Pakistan’s Tryst with Long Marches
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 14 Nov , 2022

‘Long marches’ have become a preferred form of serious protests by Pakistan’s political parties for building pressure on the federal government and the ‘establishment’; meaning the Army. These marches have mostly started from Lahore, the heart of Punjab, or from Karachi, the commercial capital of Pakistan, with the destination being Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, to the north.

Some of these protests, starting with the one launched by Students Federation of Pakistan in 1968, had had profound impact on the national politics. This protest, though not the same as the later-day long marches, resulted in the ouster of Pakistan’s first Army dictator, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. However, the first truly ‘Long March’ as a form of protest was launched on July 4, 1980, by the Shia community of Pakistan against the implementation of ‘Zakat and Ushr’ ordinance introduced by the then president General Zia-ul Haq. After that, the long marches have become a chosen way of protest by various political parties to either assert their rights or force a change in the government.

In 1992, Pakistan Peoples’ Party led by Benazir Bhutto, joined by many political parties which included the Jamaat-e-Islami, embarked on a Long March against Nawaz Sharif’s government to protest the allegations of electoral rigging and corruption. The Long March, which received considerable public support, forced the then president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, to dissolve the National Assembly. However, the dissolution proved to be short-lived as the Supreme Court ordered its reinstatement on May 26, 1993. Not the one to be put down easily, Benazir once again marched towards the federal capital. The Government this time sealed the city, resulting inweeks of political turmoil and violence. This chaotic situation ended when the then Army Chief, General Abdul Waheed Kakar, persuaded president Ghulam Ishaq Khanand prime minister Nawaz Sharief to resign. Thus, Benazir’s long march came out victorious.

The norm was set: the long-marchform of protest established itself as a powerful tool to overthrow the ruling government.

Another long march which had a lasting impact on the politics of Pakistan was led by Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and Pakistan’s legal fraternity, including the lawyers, in 2007. It was triggered by the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from office, following the latter’s decision to challenge the legality of Musharraf’s dual role as President and Army Chief. Pakistan’s legal community felt that it was an attempt by Musharraf to curtail the Supreme Court’s independence under the chief justice’s leadership.

Use of excessive force against Lawyers, who were largely non-violent, created a wide spread resentment against General Pervez Musharraf who, unnerved by the scale of the protest, reinstated the Chief Justice Chaudhry. However, taking into consideration the long-term effects his ‘caving in’ would have on Pakistan Army, the nation’s‘strongest institution and the arbiter of its destiny’, Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan. The Constitution was suspended and a Provisional Constitutional Order was enforced.

The lawyers resisted the declaration of emergency and in an uncommon act of defiance, approximately 97 senior judges of Pakistan refused to accept the emergency rule. All these judges, including Chaudhary Iftikar, were immediately fired and detained. Instead of diffusing the situation, this drastic action against the judiciary further spread the flames of protest. Lawyers across the country, joined by civilians, defied Musharraf’s suspension of the Constitution. The long marches and the consequent daily chaos across much of Pakistan put increased pressure on Musharraf, who resigned in November 2007. Once again, the Long March had won.

In 2013, it was now the turn of Dr Tahirul Qadri, a Canada-based cleric, who started his ‘Million-Man-March’ from Lahore to Islamabad. Closing in on Islamabad, the crowd posed serious threat to the functioning of the government by bringing the capital to a standstill. To diffuse the situation, the Government reached an agreement with Qadri, wherein the government agreed to dissolve the National Assembly and holding of fresh elections within 90 days.

The strategy of organizing long marches had, by now, become a fail-proof mechanism to mobilize sizable crowds. Taking a cue from the success of earlier long marches, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), backed by Dr Qadri and his supporters, too launched his own long march, demanding the resignation of then prime minister Nawaz Sharief and an audit of the 2013 General Elections. This ‘Long March’was, somewhat, distinct from others as it culminated in 126-day sit-in at Islamabad’s D-Chowk, bringing the capital to near standstill. However, what came to the government’s rescue was the terrorist attack on Army Public School, Peshawar, on December 16, 2014, which resulted in the killing of 148 people, majority of them being school children. This barbaric carnage of young children created an unprecedented sorrow, anger, and resentment in Pakistan. Consequently, the ‘Sit-in’ was called off by Imran Khan.

Fast forward to 2021; taking a leaf out of Tahir ul Qadri’s‘Long March’, Tehreek-e-Labaik, Pakistan (TLP), launched its ‘Tahafuz Namoos-i-Risalat March’ from Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh to Islamabad’s Faizabad, demanding that the government of Pakistan cut its diplomatic ties with France. Liaquat Bagh witnessed huge violence as police clashed with TLP workers, while at the same time, the sit-in at Faizabad created havoc in the capital. The Federal Govt eventually succeeded in diffusing the situation by assuring the TLP that its demands would be seriously considered by a high-powered committee. Consequently, on November 16 2021, TLP announced the conclusion of its sit-in.

In February 2022, the Chairman of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari announced the ‘Awami March’ from Karachi to Islamabad’s D-Chowk in a peaceful manner. It turned out to be the least troublesome for the Federal Government.

The last long march, before the ongoing one, too wasled by PTI Chairman Imran Khan in May 2022. The government acted tough, using tear gas, water cannon and canisters against the protestors. Imran’s march from Peshawar to Islamabad was joined by convoys of people coming from various parts of Punjab. The Federal Government responded with increased violence and sealing of all approaches to the city by placing containers across the roads. ‘The Supreme Court, observing the situation, directed the government to remove all obstacles, providing PTI space on Highway 9 to hold its protest. As both, the PTI and the ruling government ignored the diktat of the court, the situation began to worsen with every minute.’ However, Imran Khan called off the march after giving six days ultimatum to the government.

Five months later, Imran Khan is back at it as Pakistan is witnessing another huge Long March. This time, his political mission has far bigger scope, aiming at the very fundamentals of Pakistan’s political structure. In April 2022, several PTI senators defected to the opposition, reducing Imran Khan’s ruling dispensation to a minority. This resulted in the opposition, led by Shebaaz Sharief, passing the No-Confidence Motion in the Pakistan Senate. After much dithering, which created a political quagmire, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had to intervene in the matter. With Army having already gone against their own ‘selected’ Prime Minster, and judiciary going strictly as per the constitution of Pakistan, Imran was left with no choice but to resign.

Having presided over a nearly bankrupt nation, with its economy deteriorating by the day, and external debts piling up, the opposition was convinced that Imran will not be able to garner much public support after their ‘no confidence motion’ had been passed in the senate. But the huge crowds turning up to attend Imran’s rallies after his dismissal, proved the Shehbaaz Sharief’ government wrong. It became clear that Imran has been able to generate massive sympathy among Pakistan’s public towards his own cause.

People seem to have accepted Imran’s contention that he was removed at the behest of America as he desired to follow an independent foreign policy. They also believed him when he said that Pakistan Army is playing an American card and must stop meddling in Pakistan’s politics. He hit out at the incumbent Prime Minister Shehbaaz Sharief, whom he called the lackey of external powers out to seek his (Imran’s) ouster. His attack on ISI too was meant to hit out at the ‘Establishment.’ After his ouster,taking heart from many of his rallies which attracted huge crowds these, Imran launched yet another long march, named The Azadi March-II, from Lahore to Islamabad (380km), to force the federal government to declare general elections at the earliest.

The march, which started from Lahore on Friday, October 28, 2022, came to a grinding halt at Allah Wala Chowk in Wazirabad in Pakistan’s Punjab Province on November, 3, 2022, when an ‘assassination’ attempt was made on Imran Khan. The attack resulted in the death of one person and injuries to six other people, including Imran Khan, who got injured in his legs, as were most others.

However, a week later, the world is no wiser than what it was on the day of the incident, as serious questions remained about who fired, with what intention and who exactly was the target. Whatever has appeared in the open media about the incident does not lead to any convincing conclusion.

First question that needs to be answered is, ” Was it an attempt on the life of Imran Khan?”

From the video shown repeatedly on the TV, it appeared to be a lone person wielding a pistol, who is overpowered by another individual standing close by. But the sounds that accompanied this video, one could clearly hear automatic firing, characterized by rapid burst-fire from an AK variety of a rifle. It appeared that the pistol-wielding man was not the only culprit. There was or were others too. Besides, how did Imran Khan get hurt in the lower part of his legs, which were not exposed, but were well protected by the metal sheet running all around the container-mounted truck. Imran Khan and his supporters were standing behind this metal sheet and the bullets providentially missed the exposed parts. However, without wasting any time, Imran Khan named the PM Shehbaaz Sharief, Pakistan’s interior minister, Rana Sannaullah and a serving Major General of the Pakistan Army, Faisal Naseer, presently in-charge of counter espionage of ISI, as the third culprit. He also said he will name the fourth accused shortly.

It is pertinent to mention that AK variety of weapon isvery lethal at short ranges 150 -200 M. At this range, its automatic burst, travelling at extremely high speeds, is unlikely to miss a target, particularly of the type that Imran Khan and his companions presented, while standing on the roof of the truck mounted on a caravan. If it is accepted that the firing was inaccurate and hence did not hit the intended target, that only proves that the culprit was an amateur. Would ISI employ such a person to carry out this dangerous and critical mission? Very unlikely.

Then, who did it? Shall we believe the self-confessing Mohammad Naveed, that he did it on his own for reasons which appear preposterous, viz., that Imran is misleading the people and he is anti-Islam (because the DJ was playing music while the muezzin was giving an azaan). How ridiculous it sounds!

Incidentally, why did Imran Khan have to travel 295 KM to reach Shaukat Khanum hospital owned by him, rather than go to any other hospital nearest to site of incident? It is also being claimed by his opponents that Imran Khan was treated by a lady doctor who alone was permitted to enter the treatment room, while all other doctors were made to wait outside.

This incident forced Imran Khan to suspend his long march for a week, after which it was resumed on Nov 10, 2022.

The jury is, however, still out on the accuracy of the ‘assassination’ attempt. As far as the outcome of Imran Khan’s Long March is concerned, we will have to wat for the eventual result.

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