Language experts speculate that the expression “don’t bite off more than you can chew” originated in 19th century America. As the story goes, when people would chew tobacco leaves, others would, whenever offered tobacco, end up taking a big bite – a piece much bigger than they could chew.
Earlier this month, the PTI-led government proscribed Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) under anti-terrorism laws following country-wide protests and riots that left several wounded and dead. Subsequently, the Interior Minister dauntlessly asserted a swift crackdown against the TLP; formal dissolution proceedings against the right-wing outfit were also announced.
Three weeks have passed following the government’s vociferous pressers. Dissolution proceedings are nowhere in sight. With mounting criticism pouring in from Europe and building pressures of the FATF-grey list, the government –– in its frantic attempt to disassociate from TLP’s growing global notoriety –– has bit off more than it could chew.
Amidst the disarray, resentment levels in religious quarters from the right –– from where the government draws political support –– appear to have been miscalculated by the PTI. And as a result, the government has now volte-face, reneging on its feigned claims by allowing –– with lightning speed –– a legal review of the proscription order against TLP.
I might ask: what did the government ever hope to achieve if it was to capitulate to the backlash, immediately after? Blanket bans are toothless solutions. They are facial attempts at solving more complex, intricate problems. One thing is certain: the government is willing to go far –– but not far enough.
Despite all its predilection for violence and vitriol, however, the TLP isn’t just any rogue outfit. Contrarily, it enjoys the formal status of a registered political party –– having contested the 2018 general elections where it boasted a turn-out of 2.2 million voters and secured representation in Sindh’s provincial assembly. This is precisely where the skepticism creeps in over the government’s handling of it all.
Certainly, there’s no defending the acts of terrorism and public vandalism that the TLP indulged in. But whimsically proscribing an entire political organization, overnight, also sets a dangerous precedent.
Most forms of political protest carry similar colors of expression including clashes with law enforcement, roadblocks, or civil unrest in general. How does one discern between lawful and unlawful forms of protest? Can a political party be outlawed owing to the actions of a select few? Any terms of proscription must be clear and discernible before they are invoked to quell political expression.
Currently, however, this isn’t the case. Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws encompass broad-based, discretionary powers to proscribe organizations, as the PTI government exercised in TLP’s case.
While this leeway makes sense where a militia, terrorist, or gorilla outfit is concerned, envisaging arbitrary powers of proscription being constitutionally applied to a registered political party is entirely questionable.
Proscriptions of political organizations have to be democratic. For that, there must be procedural transparency and due process –– after all, constitutional rights are at stake.
Defending political expression
In its crackdown on the TLP, the PTI government could have invoked a more democratic alternative –– through initiating dissolution proceedings under our electoral laws in lieu of invoking anti-terrorism laws.
Such an approach would guarantee due process given the law stipulates a mandatory review process and confirmation hearing by the Supreme Court, before a political party stands officially dissolved.
Absent effective safeguards, however, the perils of extending anti-terrorism laws to outlaw political entities are far too great. Already, the space for unhindered expression and dissent is steadily shrinking. And world history is witness to the potencies of abuse and oppression in deploying systematic, legal tools to subdue political pluralism and undermine democracy.
Our constitutional guarantees of association and political expression must be vigorously defended; any attempts to curtail these freedoms must be scrutinized robustly. The free flow of unpopular, dissenting opinion is essential to our democratic foundations.
It goes without saying that the TLP’s hate-filled rhetoric has been nothing but despicable, deeply offensive, and spiteful. Yet, in the words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the US Supreme Court, “We must apply the law to facts. We must not apply feelings to facts.”
Our commitment to principle must exceed our prejudice.
The writer, a lawyer and published author, practices in Lahore. He holds a Master of Laws from New York University. He tweets at @RafaeSaigal. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.