The federal government has negotiated a settlement with the protesting government employees to give them increments but it has paid a price for mishandling the issue. The employees had been protesting for many months and demanding that their salaries be increased in the face of the rising cost of living.
However, it was only when they gathered in large numbers to protest against the indifference of the government that the relevant officials woke up to the crisis. The situation took an unfortunate turn when the government decided to use force to disperse the protesters instead of engaging them in talks which it ultimately had to the next day. The scenes in Islamabad’s Red Zone on Wednesday were worrisome. The police unleashed tear gas and batons on the men and women gathered on Constitution Avenue, leaving scores injured. This display of state power against hapless citizens should have been avoided.
The sad part is that such force against demonstrators has become a routine in Pakistan. Governments habitually order the police to rough up citizens and arrest them for exercising their constitutional right to protest. No one was a greater proponent of allowing people to protest than the prime minister himself. While in opposition, he would say repeatedly — and especially during his dharna in Islamabad — that citizens must use this right to express their disenchantment with a government.
On numerous occasions, he had warned the police not to stop the citizens from protesting and even said that if the police did try to apprehend protesters, they should not be deterred. For his government to use the police against peaceful citizens in such a harsh manner is indeed ironic. The excessive use of tear gas and the ensuing violence were a reminder that regardless of who is in power, the state continues to behave in a colonial manner.
This is not confined to the federal government. For instance, in Sindh, the government routinely uses water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets to break up demonstrations. The people making these decisions have little idea that such brutal use of state power is normally the last resort. If the demonstrators are peaceful, there is no justification for using force. The federal ministers who negotiated with the protesting employees in Islamabad have grudgingly acknowledged that state violence should not have happened. However, unless such procedures are reviewed and revised, governments will continue to unleash such force against citizens without much hesitation.
Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2021