Peaceful protest and a colonial era sedition law

Peaceful protest and a colonial era sedition law

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Hearing a bail plea this month of some of the accused charged for committing an act of ‘sedition,’ the Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court asked a critical question of local authorities: How did peaceful assembly and demonstration qualify as an act of treason against the state?
The problem is a provision in the Pakistan Penal Code which defines sedition as any action by an individual or group that “brings or attempts to (affect) hatred or contempt, or excites disaffection” against the government. 
Such a ‘crime’ carries a life sentence. The description of sedition goes back to the British colonial era when the law was enacted to intimidate, persecute and imprison leaders of India and Pakistan’s freedom movement. It was not just a law on the books, but a real instrument of harassment against the activists who wanted the British to quit and grant independence. Many notable leaders, under this law, were arrested and faced harsh sentences.
Many of the draconian colonial laws have survived the independence of India and Pakistan, as they have served the political interests of the governments in power. 
However, rarely has the section act been applied, or even anybody convicted on this charge if the act is simply free speech or peaceful assembly. For decades, the law had been in dormancy and only revived very recently in a few cases involving some of the leaders of the Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement (movement for the protection of Pashtun rights), and their supporters in urban areas. 
A few lines are necessary to explain the emergence of this movement and its ideology. Essentially, it is a Pashtun ethnic nationalist movement that has attracted youth of the frontier regions as well as ethnic activists from the entire province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Interestingly, much of their activism is visible only in the cities of Punjab or in the capital, Islamabad. 

Many of the draconian colonial laws have survived the independence of India and Pakistan, as they have served the political interests of the governments in power. 

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

There is a reason for this. Most of these young men and women belong to families displaced by the Taliban war against the Pakistani state, and the counter-terrorism strategy of the country. They have been very vocal about the ‘missing’ persons, the killings of Pashtun youth in Karachi, the plight of displaced persons and their urgent resettlement in their native areas.
While most of these demands appear to be sensible, the movement has attracted into its fold some disgruntled elements, including those who have a long history of attacking the nation’s security forces, the state institutions, and even the very idea of the Pakistani state. 
They use a grey area of political language, symbolism and political activism that is neither in mainstream politics nor falls into the strict category of rebellion against the state. Much of the activism has remained peaceful, and well under the threshold of open conflict until May 25, 2019, when PTM leaders Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir led a protest march at a security check post at Kharqamar, North Waziristan that turned violent. 
Reportedly, three protesters were killed and 20 injured including five soldiers manning the post. The leaders were arrested and charged for sedition. After spending months in imprisonment, they were released by the courts on bail, but they and their supporters continued holding infrequent protest rallies.
It was during such a protest on Feb. 5, 2020, in Islamabad that dozens of activists, mostly college students were taken into custody. Political protests in Pakistan are very common, as weak democracy and desperate social and economic conditions are some of the causes that ignite occasional unrest. 
Unlike in Western democracies, politically and civically active groups seldom seek official approval for the protest; they just appear from nowhere and occupy the roads, crossing and market areas until the police intervene and disperse them-- which often involves the use of force. 
Compared to more chaotic and bigger protests, this was very small, as about 60 persons participated. Their arrest in ‘illegal’ assembly is understandable, but not the leveling of ‘sedition’ charges against them which has alarmed the media and civil society. Even the Minister for Human Rights of the Government of Pakistan, Shireen Mazari, has commented on the incident and criticized the sedition law as an “anachronism in an independent, democratic state.”
Chief Justice Athar Minnallah of the Islamabad High Court, while hearing a bail plea of the activists, raised the critical questions about what constitutes an act of sedition. 
He called the city magistrate to explain why he would term a peaceful protest an act of treason against the state. Questioning the law and the charges by the Chief Justice has given forces opposed to the government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf a lot of ammunition. The government has to do a lot of explaining to clear its name, but a lot of damage has already been done.
Sedition-- a very serious allegation should have been applied only after the most thorough scrutiny and investigation. On the face of it, the authorities were slacking at work, and that gives credence to the view that it was an attempt to control dissent and intimidate the protesters.

*Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais 

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