Reverberations of the brawl that took place in the Punjab Assembly are likely to haunt the parliamentary chambers for some time
n Pakistan, democratically elected governments are always haunted by the million-dollar question: Will they be able to complete their five-year term in office? That’s because no prime minister in the history of the country has lasted that long in power. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) led federal government recently met the same fate, in the wake of a successful no confidence motion brought about by an animated alliance of opposition parties with diverse and often competing ideologies. In the Punjab, this brought an untimely end to Sardar Usman Buzdar’s tenure as chief minister.
The day Buzdar’s successor was to be elected, the assembly turned into a nasty battlefield. Several members resorted to physical violence, many more to verbal slurs, subverting the decorum of the assembly. Some of the members on treasury benches tossed lotas (that had been eerily smuggled inside) at Deputy Speaker Dost Muhammad Mazari and their party colleagues expected to vote against the party line. Several members surrounded the deputy speaker’s table and some manhandled him. Besides, they raised slogans against him and the opposition members. A harassed Mazari was rushed out of the hall and guards were called in to control the situation.
The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the Sergeant at Arms, who is well supplied to maintain order in the House, was unable to stop the unruly members and the presiding officer was forced to seek help from the police.
Rowdy behaviour and violence are not new to lawmakers in Pakistan. In 1958, Shahed Ali Patwary, the then deputy speaker of the East Pakistan provincial assembly had died after being injured in a brawl. However, the kind of eccentric behaviour the Punjab Assembly witnessed recently is unprecedented, to say the least. Talking to this scribe, PML-N’s Salma Butt said, “In civilised nations such incidents are seen not only as a violation of the constitution and assembly rules but also the spirit of democracy.”
Butt said Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, the speaker of the assembly and a candidate for chief minister, played “a very disappointing role. As things heated up, he called in his people who weren’t supposed to be on the floor of the House. We tried to push them back. In all this, he too got injured.”
About the lotas thrown at the Chair, she said, “It reminded me of Taliban’s entry into the Afghan presidency.”
Butt further said, “We are the elected representatives of the public. When they (the people) see us behaving in such a manner what are they going to take away from it? […] Fawad Chaudhry’s tweet in which he prophesied civil unrest was quite provocative, too.”
For their part, the PTI and its allies have defended their behaviour, saying it was their right to protest. MPA Momina Waheed (of PTI) said, “The deputy speaker entered the hall with 40-odd bodyguards; that’s when we reacted. There’s absolutely no justification for bringing personal bodyguards to the assembly.”
She said that throwing lotas at him was wrong, but said that was prompted by the guards entering the hall with the deputy speaker.
“When a DSP entered the House, I told him that we’d sort out the issue, but soon we saw about 700 policemen barging in. They started beating up and arresting our MPAs. [MPA] Aasia Amjad was injured; she is on a ventilator as we speak.
“How could we even know if they were from the Police Department or private guards in police uniform?” she said.
The question arises as to why the assembly’s own guards were unable to control the situation. An assembly official revealed on condition of anonymity, “The police can enter the assembly only if the speaker or deputy speaker permit it as the last resort. The assembly guards do not have the riot gear needed to bring a really bad situation under control.”
The official recalled an incident in 1995, in which the then deputy speaker, Mian Manzoor Mohal, despite pressure and protests from the MPAs, read out the entire 54-page document that he was supposed to read out, but didn’t call the police.
According to Hassan Kamal Wattoo, a lawyer and newspaper columnist, “Articles 106 to 128 of the constitution, which deal with provincial assemblies, are silent on the entrance of law enforcement agencies into the assembly hall, or the consequences thereof. Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi was quick to point out that never in Pakistan’s history had police entered the PA. However, this assertion was made without reference to any constitutional provision, statute or case law to support the notion that it is unlawful for the police to enter.
“The Speaker’s contention is likely predicated on longstanding tradition rather than a legal prohibition. Given that the Speaker has the power to issue production orders for a parliamentarian to attend a session if he has been arrested, it would make sense for the police to not feel the need to enter the assembly to begin with. The violence we witnessed, though, was unprecedented. It appears that the police felt that the response had to be as well.”
Regarding the action against the culprits, Wattoo says, “Once the situation descended into violence, it fell outside the democratic process and in the purview of criminal law. Every individual involved in violence that day is liable to criminal prosecution. Their status as a member of provincial assembly does not shield them from this beyond the possibility of production orders. The law shall take its course as it would for anyone else.”
He says a “court could interfere in such matters for the same reasons that they would deal with anyone else partaking in mass physical violence. The difference here is that in addition to the individuals being assaulted our democracy and the sanctity of our constitution were targeted too. It is up to the courts to deal with the latter offences.”
The writer is a freelance journalist