Thursday, February 14, 2008

Protest rallies and the right to freedom of expression

Nauman Qaiser- Advocate

In true democracies, peaceful protests are deemed a medium through which ordinary people can voice their concerns about the government polices. These protests are, thus, an embodiment of the power of the rank and file and a beacon of freedom of expression, for which these democracies have fought long-drawn battles. Besides, they provide the necessary feedback to the government, which can rectify its public policies in the light of these concerns. That is why these peaceful rallies are not suppressed viciously the way they are in “fake” democracies like Pakistan.

Saturday’s protest rally in Islamabad by the lawyers and the members of the civil society including students was nothing more than a peaceful and innocent effort to record their resentment at the misguided policies of the Musharraf regime. But the way this rally was stifled smacks of intolerance and lack of awareness of the boons of these rallies on part of the present government. It also shows the double standards of the government, which claims to believe in democracy, but does not allow the peaceful citizens to express their sentiments; instead tear gas, rubber bullets and stones are used by the law enforcement agencies to “greet” the protesters, whose fault is that they desire a genuine democracy with free and independent judiciary in their country.

On top of it all, Mr. Musharraf has the audacity to say in front of the western media that true democracy does not suit Pakistan and its culture; therefore, he proposes, that his brand of controlled democracy should be supported, in which media could be curbed; judges could be deposed, that too in dozens; lawyers and students could be brutally beaten up and arrested; the powerful could disobey the law with impunity; daily food items like flour and sugar could go beyond the reach of the rank and file – all on the pretext of “national interest” and the mantra of “Pakistan comes first”.

A western reader would be bemused to read about this brand of democracy, which has all the requisites of a brutal dictatorship. General (r) Musharraf should, therefore realize that he cannot befoul us by claiming to be a democratically elected president of Pakistan. The rubber stump parliament, pliant beauracracy and the involvement of military in politics does not even give a semblance of a democratic dispensation in the country. In this gloomy scenario, it was the judiciary lead by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mr. Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary, which showed us that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. But, unfortunately, this pillar of the state too was “murdered” brutally.

So what is the future of Pakistan now? Do we really see light at the end of the tunnel? The answer fortunately is “Yes” with a capital Y. But the path to democracy is long and filled with thorns. We need to create awareness among the masses, especially the poor class of the society, of their rights, so they do not sit at homes and curse their destiny for the wronged policies of the government. The middle class, which has been the backbone of the worldwide movements, also needs to realize that without its active participation, we cannot even think of the bringing true democracy in the country. The political parties should also shun the politics of expediency and instead focus on the well being of their voters.

Unfortunately, besides the poor lawyers, who have sacrificed even their bread and butter for the sake of their principles, no section of the society is willing to come on the roads in large numbers to give impetus to the current movement. Until and unless the civil society and the political parties realize their potential to bring true democracy in Pakistan, the lawyers’ effort alone may not bring the desired fruits.

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