In early January, when Major General Asif Ghafoor, the military spokesman, reached out to the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and asked its members to work with them to help fulfil PTM’s demands- it was a hopeful sign for human rights activists that the establishment had finally adopted a conciliatory approach towards the legitimate grievances of the protesters. Reaching out to the aggrieved PTM members was the right way to go about the issue of a segment of society feeling disempowered- and extending a hand of friendship was in the best interests of both the State and PTM.

Unfortunately, it seems that both groups have gone back to being confrontational with each other, with the government adopting the more aggressive stance. The Sindh Police on Monday booked several leaders and workers of the PTM in a terrorism case and arrested one of the organisers of a rally the PTM had staged on Sunday.

The reason why these arrests have prompted criticism from civil society is that the circumstances behind the charges under which the arrests were made are circumspect. The arrests did not follow the standard procedure that is adopted under the CrPc. The charges under which the PTM members have been booked, of “punishment for rioting”, “promoting enmity between different groups” “obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions” “punishment for defamation” and “statements conducing to public mischief” have been interpreted vaguely and are easy to misuse; to arrest PTM members under the ATC courts is to undermine the very serious crimes for which the ATA 1997 was passed. For now, the only basis for arresting PTM seems to be that its members organised a rally, which Sindh Police contends “created an atmosphere of fear and chaos”. Ironically it could be argued that irregular arrests create an atmosphere of fear more than the PTM rally.

Adopting irregular procedure for arrests and making light of the ATC courts is not an effective retaliation by the government. It cannot be denied anymore that PTM is a popular movement and these arrests will not dampen it. The more practical move for the government would be to work with the PTM members- particularly with the two PTM leaders who are also members of parliament. The state built much goodwill among Pashtuns when it extended a hand of friendship- it is prayed that this goodwill does not go to waste and both sides tone down their rhetoric and confrontation to work with each other.