There are a few set standards for handling a protest — violent or peaceful — through a) government policy, b) administrative strategy, and (c) enforcement of law through police, paramilitary, or the army, depending on the situation on the ground.
Depending on the nature of a protest, the government gives policy options to the administration for handling a situation. The policy options can include dispersing the crowd by engaging its leaders in meaningful negotiations, failing which they may send in police or other law enforcement agencies, exercising maximum restraint.
Once the police or law enforcers receive orders (which have to be in writing, something we have found missing in many cases), the head of the police issues instructions, followed by release of anti-mob equipment like baton, teargas, rubber bullets, and pellet bullets. Today, they also have other modern ways like the use of water cannons. This clearly indicates that the State as a matter of policy avoids use of weapons (except in self-defense) which could result in casualties or damage to public property.
Therefore, the best policy for any government has to be some meaningful preventive measures. In the past, such measures were used in the form of detention of leaders and activists under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) or by imposing Section 144 in the code of criminal procedure (CrPC) by doing everything to avoid an unlawful gathering. These steps were taken to avoid violence but with the passage of time they were used to suppress political protests and dissent.
Secondly, the state and the government, which are supposed to stand with the administration and police, often back out, particularly in case of the loss of lives. They put responsibility on the administration and law enforcement agencies. Therefore, both bureaucracy and police have to follow written and lawful orders by the government, according to the law.
What the PTI government did in the end could have been done at the very start by not allowing protesters to come onto the streets. On the contrary, they mishandled the situation and then went for damage control.
There are also a few post-protest measures which the government and administration have to take, particularly if the protests cause damage to life and property.
These include registration of cases against those responsible. Ironically, successive governments succumb to the pressure and not only withdraw the cases but also free those allegedly involved in riots.
Before discussing how the PTI and PML-N governments handled the sit-ins of TLP, it is important to have a look at how the PPP and PML-N handled the political protests of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) and PTI in 2012 and 2014 respectively. The longest sit-in also had an element of violence in which PTV headquarter was attacked and many people, including police officials, sustained serious injuries.
Political protests are easy to handle but there is always an element of risk involved. The PPP government as a matter of policy allowed the PAT to hold a sit-in. They could have negotiated with them even prior to the sit-in. But, in the end, they gave a ‘face saving’ to PAT and Dr. Tahir ul Qadri.
In case of PTI’s 2014 dharna, the PML-N could easily have avoided it – which, in fact, gave a new life to PTI after the 2013 elections – had the government agreed on its reopening of four constituencies through a judicial commission.
What happened after 126 days could have happened after 26 days or even fewer. The killing of 14 people in Model Town was a classic example of use of brute force in which the government and administration put the entire responsibility on the police force. The policy was given by the government, strategy was drawn by the administration and police did what they were told to do.
Similarly, after the attack on the Parliament and PTV, cases were pursued after all issues had settled down. In handling the protest of TLP, the PTI government is not very different from the PML-N government of 2017. The PTI government looked confused. First, they decided to register cases against those responsible for violence and making anti-army and judiciary speeches and arrested many protesters, but later ordered the police to stop.
There were serious flaws in both the cases, as PTI and PML-N governments and administrations looked clueless about the policy of handling the issue of such a sensitive nature.
Not taking any preventive measures, they both allowed protesters to become a mob. In case the protesters are on the streets the best way is to disperse them peacefully through negotiations, which often end in some kind of an agreement. That happened in both the cases — in 2017 and 2018.
Some former senior police and administrative officials are of the view that maximum restraint is the best policy in handling a mob, particularly when they are in a violent mood. If force is used, there is an 80 per cent chance of violence, resulting in killings, injuries and damage to property.
Unfortunately, over the last many decades, successive civil and military governments followed the policy of damage control and after causing the damage did not take any preventive measures. Therefore, whenever a government reacts and does not act, the state is the loser as it gives an upper hand to the protesters, causing demoralisation in the ranks of law-enforcement agencies, particularly the police.
Over the years, the police has found itself in a difficult situation because neither the state nor the government backs it up. This is what happened after Mir Murtaza Bhutto’s murder case, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and during the killings at Lal Masjid and Model Town. Time and again, the superior judiciary has often asked this basic question: in such cases, why do police have to follow ‘unlawful orders’? This clearly means that unlawful orders are issued.
But once protesters are on the streets in the form of a sit-in or long march, the government and the administration is left with no other choice but to handle the situation in such a manner that the mob is dispersed without using violent means. The best way used over the years has been some kind of an agreement — verbal or written.
Also read: From mobilisation to crackdown
Therefore, what the PTI government did after failing to take preventive measures is perhaps the best way to disperse TLP workers peacefully. But have they learnt any lessons? Sit-ins of such a nature and violent strikes during the MQM days in Karachi caused loss of billions of rupees a day.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s brief speech before he left for China on the very first day after the Supreme Court’s judgment in Aasia’s case was like a fast bowler by a
captain who leaves the field after bowling his first over really fast and returns to the ground after the match is over.
He left for China without giving any policy guidelines and what Shehryar Afridi or concerned PTI ministers did was the best possible option to bring the state out from the hostage situation.