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Right to protest

13 Feb 2002

Right to protest

Dr Riaz Ahmed

India and Pakistan are on the brink of yet another war. Like its democratic counterpart in India the military dictatorship of General Musharraf is also not doing much to ease tensions. Pakistanis and Indians are angry at hate-mongering of the governments. Peace rallies are being held in major cities of both countries. The Joint Action Committee, an umbrella group of radical NGOs, socialist organisations and non-NGO peace groups of journalists and professional engineers and statisticians had a successful vigil on Dec 31st at the Karachi Press Club. Encouraged by the response they decided to hold another at Hassan Square, the new city centre. However soon as the protestors gathered on January 7th the police started dispersing them. Some adamant protestors refused to disperse and two were arrested and one bruised. The hundreds who arrived later were turned away. All this brutality took place despite earlier police assurances that sidewalk protest would not be stopped.

Isn't this a usual story? Another issue another protest? Day in and out protesters gather at press clubs around the country and the police allows them a 'side-walk' protest. So what was wrong with the Hassan Square protest? Well, as one of the friends said 'because it was not at the Press Club'.

The question asked by most of the liberals, progressives and those taking the regime of General Musharraf as 'liberal, anti-fundamentalist, anti-war' is that why would this government attack peace-protesters? Isn't the General for peace? Ironically the statement is self-contradictory. The history of the dictator in General Musharraf shows that he and military bosses behind him, in the given circumstances, are playing peace and at other times they have done more to create disruption. Remember those opposing Lahore Declaration, creation of the Kargil debacle, the nuclear explosions? Peace protests have been repressed elsewhere, another example being at Wagah. It will be a folly to expect a military regime to give us the rights it has taken away by imposing military rule. The question here is not that 'why the military regime would attack the peace protesters' but it has to be that 'what causes it to attack all those who criticise, challenge and protest against ruling elite's policies'.

Press clubs are in the quietest old-city areas. Insignificant traffic passes by, working people don't even know where it is unless they have to protest. That way the protests are limited, controllable, manageable. By allowing protests and pictures of protesters the government appears liberal: safeguarding the rights of its critics. Protesters' anger gets vented and initial small numbers of protesters gets demoralised for lack of solidarity.

If protests are held in public places surely not hundreds but thousands will come to know of them. People will get to see the protestors they sometimes notice in print only. The protestors and the passers-by will come into real-life contact. Ideas will be exchanged, debates made and more will join the protestors. The protesters will get solidarity. The passers-by will know that 'some are protesting'. They will realise that protests 'are possible'. This will be a realisation that may radicalise millions into thinking that it is possible to disagree, it is possible to protest. This will be a first step towards real emancipation of the people -- 'an act of the people by the people'.

Rulers in general and military rulers in particular know that to allow protest is to allow people to think about their own lives and to act to change it. Criticism bares open that which is fetishised. Protests concretise this re-thinking of the masses. They usually begin for retaining past reforms. Military rule relies solely on the threat to use force. However a prolonged military rule itself takes away the might conceived in its coercive stance. This is what happened in General Zia's dictatorship. Five years into his rule he was faced with a massive movement for restoration of Democracy. From then on the military ruler had to give in to various demands. This may happen with General Musharraf and more quickly as the state and economy are weak.

Denying the Right to protest does not mean that protests will not take place. In fact the recent protests have proved contrary to that assertion. The more people protest the greater there is a desire to protest more. And if the protesters succeed in getting a demand realised then it gives confidence to argue for more reforms. In the past one year or so radicalisation of our society has intensified. Only last month, schoolteachers in Sindh and Punjab staged massive protests, tens of thousands of land-less peasants protested for land rights in Okara and other areas, college teachers in Karachi protested against denationalisation, university teachers protested against repression, anti-war protests were staged all over the country. And most importantly the peace rally at Wagah on December 31st which was attacked.

Since the war on Afghanistan the protesters movement has intensified. So when India and Pakistan threatened war the peace activists were quick to respond and within days they were at the Karachi Press Club. Within a week they were out there at Hassan Square and the mood was fantastic. New faces, young people and mostly women -- these are the colours and mix of the new movement.

The military regime of General Musharraf is apparently trying to avoid war and by that token the stance of a peace protester may be the same as that of the regime. But that is a coincidence. By design, military is a war machine, a vital protector of the state when faced with a challenge, be it be internal or external. So the military may be against an immediate war but it would not allow people to protest against the war. The military regime does not need people to be awakened about the dangers of war because soon it may need a war to protect itself. By allowing protest now the regime faces the danger of allowing formation of an internal challenge to a future war or against other policies. To protect itself the ruling class has to ensure that its own house is united. The grouping together of the various shades of political and fundamentalist parties around the military government is testament to that unity. By denying people to protest the military regime denies masses an opportunity to group together. They fear that such grouping in turn itself may rise against the ruling group.

World history shows that like all rights the Right to protest is never given by the state; rights are always taken, achieved. The Right to protest is one of the most difficult under military rule. But the new movement of resistance has shown that it is necessary to move beyond Press Clubs, out into the larger places and relate to the masses. It has shown that the Right to protest will never be legitimised by the state. If our lives have to change and we wish to control them then this right need only be legitimised in the minds of masses. Little preaching can help in restoring that realisation, it needs practice. More protests against war, deprivation and denial are the only way that we can challenge fundamentalists, the repressive rulers and gain the Right to protest.

The writer is assistant professor, department of applied chemistry, University of Karachi

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail

20 May 2006

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