November Issue 2019
The curtains were about to fall on JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s much-publicised dharna (sit-in) against the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan in the suburbs of Islamabad as the two major opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, declined to cross the red line and the establishment reportedly conveyed a stern message to the JUI-F chief to play by the rules of the game that had been agreed upon before the Azadi March began. The maulana appears to have backed off from leading his protesters towards the federal government secretariat and the Prime Minister’s House. There are signs that he may withdraw for the time being, but he will continue to haunt the Prime Minister and keep up the pressure on him.
The leader of the agitation, who had given Prime Minister Imran Khan an ultimatum of two days to resign from office, may find a way of face-saving by announcing protest demonstrations or strike calls across the country, as talks were underway between the delegations of the government and the opposition to find a way out of the impasse. “We also have Plan-B and Plan-C,” the maulana told his audience on the third day of the sit-in – a sign of a possible retreat from his original, more aggressive proclamations. Being a shrewd, experienced politician, he is adept at crafting a narrative to justify whatever suits him at a given point in time.
From the outset, it was evident that though the two major opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), backed Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s protest rally, their support for the maulana was calibrated. In fact workers of both the main parties remained absent from the scene. The PML-N’s lack of interest was quite visible in Lahore, the home and hub of PML-N’s activities, where Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s rally could not draw a large gathering; it comprised mostly those who accompanied him from Karachi; the local participation was next to nil. Even office-bearers of the PML-N in the city stayed away from the rally. The ailing Nawaz Sharif declined a meeting with the maulana, when the latter was in Lahore.
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari maintained that his party could neither support anyone using the religion card, nor did it believe in sit-ins. The maulana had galvanised religious activists on the slogan of saving Pakistan from an ‘agent of the Jews.’ Moreover, the JUI-F distributed pamphlets and donation slips seeking support against Imran Khan, whom he accused of being a threat to the ‘honour of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)” (namoos-e-risalat) and of working for those who did not believe that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the last prophet of God.
It goes to the maulana’s credit that he was able to peacefully gather thousands of activists of the Deobandi politico-religious party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), in the suburbs of the federal capital, Islamabad, from across the country, maintaining an ambiguity about whether he would disperse after holding a rally or opt for a prolonged sit-in to force the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to accept his demands. Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s main demand was the resignation of the Prime Minister and holding of fresh general elections, as in his view the 2018 general elections were rigged and thus invalid.
In order to preempt an early crackdown on his workers, the maulana had reached an agreement with the government stating that if his supporters were not arrested and stopped from joining the rally, he would hold his congregation in the suburbs of Islamabad, a few kilometres from Zero Point, and would not cross the barriers to reach the red zone in the federal capital.
Almost all the participants of the rally and sit-ins were Pashto-speaking and came from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the former tribal areas and Balochistan. A vast majority was from JUI-F’s own stronghold in Bannu and Lakki Marwat districts. A number of them told the media that they were brought for sight-seeing to Islamabad, while others said they had come to protest against a government that was pro-Israel and that wanted to tamper with the Islamic laws pertaining to the non-Muslim status given to Qadianis.
The four-day protest caravan from Karachi to the federal capital did not impact the day-to-day public life along the route of the journey, except in Islamabad where the final show was planned. No untoward incident took place during the journey. Neither did the government try to disrupt the protest rally nor did the participants create any law and order situation along the way. Schools in Islamabad were closed and entry points to the city were sealed off with shipping containers placed on the roads. Thousands of additional police force was deployed to oversee security in Islamabad, and the army stood alert.
In his fiery speeches, Fazlur Rehman unscrupulously played the religious card, misrepresenting facts before his audience. The maulana billed the newly built Kartarpur Corridor between Pakistan and India as a conspiracy to facilitate Qadianis and maintained that he had foiled all attempts to recognise the Israeli state and amend the law pertaining to the finality of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Ironically, the champion of secular politics, Mehmood Khan Achakzai stood alongside the maulana, when he was making those hate-filled speeches. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari also addressed the crowd comprising students of seminaries, who displayed their affinity for the Taliban movement by raising its flag, promptly forgetting that it was the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that was behind his mother, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
Seeing a charged crowd of thousands of supporters on the first day of his rally in Islamabad, the maulana made a fiery speech issuing strict warnings to the PTI government. “If we want, we can storm the Prime Minister’s House and arrest the prime minister, but we are a peaceful people,” thundered the maulana in his address. He said he would not talk to an illegal government and invited state institutions for negotiations, alluding to the military establishment without naming it. However, swift came the response from the military spokesman Lt. General Asif Ghafoor, who said that the army stood behind the constitutionally elected, democratic government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, and that those having any reservations about the elections ought to consult the relevant institutions such as the Election Commission of Pakistan. A few days later, a similar statement was issued at a meeting of the Corps Commanders. Sources claim that the army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, had also held a meeting with the maulana much before his protest march and tried to advise him against it, but the maulana persisted with his plans.
The maulana has a small support base, largely restricted to the Pashtun-speaking areas, but this march gave him a chance to redeem himself after the humiliating defeat in the elections and occupy the centre stage of national politics for several weeks, pushing the main opposition parties into the background, while he received prime time media limelight for hours, day after day. In the 2018 elections, he and his religio-political party faced a crushing defeat in their stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which rendered him irrelevant in national and provincial politics for some time. However, his current agitational politics has made him arguably the most relevant opposition leader.
PML-N insiders maintain that the agitation was planned during a meeting between Nawaz Sharif and the maulana, when the convicted former prime minister was set free on bail on medical grounds by the Supreme Court of Pakistan early this year. The purpose was to wield pressure on the PTI government and weaken it so that it could not resist the efforts of the Sharifs to get some sort of legal relief from the courts. An atmosphere was to be created, whereby Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz were freed from jail and allowed to proceed abroad.
The PML-N could not launch an effective agitation on its own; it is a party that draws its support largely from the business community of the Punjab; it is not an ideological party with an organised cadre that could mount an agitation on the streets. This lack of street power led the PML-N to seek the support of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who has ideological, organised cadres at his disposal in the form of students and teachers of Deobandi seminaries in Karachi, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The maulana, who is still reeling from his humiliating defeat in the last general elections inflicted by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was willing to do the job. The devout, organised JUI-F cadre and the money allegedly doled out by Nawaz Sharif could prove to be a potent combination to deal a harsh blow to the PTI government.
As the backing of the establishment is considered a recipe for political success in Pakistan, both the JUI-F and the PML-N started planting stories in the mainstream and social media that they had their “partners” in the establishment. The JUI-F leaders started whispering in the ears of journalists that Maulana Fazlur Rehman enjoyed the support of at least four senior army officers, who were allegedly unhappy with Imran Khan. “I can’t tell you how much support the generals have assured us of in the agitation against Imran Khan,” a senior leader of the JUI-F confided to journalists. The JUI-F leaders shared that the army had assured them that they would stay neutral in case the opposition launched an agitation against the Khan government, implying that if the opposition laid siege to Islamabad, Imran Khan would be forced to step down. However, the DG ISPR, Asif Ghafoor’s public statement in support of the government, punctured all these speculations.
Meanwhile, the PML-N media cell was hyperactive in planting rumours and conspiracy theories through the social media. According to one such theory, the establishment and the opposition parties were working on the idea of a national government through a no-trust move against Imran Khan, which would be supported by a large section of PTI’s sitting members in the National Assembly so that the accountability drive against the opposition could be ended and the country could embark on the path of political stability. Another rumour doing the rounds was that in the first phase, the PML-N and the PML-Q, led by Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, would join forces to dislodge the Chief Minister of the Punjab, Usman Buzdar, as his government hinged on a slim majority of a few votes. In a television interview, PML-Q leader Kamil Ali Agha said that Chaudhry Pervez Elahi was more suitable for the office of chief minister of the Punjab.
The PML-N leaders also threw broad hints that Shehbaz Sharif had thrashed out a settlement with the establishment and that soon Imran Khan’s government would be shown the door, for which the grounds would be prepared by the maulana’s protest march.
In response to the query as to why the establishment was unhappy with Imran Khan, the PML-N leaders said that Imran Khan had failed to fix the economy and govern the country effectively. It was also rumoured that some sections of the top military brass were upset with the fact that the army had become unpopular in the Punjab owing to its support for Imran Khan and wanted to fix it.
Recent public opinion polls also showed Imran Khan’s popularity waning owing to the country’s economic slowdown, while Nawaz Sharif’s ratings were rising despite his conviction in the corruption cases. Meanwhile, the former chief minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif kept his lines of communication with the establishment open, presenting himself as an alternative to Khan and his convicted elder brother. Although Imran Khan had repeatedly said he would not pardon any corrupt leader by granting him amnesty the way Gen Pervez Musharraf did under the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), a way out was found of bypassing the obstinate Prime Minister by getting some relief through the courts, under the existing laws.
Incidentally, as the date of the maulana’s march on October 27 approached, Nawaz Sharif’s health started deteriorating in the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore. His body’s platelet count started dropping sharply, following which he was shifted to Services Hospital Lahore on an emergency basis and placed under the supervision of a 10-member medical board comprising the country’s top physicians. Sharif already suffers from five major ailments including diabetes, hypertension, malfunctioning of kidneys, and congestion of the arteries.
No one in the government and the establishment wanted to see Nawaz Sharif’s health worsen while in custody. If something unfortunate happened to him while in custody, it could trigger an agitation on a massive scale, throwing the country into turmoil. This reality soon dawned on the prime minister too, as a result of which the federal and the Punjab governments did not oppose the bail pleas of Nawaz Sharif in the two different cases in the Lahore and Islamabad High Courts. When Nawaz was granted bail, Interior Minister Ejaz Shah said his name was not on the Exit Control List implying that he could fly abroad.
The maulana played his cards smartly, planning his protest at an opportune time when it suited all those who were opposed to Imran Khan’s government. It served Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, who were seeking relief from the courts to get out of the incarceration on medical grounds; it suited the People’s Party leadership that was reeling from the money-laundering cases against Asif Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur; it provided an opportunity to Pashtun nationalists belonging to the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), who were angry with the establishment mainly for its use of strong-arm tactics, to vent their anger. While the PPP and the PML-N lent political legitimacy to the maulana’s agitation, the PkMAP and the PTM helped him with their manpower. It was skilful on the maulana’s part to harness the varied political groups together but what was inherent in this alignment was that their unity would not last long. Both the PML-N and the PPP declined to support the maulana’s plans to enter the red zone in the federal capital or to tender the resignations of the members of the national and provincial assemblies.
At the end of the day, he was nowhere near achieving his stated goal of toppling Imran Khan’s government. It was evident that Maulana Fazlur Rehman lacked the moral legitimacy to dislodge the government through the street power of one religious sect. His party, the JUI-F, never managed to secure more than 2.5 percent of the total votes cast in the general elections, and he was pitted against Imran Khan, whose party bagged more than 30 per cent of the votes cast in the last general elections. The JUI’s agitational capacity was limited and could be managed by using state power, especially if the mighty establishment sided with the sitting government, as it did.
The maximum the maulana could hope to achieve from his protest march was steal the limelight in the media and bring the PTI government under pressure, besides making Imran Khan realise that he was as vulnerable as any other ruler before him – goals he successfully achieved. Maybe in the days to come, PM Imran Khan would be more amenable to the demand from assorted quarters that he needs to make changes in his team, something he has resisted all along, and perhaps change his attitude towards the opposition and the Parliament, for which he has shown total disdain. n