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February 16, 2020

Tolerating protest

Editorial

 
February 16, 2020

Security forces and those who issue orders to them have failed over many years to learn that in a democracy debate and peaceful protests must be accepted as a right of citizens. In the past, we have seen batons being used against protesting teachers and water cannons turned on nurses in Sindh and Punjab. A short while ago students and activists demanding basic rights were charged with sedition and terrorism and arrested in Islamabad, Lahore and other cities.

This cycle of damaging behaviour continues unchecked. On Wednesday, unarmed protesters including students from the Bolan Medical College and the All Pakistan Clerks Association had to face policemen bearing batons near the Balochistan Assembly in Quetta. The protesters, who included men and women and both the old and young, simply sought a chance to make their voices heard so that their various grievances could be addressed by public representatives. Instead around a hundred protesters, including young women, were arrested and taken to a police station. It is unclear on what ground they were held or if charges have been filed against them. This is extremely unfortunate. In all democracies, protests take place at regular intervals. Mature democracies have learnt to accept these and treat protesters with respect or at least tolerance by listening to their objections. By resorting to brutality, we simply make the anger felt by people worse, and limit opportunities to solve the issues in a calm and dignified manner.

Such blatant abuse of power by the police has to be stopped. There are many ways to control protests if participants are moving too close to sensitive zones; one does not have to attack them with weapons or carry out mass arrests. This has happened again and again in all our major cities. It is essential that policymakers ensure required training is offered to security personnel enabling them to handle protests without violence. It is especially ironic that we are often willing to tolerate hate speech or other unlawful acts but not peaceful protests by citizens who are genuinely concerned about their livelihood, their right to education and to receiving enumeration for their services. This attitude needs to change if a relationship of trust is to be built between citizens and the state so that both can work together and establish a system that benefits all stakeholders.