The Right To Protest: No More?
Within the first month of the new year, Punjab government sent out a clear message to those who had hoped that the new year would bring some seriousness in the government’s attitude towards radicalism and intolerance. The message is this: while the National Action Plan may have efficiently countered militancy, the deep-rooted ideological rigidity that still prevails across social groups remains to be countered through proactive efforts as the federal and Punjab governments’ unforthcoming silence amounts to a tolerance of hate speech and bigotry.
On Friday, 6th January 2017, a group of young students organised a protest, against the Sunni Tehreek’s rally in Lahore. Activist and founding member of the Democratic Students Alliance, Ramis Sohail, and nine other students were arrested under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. One of our reporters from NILS (Network for International Law Students) spoke to Sohail who said, “Section 144 was made by the British to restrict anti-colonial movements. And here it’s being used against people who want to fight to make this country a better place. Is there any difference between our colonial masters and current masters? Doesn’t seem so.”
These students, including Sohail, were some of the brave and inspired voices from our youth to oppose the Sunni Tehreek’s demonstrations aimed at nothing more than fueling hatred, discrimination and intolerance in a society that is already so severely divided along sectarian, ethnic and socio-economic lines.
There is no denying the fact that Ramis Sohail and the other activists were acting within their legal rights to organise peaceful protest under Article 16 of the Constitution and their fundamental human right to expression/speech enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution as well as in various international human rights conventions to which the state of Pakistan is a signatory.
It must be noted that the law cannot be given absurd or irrational effects. In light of that, it is even more puzzling what basis the executive thought they had to make such a decision. That a peaceful student demonstration chanting for peace and tolerance can be classified as “unlawful assembly” is a step back from the political perspective. Moreover, the right to peaceful protest is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society and may only be curtailed subject to very limited exceptions provided for within the law.
For students and activists across Pakistan, this is a grave cause for concern. Ramis’ tireless work in the area of rights activism is extremely important in a society like Pakistan, particularly considering our history as a country struggling to stay on democratic traditions. The lingering impact of Zia ul Haq’s ban on the political unionisation of students, despite their important contributions to the Pakistan movement, is felt in the government’s action today.
In light of the aforementioned, it is crucial that we come together to clarify to the government that this crackdown will not be tolerated. We must embed within our society an educational culture that allows the youth to stand up for their right and be able to question and challenge the status quo, sine qua non for a truly progressive society.
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