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VIEW: Rallies are like Russian Roulette (2007)


As early warning signs of potential unrest preceded the proposed Karachi rallies of 12th May 2007, the consequences of a newly acquired affliction with the rally-syndrome became glaringly obvious on 12th May 2007. Granted that the mayhem witnessed in Karachi or the tragic conclusion of a rally in Charsadda is more of an exception than the norm, given the post 9/11 scenario, the old adage of safety in numbers no longer applies. Besides, the inconvenience faced by the people makes the concept irksome while its management makes the process dated. Notwithstanding the constitutional right of citizens to hold demonstrations or address congregations, places like Islamabad end up being sealed, Karachi is left in an appalling political mess and NWFP has to deal with the tragedy of Charsadda.

Polls will find that people like us are not in favor of rallies; and judging from the way they can end up, it is fairly easy to see why. There is an inherent flaw in the way demonstrations are ‘done’ here and this is what sets us apart from other parts of the world. Rallies are not uncommon elsewhere but they generally follow procedures and seldom hold up the lives of ordinary citizens. Take USA for instance where protestors are expected to remain in designated areas, the perimeters of which are patrolled by police. The sensitivity of a situation determines the level of police turnout and in any case demonstrations are restricted to areas easy to patrol; and oh yes, brandishing weapons is the prerogative of the police (plainclothes or otherwise) and not civilians.

Admittedly, the violence such as we witnessed lately may not be typical of protest marches here, however, when things go well in Pakistan, people still lose one (or two) working days, their liberty to wander the streets and peace of mind. Even the most peaceful of demonstration does not alter the lock down situation imposed on the populace so when rallies have been planned, it is advisable to put your own plans on hold. And since a day of protest can broaden into a couple of more days of strikes, imagine the losses faced by businesses, corporations and educational institutes. Whatever motivates these protests, be it theological, ideological or political, an assessment of recent events confirms that the effects and aftermath of rallies cost far too much in terms of human life, financial implications aside.

It has already been established that ‘actions’ of some law enforcement elements aggravated the problems in Islamabad on the 16th of March 2007 while their inaction fueled anarchy in Karachi on 12th of May 2007 ; nevertheless, a quick roundup of the aftereffects of recent demonstrations will show their impact on society and why the directive issued by the US embassy in Karachi during the events of 12th May 2007 where they advised American citizens to remain ‘indoors, alert and self-defensive’, is just as relevant for the locals.

As ominous headlines of a sealed Capital preceded the judicial demonstration on 16 March 2007, the ensuing disturbance, though limited to a few areas, left several twin cities residents confined at home and the blockade of Islamabad-Rawalpindi highway left others stranded elsewhere. Life remained partially paralyzed on both 16th and 17th of March despite the absence of an officially declared holiday and people packed up early fearful of a deteriorating situation. While actual lives may not have been in danger that day, the impact of events was powerful enough to restructure the organized lives of residents and visitors alike.

Since security threats mandate banning demonstrations anywhere , a place like Karachi haunted by a past of ethnic violence did not deserve the provocation of not one but two(or more) demonstrations. Though similar rallies had been pulled off successfully elsewhere in the country, the fact remains that like Russian roulette, it is a matter of time before one comes up against a loaded shell.

Even when the planned rallies were prevented from taking place, their disabling influence could be witnessed at significant junctions like Karachi’s Quaid-e-Azam International Airport or Railways where travelers had harrowing tales to tell while Shahra-e-Faisal was used for target practice and trigger happy goons ruled the city. As it is, airports are generally off limits to demonstrations so a large contingent of people headed there amounts to potential civil unrest. It would have been far more sensible to converge at other places and proceed without the accompanying fanfare than to disrupt the lives of citizens. The concentration of terror in areas like Shahra-e-Faisal previously deemed secure shook people up as much as the images of police in the role of spectators.

The disruptive influence of rallies mounts further with strikes and black days called to protest/mourn violence that mars one protest march or the other and thus Karachi was brought to a standstill for 3 days while the rest of the nation observed a sympathetic shut down. Strikes target the economy, such demonstrations can impair peace and both effectively shutdown the system.

Finally, the Aftab Sherpao congregation in NWFP on 28 April 2007 proved that public gatherings make appealing targets in these troubled times and there is no reason to provoke attacks that are hard to foresee and harder to prevent. Therefore, toning down these marches would be a mark of prudence not cowardice and well within the publics’ interest.

After the predicted happened in Karachi, a month long ban has now been imposed here when limiting such gatherings should have been the logical first step. Demonstrations such as these, wherever they are held in Pakistan, often have the unfortunate side effect of citizens being forced to reschedule their lives. That Karachi security should have been beefed up is already being debated and will be till some satisfying explanation is forthcoming; devising effective contingency plans to avoid a recurrence must take center stage amid the usual accusations hurled back and forth by alleged anarchists and supposed pacifists.

Karachi has already lost three days, precious lives and the carefully built up illusion of peace, so planning three more days of strikes again signals an open invitation to recession. Thrown off course frequently given the unruly nature of rallies and strikes, our nation’s energies have been dedicated more on course correction strategies these past few months than actual development. Until security can be ensured for protestors and liberty to citizens simultaneously, such acts can only be counterproductive.

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