On Sunday, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had some ominous news. He believed, that Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain’s recent statement, was tantamount to waging war against the country. A serious charge no doubt, but his explanation of this ‘war’ was a little underwhelming to say the least: “Sarcastic poems were read against the armed forces of Pakistan and accusations were levelled against the army.”

Unpleasant as they might be, the MQM chief’s poems do not amount to war; neither does his criticism of the armed forces or his appeal to international bodies for relief. Eroding Altaf Hussan’s vicelike grip on Karachi is an exigent goal, but that does not mean all liberties of democratic discourse can be ignored. Furthermore, the country would be grateful to the Minister for not fanning hyper-nationalism – there is already enough of that fermenting.

Chaudhry Nisar says the government is contemplating a blanket ban on Altaf Hussain’s speeches in the country. While it may free us from Bhai’s tortured verse and stale delivery, it would also set a dangerous precedent. Criticism, in all forms and medium, is the bedrock of democracy. Without it the public can’t make decisions, the parliament can’t debate laws and the media can’t scrutinise the institutions. If Altaf’s attack on the army, his appeal to foreign institutes, and his permanent presence outside the country makes him liable for punishment, then Asif Ali Zardari – another individual who fits all three categories – must be punished too. If criticism of state institutes earns you a blanket ban, then most politicians should pack up and head for the hills, including the Interior Minister himself. Almost all deride the parliament, the ECP, the Supreme Court, the police or the bureaucracy, on a daily basis.

Altaf Hussain is just making himself as much of a nuisance as possible. However, people like Chaudhry Nisar reacting in this zealous manner only play into his hands, giving him another reason to say that the government always targets him unfairly.