The Azadi March puzzle


M Ziauddin
THERE is but just one argument that can justify the ‘Azadi March’ of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of
Jamiatul-i-Islam (F) and his 11-day long and continuing Islamabad sit-in: Imran Khan-led PTI’s march on Islamabad in August 2014 and his 126-day long sit- in within the Capital’s Red-Zone. Imran had done it protesting against what he used to call the alleged rigging of the 2013 general election. His demands: resignation of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and new elections. The Maulana is doing just that, protesting against what he alleges to be the rigging of 2018 general election. His demands: resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan; fresh elections, no Army role in elections and; election reforms. Imran failed to prove that the elections were rigged and also failed in getting the then PM to resign. So far the Maulana too has failed to prove his case of rigging of 2018 elections and PM Khan has made it clear that he would not resign, come what may.
And like Imran’s protest, the Maulana’s too appears totally out of tune with the political drift of the day in the country and seems also as unwelcome and disruptive as it was then. Also, neither Imran had wanted any negotiated settlement with the government of the day except the resignation of the PM, nor is Maulana prepared to negotiate with the government constituted team led by Defence Minister, Pervez Khattak. Maulana wants the resignation of the PM. But unlike Imran, the Maulana has succeeded in bringing a relatively bigger, much bigger crowd of his followers to the Capital. Imran’s sit-in’s numerical strength was mostly made up of the followers of Tahirul Qadri and a motley crowd of Capital’s middle class youth, men and women who would go home at night fall and return to the sit-in next afternoon after office hours to enjoy the music and songs as well as Imran’s invectives-filled harangues against the sitting government. But Maulana’s is his own crowd of followers, completely devoid of women; even the three big mainstream political parties, the PPP, the PML-N and the ANP which have extended him moral support have neither contributed significantly to the Azadi March nor are they participating in the sit-in as the PPP and PMLN have already decaled that they were against the politics of sit-ins. One more difference between the two: Imran gave the impression that the Establishment was behind his march and sit-in. But Maulana has been attacking even the Army frontally in his speeches since he began his Azadi March. The Army has already said that it comes in aid of the government during election time if called under the relevant constitutional clause to maintain law and order and not to interfere in the election process in favour of any of the contesting party or parties.
Meanwhile, perhaps an agreement on sitting down to discuss relevant election reforms and introducing an agreed list of suggested reforms would perhaps finally provide the Maulana the face saver he needs to end his sit-in. But one cannot say this with any degree of certainty. It is still a mystery why the Maulana had chosen to launch his protest campaign at this particular point in time and who if anyone is backing him clandestinely from behind the scene? The mystery becomes all the more puzzling when it is recalled that the PML-N and PPP had refused the Maulana’s urging soon after the election not to take oath and join him in street protest against alleged rigging of polls. The two mainstream political parties had even declared that they were prepared to give the PTI government its full five-year term to govern the country.
The confusion becomes all the more confounded when one traces from day one the history of the short run to Islamabad by Azadi March. Before the launch the Maulana’s threat of long march towards Islamabad to lock it down did appear more like an attention catching effort by a desperate MFR. His Party had lost miserably in the last general election including for the first time he lost his own seat. But the way the government tried to threaten to disrupt the March by warning that it would be stopped from leaving even the KP and then getting huge containers placed at various road junctions leading to Islamabad from four corners of the country thus creating a kind of panic country-wide and using the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to censor news about the ‘Azadi March’ it had appeared as if either the government had panicked suspecting that a faction within the Establishment was backing the Maulana or perhaps Islamabad was taking the March rather too seriously. It had appeared as if serious clashes would ensue on the streets across the country between the JUI-F marchers and the law enforcing agencies, if at all the March were to start. But out of the blue and on urgent note high courts of Peshawar and Islamabad started overturning with seemingly undue haste all official orders pertaining to relevant official instructions regarding the March and got all hurdles removed in the way for the Azadi March reaching Islamabad without any let or hindrance and the PEMRA was ordered to withdraw its notices to the media so that it was allowed to give full coverage to the entire protest event of MFR without an iota of censorship. When the government tried to talk to the Maulana to persuade him to stop from bringing into the Capital his followers the Maulana being a shrewd politician turned the negotiation on its head and playing on the weakness of the government to stop his March to reach the D-Chowk in Red Zone quickly accepted government proposal to take his crowd instead to a vast ground situated near the outskirts of the city and brought in to the Capital without any hindrance the biggest ever crowd of people estimated variously to be as big as 50,000—25,000.
Then on 1 Nov in the company of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto, PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali Khan of ANP and about a couple more but smaller party leaders the Maulana gave Imran a two-day ultimatum to resign failing which he threatened to march towards D-Chowk. This added a new measure of panic in the government and Army’s intervention was started to be speculated. So a Committee was hastily put together by the government to negotiate with the Maulana for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The Committee met the Maulana’s negotiating team declaring that it was prepared to talk on anything except the PM’s resignation which it said was not on the table. The shrewd Maulana withdrew his threat to march towards D-Chowk but said he would stage an indefinite sit-in without creating any law and order situation in the Capital but if the PM does not resign soon he would have the entire country locked down.
While the government quarters were in a tizzy after his first day’s speech at the sit-in venue, the leadership of the mainstream political parties and most of the anti-PTI government liberals who were watching the event rather gleefully felt hugely concerned at the use of ultra-religious card by the Maulana in his address. However, from the next on wards his speeches at the sit-in venue were heavily loaded with popular catch-words focused on the plight of the down-trodden. At the end of what appears to be a long drawn drama both the government and the PM are likely to be considerably weakened politically. But a bloody accident which can happen any time during such events without the fault of any of the combatants needs to be strictly guarded against as such an accident could even damage the government fatally.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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