What is happening on the streets of Lahore, and all across Punjab, is scarcely believable! Belligerence, instead of democratic values, has become the mantra of all sides. What started off, some months back, as a simple homecoming of Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, has quickly – through highhanded governance on the one hand, and ‘treasonous’ rhetoric on the other – escalated into a confrontation that threatens the very foundations of our democracy.

Simultaneously, having exhausted their patience of clamoring for a recount of (four) electoral seats – with the Parliament, Election Tribunals and the honorable Supreme Court – the PTI, and its supporters, have now decided to express their grievances through a show of force in Islamabad on the 14th of August. Though their specific demands remain a mystery, according to the rhetoric emanating from their leadership, the focus will be on achieving a singular objective: a resignation by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, along with a calling of fresh elections.

And the overarching question confronting all Pakistani citizens and institutions is: how will all of this finally conclude? Will the government finally cave in? Or will these protests and long-marches amount to nothing substantial at all? Will saner heads prevail in the civil and political arena, or will the men in robes, or those in Khaki uniform, once again have to interfere to settle the political squabbling? And what will all this mean for our democracy, the State, and the people of Pakistan?

But before dabbling into these elusive questions, lets be clear about the legal justification (or lack thereof) that exists on both sides of the aisle.

The right to assemble and protest (peacefully) is an internationally recognized fundamental right. In Pakistan, this right emanates from a reading together of four different articles in the Constitution – Article 15 (Freedom of Movement), 16 (Freedom of Assembly), 17 (Freedom of Association), and 19 (Freedom of Speech). And the Constitution meticulously mandates that this right shall be unfettered so long as the demonstration is conducted “peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of public order”. These parameters delineate the thin line that separates a protest from anarchy.

The right to protest, thus, is a fundamental freedom. To do so peacefully is the character of a civil and tolerant society. And the government, subject to reasonable restrictions (in terms of public safety), has no authority to interfere with or prohibit citizens from peacefully assembling to protest their grievances. In fact, to the contrary, the government, under our Constitution and the law, is under an obligation to take all steps necessary to facilitate the citizens in exercising their Constitutional right to protest (even if it is against the Government). The State of Pakistan (including its police force) cannot deprive a group of citizens from their fundamental right to protest peacefully, simply because the protest is aimed against the government of the time.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Constitution and the law mandate that it is the obligation of the government to establish the ‘writ of the State’, especially against such groups that turn to violence. It is also an obligation of the State to protect the lives and property of the citizens, against all forms of threat, including a mob or violent gathering. To this end, even the Constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech (Article 19), prohibits any expression that causes “incitement to an offence”. As such, fiery rhetoric by Dr. TuQ, inciting his supporters to take on the police force, under certain circumstances, and even kidnapping police officials from their homes, cannot stand the test of the Constitution and the law. And the State has every right to protect against such measures and threats.

But the mandate of law aside, I, for one, am unable to understand how Dr. TuQ and PTI hope to achieve their aim of getting the current Prime Minister, and his Cabinet, to resign.

For one, PML(N) is thick-skinned. All indications point to the fact that PML(N) members have no desire to, willingly, give into these pressures and public clamor. They are convinced that it is their ‘turn’ now. And anyone else, who wishes to form a government, should sit quietly, and wait for their turn, come next elections. It is hard to imagine that Chief Minister Punjab, upon witnessing the throngs of PAT supporters gathering in Model Town (and across Punjab), will simply resign. It is almost unfathomable that the Prime Minister, upon looking out of his window to see hundred of thousands of people gathered in Islamabad on the 14th of August, would quietly proceed to dissolve his government and call for reelections.

How then, does Imran Khan or Dr. TuQ expect to achieve their demand of removal of the government?

There are only two possibilities: with the help of the Army, or with an intervention by the honorable Court. Thankfully, the post-Iftikhar Chaudhry judiciary seems to not be concerning itself with the partisan business of picking sides between political parties. As a result, disturbing as it might be, all indications point to the fact that the only way for Imran Khan and TuQ to achieve a removal of the government, is with Khaki intervention. Not necessary through a military coup. But, at least, through some form of indirect nudging.

This, given Pakistan’s history, is an enormously dangerous idea. And all of us – regardless of what side of the political divide we belong to – should be wary of it.

These are dangerous and precarious times for our country, and our democracy. And each citizen has a stake in the matter. Let us hope, and pray, that all of us – individually as well as collectively – make choices that will endure the test of time and of democracy.

Post-script: Dr. TuQ’s rhetoric is persuasive as well as revealing. Listening to him address the media, narrating the account of atrocities against his supporters, one cannot help but develop a certain degree of anger and frustration against the PML(N) government. However, the portion of his speech delivered in English, rendered on Saturday afternoon, was in bad taste. Specifically addressing his “international friends”, Dr. TuQ made sweeping statements about how “every road” and “every bridge” in Pakistan has been blocked. How there is “no such thing as fundamental rights in Pakistan”. How people here – all of them – are dying of hunger and atrocities. And how mass murder, through the barrel of the police force, is being committed as a planned operation, across Pakistan. Notwithstanding the sweeping errors of his rhetoric, the fact that he specifically said this in English, addressing the international community, was absolutely uncalled for. What will this accomplish? Does he want the U.S., and other governments, to help topple the Pakistani government? Does he want a sort of Security Council intervention? Is he really advocating for foreign intervention into our domestic political affairs? And if not, all that this speech of Dr. TuQ has done, is further tarnish the image of Pakistan before the international community. There is no denying that we have grave problems that need a resolution. But we must find a solution to these problems, ourselves. There is no point washing our dirty linen in public.

 The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.

saad@post.harvard.edu

@Ch_SaadRasool