- The Interior Minister takes a hard line
Interior Minister Brig (retd) Ijaz Shah has told MNAs that no one was above the law, and would not be allowed to take the law into their own hands. That seems unobjectionable a statement, particularly addressed to MNAs anxious about the Ghotki situation, where a Hindu college principal has been accused to blasphemy, but its extension to JUI(F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman does not seem appropriate at this juncture, when the Maulana is about to hold a Million-man March on Islamabad. As Brigadier Shah well knows, the colonial-era laws are so designed that anybody can be arrested at any time, with his blandest and most innocent action taken as a violation of the law. Successive governments have, for over seven decades now, been careful to leave these laws on the books, the present one included. However, Brigadier Shah should also be aware that his own party, the PTI, and his own leader, Prime Minister Imran Khan, was able to use the 2014 sit-in in Islamabad to register his objections against the electoral system. What was sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander, and the JUI(F) chief should not have to add police persecution to his charges against the government.
At a deeper level, the problem is that there is not enough space left to make oneself heard in Parliament, which is where such protests should take place. The way the Opposition was not allowed to protest in the National Assembly and the Speaker’s failure to issue production orders for arrested members leaves no alternative but to take to the streets. This is enhanced in the Maulana’s case, because he is not an MNA, even though his party is represented there.
The government should realise that governing democratically means preserving, and if necessary creating, the space for expressions of dissent, which should be welcomed rather than suppressed with the use of colonial-era laws, as implicit in declarations that no one is above the law. If the Interior Minister insists on this, will the country’s police forces be far behind?