oppose a review petition filed against the Supreme Court’s judgment against her acquittal, take appropriate legal action to redress any deaths during the protests and release all people picked up in connection with the protests starting from October 30. The protest leaders, in turn, only apologised if they had “hurt the sentiments or inconvenienced anyone.”
In fact, they had not only used abusive language publically against Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan Chief Justice Saqib Niar and Prime Minister Imran Khan, but also warned them of dire consequences. The army was purposefully dragged into the case to malign it when it had noting to do with it. A Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) leader called for “mutiny” against the army’s top brass and the assassination of judges of the Supreme Court. Prime Minister Imran Khan was also not party to the case but he was accused of working for the “Jewish” lobby. Sedition cases have been registered against protest leaders but they have not been arrested. Only their followers were arrested. As a damage control measure after surrendering to the protesters, the government announced that it had no plan to place Aasia Bibi’s name on the exit control list or file an appeal for a review against the verdict.
The tame surrender of the government was critcised even by its own ministers. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry agreed the pact with the protesters was “firefighting” and not a permanent solution to the larger problem of extremism. “We need to take steps against extremism, we need to take steps against such kind of violent protesters and we need to come up with a permanent solution. Right now this is not a cure. It is just firefighting, but the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government is committed to the cure,” he told the BBC. Minister for Human Rights Dr. Shireen Mazari also highlighted the dangers of “appeasing non-state actors”. In her Twitter message, she said, “Appeasement to avoid bloodshed in a war-weary Europe led to massive bloodshed and destruction in the form of World War II. Appeasement to avoid bloodshed sends a dangerous message to non-state actors and undermines the very concept of democratic, peaceful protest. The state has to enforce rule of law, Constitution and stand by national institutions, especially when they are targeted. Prime Minister Imran Khan should deliver on his commitments to the rule of law, Constitution and defence of state institutions as well as to human rights guaranteed in the Constitution, not just in the present situation, but also on issues like enforced disappearances.”
The government’s abject submission was shocking, especially after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s address to the nation, in which he announced complete support to the Supreme Court and warned the protesters against taking the law into their own hands. In his televised address, he hit out at religious hardliners and appealed for calm. “They are inciting you for their own political gain, you should not get trapped by them for the sake of the country, they are doing no service to Islam. We will protect public properties and lives, we will not allow any sabotage, we will not allow any traffic to be stopped,” he added. However, it all proved rhetoric and the public was left at the mercy of the protesters.
The disturbances have left many serious questions for the leadership of the country about its security, stability and economy. Pakistan is ranked at the bottom of an index that measures 194 economies on the basis of the likelihood of disorderly transfer of government power, violent demonstrations, armed conflicts, social unrest, international tensions, terrorism, and ethnic, religious or regional conflicts. Only three countries, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, were below Pakistan in 2016 on the Global Economy.com index on political stability and absence of violence. According to estimates, the protests cost the national economy over Rs150 billion. Business activities at the ports were suspended and fuel shortage loomed as the supplies were halted in major cities including Karachi and Lahore. Vegetable markets were also closed for three days while the supplies of medicines were disturbed due to the closure of medicine markets. The train service also remained suspended.
It is clear that the government could not use force to disperse the protesters but a free hand should not have been given to people to vandalise public property. Hundreds of cars, trucks and motorcycles were torched. The language used against the national institutions was unacceptable. Only enemies of the country could do this. Successive governments have surrendered to protesters, who take to the streets in the name of religion, but their real agenda is political gains. Everybody has the right to protest against anything, but it should be peaceful. Every violent protest in Pakistan ends with an agreement with the government, leaving behind a trail of destruction of property, closure of roads and highways and massive disruptions to the daily life of citizens. The government will have to break the cycle. It will have to enforce its writ to save the dignity of national institutions and improve the country’s image in the world.