Protests in Democracy


Spearhead Opinion – 15.12.2016

By ShahBano Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

STATE AND SOCIETY: Governance and Protest

Modern democratic principles aspire to enlighten, characterize, and structure society in accordance with political, social, economic, and cultural sentiments. But where the basic features of democracy remain the same throughout the world, they are nonetheless experienced and practiced differently everywhere. In a perfect world, political structures premised on democratic ideals espouse a kind of ‘social contract’ between those in power and those who empower them; between crowds of people and those representing that faceless majority in positions of authority. While this relationship is essential for any meaningful political interaction, there often exists a wide chasm between those advocating a strict interpretation of the ‘rule of law’ i.e. the government, and those who view ‘freedom of expression’ as a fundamental civil liberty i.e. the governed; good governance hangs in the precarious balance between the two.

Anointed by the ‘common man’, states and governments are ordained to not only uphold civil liberties within constitutional parameters, but to also make decisions that affect an aggregate majority. More often, the state dons an ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ stance that caters to most if not all segments of society; yet the practicality of that attitude is somewhat lost when individuals, groups, communities, and masses protest and practice their right to expression. Objection is then turned into dissent; a break in the system, that is not mended, only silenced. States, then, are neither objective nor neutral. Third-world post-colonial states like Pakistan have a somewhat similar bearing. While state atrocities have been plenty over the decades, the governments in power have over the years also contrived a political system that inclines towards corruption, exploitation, and control.

On the other hand, mass demonstration and public protest, while a hallmark of any healthy democracy, is a much more nuanced practice in Pakistan. Where it enables communities to challenge injustice and air out grievances, it also becomes a tool of power and coercion in the hands of politicized groups and individuals. Street power, media attention, and socio-religious networking has facilitated a kind of political culture where ‘mass demonstration’ and ‘protest’ provides marginalized groups access to corridors of power in order to build a relationship with the state. Simultaneously, the same democratic instruments are used by political parties, religious communities, and social groups to assert their own individual agenda on to the state, through the appearance of ‘public sanction’. The right to protest and the expediency of state response in Pakistan should be understood within such a context.

STATE: Governance

Whereas an assessment report released by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) a few months ago pointed out that the PML-N had improved on good governance at a federal level, that is not to say that there have not been instances where the ruling party has come under much pubic condemnation for their  socioeconomic policies and partisan political engagement. While the ruling party has previously not gone scot free as far as accusations of corruption go, now with the Panama Leaks scandal looming above them, allegations of personal aggrandizement and the building up of a massive business empire have dominated the second half of their term. What this has projected to the ‘common man’ bereft of even the basic amenities in life is that welfare is not at the forefront of the state’s concern; that economic policies, budget cuts, foreign reserves, and tax collection does not necessarily trickle down to benefit their lives; that good governance is an ideal, only to be experienced in the quantity of numbers than in the quality of life. It is when the gap between the have and the have-nots reaches a peak point, that protesting social, economic and political injustice does not only remain a ‘right’ of citizens, but becomes an indispensable requirement. The common man rightly thinks that he should be the center of gravity in a demaocracy.

The true measure of good governance is the ability of governments to realize people’s human rights and deliver sustainable and equitable development; it is derived through transparency, accountability, participation, and responsiveness to the needs of the poor, marginalized, and underrepresented groups. Unfortunately ever since the federal government has come into power, it has systematically tried to implement a specific governance model at the national level; one based on a much more centralized and top-down decision making processes, establishing the writ of the leader instead of the writ of the state. Policies are enacted, rules are made; then policies are avoided, and rules circumvented.

If one takes specific examples from  recent political history one can see that  many events cannot be qualified as good governance: the state effectively trampled on human rights by disrupting and killing protestors during the Model Town Tragedy and again by arresting  political workers during the Islamabad sit-in in 2014; while economic growth has been the catchword of the incumbent government’s tenure, the IMF-approved annual budget that was unveiled earlier in the year was singularly championed only by the finance ministry thereby moving funds according to a set plan that is anything but equitable; transparency and accountability seemed to have been by-passed until recently; but more importantly, the government has been less responsive to poor, marginalized, and underrepresented groups: arbitrary compensation under land acquisition for a recently proposed Lahore Orange Line project being one example amongst many.

SOCIETY: Protest

While no national constitution grants the absolute right to protest, non-violent resistance, civil disobedience, mass demonstrations, and economic strikes are nonetheless an inalienable feature of a democratic set up. Citizens are directly involved in shaping national realities in two instances:

1) During an electoral season when choosing representatives,
2) protesting/demonstrating/challenging

Currently, on the one hand Pakistan has recently witnessed protests challenging or objecting to social, economic, and political injustice. While an opposition party’s anti-corruption drive has brought the pressing need for accountability to the forefront, it was only ever possible because of the sheer intellectual capital and the social popularity of its party. Take the example of protesting nurses and doctors who staged a four day sit-in in Lahore’s Club Chowk for four days. What were they protesting? All the government hospitals were protesting was torture against their colleagues in Sargodha and Lahore. Or the more recent example of Chickpea farmers who have clashed with police in Mahni area in the Bhakkar district, over damage to the only good crop of the season caused allegedly by members of the Qatari royal family hunting houbara bustard.

On the other hand, the same channels are used for singular agendas. Take the example of a recent mob that burned down an Ahmadi place of worship in Chakwal protesting the move by the Prime Minister to honor the late physicist and Nobel Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam, a prominent Ahmadi.. The Army and the Police had to be called in  to disperse the mob. Organized hate campaigns against specific communities is nothing new, although why  religiously motivated right wing elements are tolerated begs an answer of its own. But this kind of power politics is not only relayed on vulnerable communities but is also a way for marginalized groups to politically assert themselves. MQM London party workers organized a mass demonstration and sit-in in Karachi’s Azizabad vicinity. Not only did the MQM workers disrupt civic harmony but the protests also turned violent. 

It is often wrongly concluded that protests mean the system of governance is somehow lacking or lagging. In parting, a few words from Javed Jabbar will be enough to illustrate the mutual dependency democracy has on the avenues of remonstration, “Democracy is, by its nature, volatile and turbulent because it seeks to represent all, and not just the most powerful segments of a society. By enabling all sectors of a nation to express themselves, democracy gives the outward impression of being discordant and confused whereas in real terms, democracy is simply being accurately representative of all aspects of public opinion. Therefore, the volatility of democracy is its very strength and not its opposite, its weakness. To acknowledge this is to recognize the substance of democracy instead of being misled by its form or its manifestation which may well be confused as it evolves in time”.