The Week End of 12 and 13 May was fateful for the people of Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital. Images from the city of goons armed to the teeth, brandishing fire arms flashed across television screens all over the World. To those used to controlled law and order situations, absence of the uniform of whatever color on the streets was noticeable. Some people in Delhi felt vicariously secure having forgotten images of over two decades back when a similar vestige had scarred the Indian capital in 1984.
But a few days on and few hundred miles from Delhi in the Indian state of Punjab images much akin to Karachi were flashed on television screens as men and women brandishing long armed swords and huge sticks moved through many cities in what is still one of India's most prosperous state. While protests in Karachi led to the deaths of over 30 people in Punjab so far these have been restricted to just one suspected of gun shot wounds. These incidents of armed protests in what are seen as the economic and entrepreneurial hubs in South Asia should alarm the masses and stir up the intelligentsia. Regretfully the reactions seem to be muted.
Is it that the people in South Asia have accepted armed protests as a form in which the state has no role to play to control the mayhem? Or is it that states in South Asia be it Pakistan in Karachi or the Indian state government in Punjab routinely abdicate their responsibility to maintain law and order seeing a few hoodlums on the streets? Or is it that that ruling junta deliberately fans such rioting mobs as a means of getting even with their opponents? The answer perhaps lies in a combination of all three.
Armed protests are a tactics used not by the weak but by the strong in South Asia. Almost a year back the monarchy in Nepal was brought down by protestors in Katmandu led by the Maoist - Seven Party Alliance and was the culmination of the long insurgency in Nepal which had claimed over 13,000 lives. The success of this street revolution had perhaps formed the rationale for a series of riots in Bangladesh from October 2006 till emergency was declared in January this year. The then Opposition coalition led by the Awami League is accused of fanning these protests.
India's national capital Delhi has been rocked by rioting in the past year over orders by the Supreme Court for sealing unauthorized shops that have come up in residential areas, an instruction that the state has implemented with much hesitation and with all the powers of resistance at its disposal. But the long arm of the Indian judiciary forced the government to do what was in best long term public interest. That it was not of short term gain was evident as it robbed many small time shop keepers and other daily traders their livelihood, to assuage the feelings of which the state perhaps allowed them to vent their ire on the streets.
In all these protests across South Asia, a common thread would be evident. These are politically motivated and led by the elites rather than spontaneous outpourings of the masses. In Karachi the killings were alleged to have been caused due to clash between the MQM workers and opposition party protestors exploiting the rally by the suspended Chief Justice of Pakistan, some see an ethnic tinge in the rioting.
In Punjab, it was the dominant upper classes versus a group which claims to represent the dalits of all communities whose leaders increasingly mirror image practices of the higher caste elites which caused the outpourings on the streets fanned by ruthless elders of the communities unmindful of the poison being induced in the delicate communal balance in the state.
In both cases the state preferred to wait and watch and as some allege even fanned the violence. In Karachi there was no sign of the police, while in Punjab though there were many, they appeared to huddle into street corners, following the theory of allowing protestors to run the course of their emotions before intervening. That these protestors were fully armed in some cases, openly brandishing weapons and long swords in public was not seen as a reason by the police to intervene.
Protests by the masses are a democratic right. But this cannot be taken as a license for the people to take the law in their own hands and the state to withdraw into a shell. State authorities throughout South Asia need to ensure that protests remain non violent, no weapons including home made ones are brandished and lives lost in fruitless violence. This can only come about, when the ruling junta does not see violent protests as a means to resolve a problem, is willing to mediate and adjudicate in a civil process. The responsibility of the civil society including the media is also profound. Regrettably even as the economies in South Asia are surging an enlightened dispensation by the society and the state is far away. Till then at least in India can the courts intervene to force the state to take its responsibility seriously and take all measures to prevent vicious protests? Sadly for states as Pakistan, even the judiciary could be hamstrung to issue such dictats in public interest.