Has Nawaz Sharif brought all this upon himself through his short-sightedness and lack of political vision?
Nawaz Sharif appeared to be doing quite well after his hat-trick as prime minister, following the PML-N’s resounding victory in the 2013 elections. With his party enjoying a simple majority in the parliament, his position seemed unassailable. On the economic front, things had started to look up because of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s economic wizardry. Sharif had also developed a rapport with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a prospective that held the promise for better relations between the two countries.
It all looked hunky dory with the Sharif brothers initiating spectacular development projects such as the metro bus scheme, the tunnels and the overpasses to showcase Punjab as a model of development a la Modi's Gujarat. Then something snapped. Imran Khan, who had been agitating against poll rigging and demanding a recount of ballots in disputed constituencies decided to take his protest to the streets when he failed to get justice from any other quarter. He proclaimed an Azadi march on the capital on the country's Independence Day – August 14.
A horrifying incident took place in Model Town, Lahore a few weeks later. The secretariat of Dr. Tahirul Qadri's Minhajul Quran was barricaded by his workers from security’s point of view. The barricades had been in place for quite a long time. But suddenly, on June 17, the Punjab government decided that the barricades must be removed. The Pakistan Awami Tehreek’s workers
resisted the move, pelting the police with stones when they tried to remove the barricade. The latter responded with a shower of bullets. Fourteen PAT workers were killed on the spot and many more were wounded.
Unlike the case of Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto, when the police had registered the FIR against him for the murder of Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Kasuri, this time the police refused to register an FIR because it cited the prime minister and the Punjab chief minister among the 21 defendants. PAT then petitioned the court upon which an additional sessions judge ordered the police to register the FIR. Four federal ministers – Saad Rafiq, Khwaja Asif, Abid Sher Ali and Pervez Rasheed – appealed to the high court against the order but their appeal was dismissed. Yet, when the FIR was reluctantly registered, the police doctored it so as to allow the prime minister and his brother to wriggle out of it. Tahirul Qadri dismissed the FIR demanding that it should be registered according to the complainant's version. Thus, even after two months, the issue was still in the doldrums.
In protest against the Model Town "massacre", Dr. Qadri also announced a Revolution March to Islamabad starting on August 14. At first the administration tried to block the marchers. But as tempers rose, the governors of Sindh and Punjab intervened. An ugly situation was averted as the marchers were allowed to proceed.
The two groups converged on Islamabad simultaneously, but remained separate. The government again assumed a threatening posture with thousands of policemen, Rangers and regular troops, besides placing hundreds of containers on the roads to prevent the marchers. But ultimately it gave way. The protesters removed the containers, moved from D Chowk to the Red Zone and held sit-ins on the Constitution Avenue.
It was the exemplary peacefulness of the agitation that prevented the administration from displaying its muscle. As one analyst observed, even after a fortnight not a single flower pot was broken. This was unprecedented in Pakistan's political history where even the PNA led by the religious parties resorted to wanton destruction in 1977.
Moreover, it was also for the first time that in a mass political agitation, the participants included not only men – young and old – but also a large number of women and children and even babies in arms. Despite heavy showers and scorching heat, they remained calm.
Both leaders addressed separate meetings of their followers and presented their charters of demands. The point on which the two leaders were united was the resignation of Nawaz Sharif and holding of fresh elections under a national government.
The Jamaat-e-Islami chief, Sirajul Haq embarked on shuttle diplomacy between the government and the PTI. Opposition leader Syed Khursheed Shah also formed several committees to engage with the protesting leaders. Altaf Hussain issued appeals to both sides to settle their issues peacefully. Among other political parties, the Chaudhrys of Gujarat – Shujaat and Pervez of the PML-Q – supported Qadri while Sheikh Rashid of the Awami Muslim League chose to stick with Imran Khan. However, the PML-F was conspicuously silent, while Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the JUI-F took out rallies against Imran Khan.
Khan announced a countrywide civil disobedience movement, exhorting businessmen and others not to pay their taxes and utility bills. But the request did not receive any support from the business community. However, PTI lawmakers submitted their resignations on Khan’s instructions.
Nawaz Sharif remained unfazed, scorning the size of the protesting crowd. Several rounds of meetings were held between the government and the protesting leaders separately. Imran even suggested that the prime minister should step aside for at least one month to enable a smooth vote recount in the disputed constituencies. But Nawaz refused the offer and the deadlock continued.
Meanwhile, Shahbaz Sharif met the army chief, and the latter himself held several meetings with the prime minister, counseling a speedy settlement of the dispute. At last, Nawaz Sharif requested the COAS to mediate. The army chief met Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri but the result was zilch because neither would compromise on their demand of Nawaz Sharif's resignation.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court took a plunge into the fray by admitting petitions against the protests and ruled that the PAT and the PTI should vacate the Constitution Avenue. From the government it was a clear vindication of its policy. The Supreme Court performed what was the primary duty of the police.
As time wore on and nothing transpired even after the army chief's meeting with the protesting leaders, both Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri directed their workers to march towards the Prime Minister's House. A clash with the police ensued in which tear gas and rubber bullets were freely used. Many protesters were killed and more than 400 were injured.
Meanwhile, the MQM weighed in, declaring a day of mourning against the police action and hinting that it would bring its workers on the streets should the government continue using force against the demonstrators.
As these lines are written, the battle between the demonstrators and the police continues. Neither side is willing to retreat from its position. Meanwhile, after a corps commanders' meeting, the army deplored the use of force and once again asked both sides to settle the dispute through negotiations.