What Does Arrest Of Rights Activists Portend?
Farhatullah Babar writes about the arrest of Islamabad activists on sedition charges for protesting against Manzoor Pashteen’s arrest. He argues that the crackdown is part of the strategy to isolate the vulnerable protesters for hounding to send a warning signal against future demonstrations in support of PTM and Pashteen.
Early this week, rights activists held a protest demonstration in front of the National Press Club in Islamabad against the arrest a few days earlier of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) chief Manzoor Pashteen. Earlier, the PTM leader was arrested in Peshawar on the basis of FIR registered in DI Khan for allegedly making an inflammatory speech against state institutions and defying the constitution of Pakistan.
The Islamabad protest demonstration participated by some two dozen activists was organized by the Awami Workers Party (AWP). It was a totally peaceful demonstration. Neither the road was blocked nor any provocative speeches made. Without using loud speakers, the activists held banners and placards. Some activists including former and sitting parliamentarians made speeches denouncing arrest of Manzoor Pashteen and demanded his release. They also condemned state oppression, media curbs and enforced disappearances but the focus was Pashteen’s unwarranted arrest.
Suddenly, the police swooped on the demonstrators that also included some women, laid barbed wires around them. Yelling, the police started picking up everyone and promptly shoved them in prison vans to take them to police station. Those arrested included MNA Mohsin Dawar who was among the protesters. Initially, they were denied access by family members, friends and lawyers even as a storm was let loose on social media. Later, women protesters and Mohsin Dawar were allowed to go, but 23 other activists remained in custody and were charged with sedition.
Several FIRs have been lodged against Pashteen in Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa charging him with terrorism, berating the Constitution, creating distrust and bringing state institutions into disrepute, but he was thus far not arrested. He was arrested just when Mehsud tribesmen were holding a dharna in Tank to demand rights over mineral resources and other local issues. Earlier, FIR had also been registered against him for speaking at ‘Waziristan Night’, an event organised by the Waziristan Students Union of Gomal University of which he is an alumni. Reportedly, the arrest warrants in this case were issued soon after Pashteen was actually arrested in Peshawar and hours before the Mehsud dharna in Tank.
It is also noteworthy that the NPC Islamabad has traditionally served as the most preferred venue of rights activists agitating against rights violations of the marginalized and for causes like freedom of association, against media curbs and enforced disappearances. Never were they roughed up and hounded like this in the past. Why now, more so as no law had been violated and the demonstration was totally peaceful?
It appears that the state’s patience with PTM and Manzoor Pashteen is nearing exhaustion. The demands for a truth and reconciliation commission, rights of local people over mineral resources, end of internment centres, end to policing by the military, clearance of landmines and an end to enforced disappearances seem to have rubbed the miltablishment on the wrong side.
The immediate release of MNA Mohsin Dawar and women activists arrested on Jan 28 seems to be part of strategy to isolate the vulnerable protesters for hounding to send a warning signal against future demonstrations in support of PTM and Manzoor Pashteen.
This assumption is lent credence by the reports that arrest warrants of Manzoor Pashteen have also just been issued in Karachi in pursuance of the FIRS registered several months ago. It appears that if Manzoor gets bail in D. I. Khan he will be rearrested and taken to Karachi jail in furtherance of these warrants.
Pashteen’s arrest and jailing in Karachi will also serve the purpose of some state elements to blame the PPP government in Sindh, known to be sympathetic towards PTM, for it. Not long ago, the Sindh Home Secretary issued a notification, behind the back of provincial chief minister, expelling Manzoor Pashteen from the province soon after he arrived from Peshawar. He was not prevented from travelling to Karachi but as soon as he landed in the city he was ordered to be expelled from the province. It was only after the intervention by provincial Chief Minister at the instance of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari that the expulsion notification was withdrawn. The plan to kill two birds with one stone went sour.
The intolerance of the state agencies towards PTM is born out of its increasing relevance and its refusal to be browbeaten. Interior Minister Brig (r) Ijaz Shah has claimed that PTM is irrelevant to the issues faced by Pashtuns and tribal people. In an interview with BBC he said, “The (PTI) has two thirds majority (in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Imran Khan is more popular in tribal and Pashtun areas than he is in his own district”. No other political leader has done what he (Imran) has done he said and asked “so then who is their leader, Pashteen or Imran”? Such talk only betrays the discomfort with PTM’s relevance.
The minister also justified the arrest of the activists on grounds that border on the ridiculous. “Law enforcement agencies have their own task. If they are committing a crime they will be punished for it”. Does it arouse any credibility?
Why the state agencies appear so nervous? The PTM is both peaceful and makes right noises that is increasingly gaining traction with the people not only in tribal areas but in other parts of the country as well. The power of its narrative, the pursuit of real issues instead of personal aggrandizement and the peaceful nature of its struggle that blunt coercive instruments are the chief weapons in its arsenal. The fact that Pashteen was arrested just when the Defence Minister had publicly offered talks with the PTM indicated that agencies patience may be running out.