Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the chief of the JUI-F has commenced his threatening march onto Islamabad and vowed to only leave once the Imran Khan Government resigns. He is expected to enter Islamabad on 31 Oct with over a million supporters, jamming the city. This is a repeat of what Imran had demanded when he did the same protest in 2014, barely a year after elections which brought Nawaz Sharif to power. He had demanded re-elections and resignation of Nawaz. History is repeating itself and that too very early.
Considering that the courts have cleared the protest, implying tacit approval of the army, the opposition comprising of the PML (N) and the PPP have vowed to support the march. Even the powerful Pakistan Bar Council has stood by the protestors, threatening of a national protest, in case any illegal measures are adopted to stop the march. In the heat of the confusion is the deteriorating health of Nawaz Sharif. If any untoward happens to Nawaz, the internal situation in Pak could reach breaking point as all accusations on Nawaz’s lack of treatment and care would fall on Imran.
Further all opposition leaders have been stating that their demand is resignation of Imran and not of democracy.They have been stating that they seek no confrontation with any organization, implying the army, and hence they should stay away and let Imran fight his battle himself. Though the Government has deployed the Rangers, which are under the army, how will they be tasked remains to be seen. There have been no comments from the Pak DG ISPR, who is known to ramble on every subject, whether connected to the army or not.
While defending his own protest in 2014, Imran had stated to Gulf News in an interview last week, that his protest was because he had proof of election rigging. Surprising comment from Imran, as the world is aware that Imran was neither elected nor appointed due to victory of his party. He was the selected and the selectors had created an environment for him to be appointed. A full circle for Imran from where he led to where he is now the target.
Imran has begun to panic as it was his march on similar lines in 2014, backed by the army, which propelled him into limelight and made him, an unknown till then, the selected PM. It is also well established that the Pak army supports hardliners, as they had done in the protest launched against the Nawaz Government in 2017 by the TLP, where army officers were witnessed handing money to protestors, post having brokered an agreement.
Panic within the administration is evident as the government orders cancellation of leave, deploys thousands of additional police and rangers and made the city into one of containers and trenches, almost a week before the march even commenced.
The Pak interior ministry issued a notification announcing a ban on the ‘militant wing’ of the JUI-F, an action which has been criticized. On the other hand, JUI-F has written to the Pak Human Rights Commission stating that the Government has curbed its fundamental rights. Evidently, a showdown is on the cards.
Such is the state of panic that the Central Government has requested the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governments to send in additional reinforcements. The defence minister of Pakistan, Pervez Khattak, who has never spoken on defence matters, nor on tensions between India and Pak, suddenly emerges from the shadows and becomes the interlocutor for talks with the Maulana. His only comment in recent times has been threatening the JUI-F of dire actions in case they persist with the march. Talks between the Government and opposition, have failed as both sides have stuck to their positions.
In desperation, the Pak Government has placed a media ban on the Maulana’s speeches. They are also approaching Muslim clerics aiming to undermine the appeal of the JUI-F. They have also begun playing the card of Indo-Pak tensions. As their railway minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed stated, ‘I want to request Fazlur Rehman to consider the gravity of the current situation and make a sane decision.’ He was countered by the JUI-F leader, AkramDurrani, who stated, ‘There will be no compromise on the freedom march.’
Indo-Pak tensions are because of Pak, not India, and hence they may attempt to further ratchet tensions to compel the Maulana to call of the march. If the army is neutral, they would ensure that there is no increase in tensions. If they enhance tensions, their link with Imran is evident and would only build anger against them.
Had it just been the Maulana’s JUI-F alone, Imran may not have been worried. The joining of all opposition parties, at a time when he has a shaky majority in Parliament, adds to his woes. When he launched his march in 2014, he only had the support of the Canadian Cleric, Muhammad Tahir Ul Qadri, whereas at present, the entire political system, less him, are united.
Further desperation in Imran was evident when in a meeting with senior journalists and analysts on 23rd Oct, Imran expressed his views on the proposed march of the JUI-F. He openly commented that the Pak army stands behind him, confirming that he remains in power only till he follows the orders of the army. To further his own narrative and play the standard patriotism card as done by every Pak leader to discredit his opposition, Imran added that Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s march timings indicates an Indian hand and agenda. These are words of panic from Imran.
Given the preparations by both, JUI-F and the Pak government, the protest is likely to be a major challenge. Both are uncertain about coming out unscathed from the confrontation.
There are also reports that Maulana Fazlur Rehman met the army chief, General Bajwa and apprised him of his plans. As per Pak TV, the army chief assured the Maulana that he stands by the constitution and has no objection to the protest. However, rumours state that the army chief did mention that in the present troubling circumstances, it may not be possible for Pakistan to be without Imran. Thus, he advised muted protests for the moment.
Clearly, the army by permitting the protest is conveying a message to Imran that he is not indispensable, while informing the protestors that the army would let him continue for some more time. Imran is facing a repeat of the protest he had initiated in 2014. While his chair may be safe for the time being, his future is uncertain. The health of Nawaz will also play a role in provoking the protestors. This protest may be the start of Imran’s downfall. Pak is tense and would face trying times in the coming days. The world is watching as to how will the Pak army and Government react to the protest.
The author is Major General (Retd)