On November 27, the military brokered an agreement between Islamist protestors and the civilian government to end three weeks long Islamabad sit-in. The story was began after a controversial amendment in ‘Elections Act 2017’ and protestors of Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) camped in Faizabad interchange on November 8, 2017.
On October 2, 2017 the Federal Government of Pakistan led by Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) passed the ‘Elections Act, 2017’ containing a controversial amendment in the nomination paper about the finality of Prophethood (Khatm-e-Nabuwat). In the previous bill, the nominated candidate ‘solemnly swear’ that I believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH), however in the new bill the government replaced the words “I solemnly swear” in Form-A with “I believe” in a clause relating to a candidate’s belief in the finality of the prophethood, which termed a suspected move of government to allow Qadiani’s and Ahmedi’s to hold top positions in public offices.
The said amendment sparked anxiety and stir in the country and the issue was widely debated on assembly floor and in general masses which compelled federal government to restore the bill in its true form and on October 5 the National Assembly passed the Election Reforms Amendment Bill 2017.
Although the bill was restored in its true form, but a tail of protests originated from Lahore by the TLYR head Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Tehreek-e-Labaik is one of two ultra-religious political movements that have risen up in recent months. The protestors camped out on the edge of the capital and paralyzed the socio-economic life of the city. The leadership of protestors accused Zahid Hamid, Minister for Law for alleged amendment and demanded for immediate removal from his post. Addressing emotionally charged demonstrators, Khadim Hussain Rizvi said they will not end sit-in until the government has sacked Hamid. “We will not allow anyone to change Islamic laws”.
The government made several peaceful attempts to disperse protestors and initiated a dialogue between protestors leadership and government authorities. But the repeated attempts failed to break deadlock due to firmness on demands by both parties. Tehreek-e-Labaik was demanding immediate removal of Law Minister and inquiry about conspirators, whereas the government refused to step down Zahid Hamid and argued that matter is already solved and no inquiry is needed.
At the same time, Khadim Hussain Rizvi was booked by Islamabad police in two cases, the first was lodged by a father for the death of his child who died in an ambulance blocked by the protestors. While, the second case was filled by Magistrate Ghulam Murtaza Chandio for the violation of Section 144 by protestors, along with other charges.
Despite, the repeated peaceful attempts of the government to end sit-in, finally in the morning of November 25th the federal government ordered Islamabad police with the help of Frontier Constabulary (FC) and other law enforcement agencies to launch an operation to disperse the agitators from Faizabad. Roughly 8,500 elite police and paramilitary troops in riot gear took part in the clearance operation and used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protestors. In response the protestors used stones and rocks to attack the advancing security forces, as well as tear gas shells. By the end of day, at least six peoples were killed and over 200 were injured. Unrest in the federal capital spilled over across the country and protestors chanted anti-government slogans and blocked major roads. In many areas, protestors abused LEAs and damaged public property. Meanwhile, a high level meeting of capital administration and police officials, chaired by Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal failed to devise any strategy to control the volatile situation in the capital territory.
Therefore, on Saturday evening, the federal government issued a notification to deploy military in Islamabad under the Article 245 of the Constitution to aid civilian law enforcement agencies. However, the military had agreed to the request, but put forth a series of issues must be deliberated prior to deployment. Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor tweeted that the army chief telephoned the prime minister and suggested the clearance operation in Islamabad be handled peacefully, “avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in national interest and cohesion”.
The COAS told PM Abbasi that he is opposed the army’s use of force against its own people since the population’s trust in the institution of the army “can’t be compromised for little gains”. However, he assured the PM to accommodate civilian government to arrange an agreement with the protestors. Consequently, on November 27 an agreement was signed between two parties and the federal government accepted six demands put in by the protestors including immediate removal of law minister, Zahid Hamid and the publication of report prepared by Raja Zafar ul Haq within 30 days and whoever is named in the report for being responsible for the change in the election oath will be acted against under the law. The document of the agreement bears the signatures of Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, Interior Secretary Arshad Mirza, TLYR leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, two other protest leaders and Major General Faiz Hameed, who facilitated the agreement.
Here it is necessary to seek an answer of a question that what military has proved through brokering an agreement between civilian government and protestors? The deal has exposed that even with the completion of nine years of democratic rule at a stretch, power-sharing mechanisms remain subjugated to military influence. The civilian leadership in Islamabad failed to gain control on Khaki Generals in Rawalpindi, and military is still playing overwhelming role in internal and external affairs of the country.
Similarly, the deal disclosed various fault lines that are worsening the existential crisis the state faces, a weak and bitterly divided civilian government is mainly responsible for the mess. It is evident that the Punjab government facilitated the march on Islamabad as part of an agreement with TLYR thus throwing the problem to the central government. On the part of central government, protestors were facilitated to setup camps on Faizabad interchange by not commencing an operation to disperse them.
After the IHC intervention, the government began an operation, but the ill-will and incoherent strategy of authorities threw the entire operation into hostage. The statement by the interior minister distancing himself from the operation demonstrated the prevailing disarray in the government.
The military has employed dual strategy to broker a deal between the civilian government and the protestors. It put the entire responsibility on civilian government to create chaos and disorder and swiftly turned down request of federal government to use force against protestors, but it assured the government to use its influence over Islamist parties to resolve the issue peacefully. The military proved that the political leadership is not enough capable to control Islamists and it is dependent on Rawalpindi. However, the actions of military also proved that it hold considerable influence over Islamist parties and it can use them as a weapon against political leadership.
On the other hand, Islamists and general public applauded the arbitrary role of military and they welcomed the soldiers and took selfies with them. The expression of deep love for military was a signal of distrust on political leadership. Both, the general public and the religious parties recognized that the military is not only guardian of physical borders of the country but it also guard the Islamic ideology and it will not make any compromise on the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH). Khadim Hussain Rizvi praised the role of military and said “we are thankful to him (Gen Bajwa) for saving the nation from a big catastrophe, “the agreement document concludes, crediting the army chief and his representative team for their “special efforts”. Therefore, the recent episode unveiled that the military achieved more than it was expecting. It reminds political leadership that it is still powerful to keep them under control and assured Islamists that they have true friends in Rawalpindi.
*Mehmood Hussain is a PhD Fellow in International Relations at School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA), Jilin University China. His research interests are China-Pakistan relations, foreign and domestic policy of Pakistan, United States and Pakistan relations and the United States Foreign Policy towards South Asia. He can be contacted through [email protected]