Faizabad Sit-in

Three weeks have passed since the religious parties, namely Tehreek-i-Khatam-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labiak Ya Rasul Allah and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan, have held the Capital and our values hostage. These religious parties are infuriated over the alleged amendment to the Khatam-i-Nabuwwat oath in the Elections Act 2017, which was deemed as a ‘clerical error’ by the government and has already been reversed. The protestors have, nevertheless, persisted with great zeal claiming that only the removal of the Law Minister, Zahid Hamid, will lead to an end of the sit-in. The government remains unresponsive to this demand and has instead focused efforts on a peaceful resolution, which for now remains elusive. The religious parties have blocked the Faizabad Bridge which connects Rawalpindi and Islamabad through the Islamabad Expressway and Murree, both of which are two of the busiest roads in the region. The Supreme Court had earlier taken a suo motu action regarding the matter, and set a deadline of 23rd November for the Government to clear the roads – citing Article 15 of the Constitution that allows freedom of movement to the public. The government has refused to forcefully remove the protestors, who might have sympathizers in potential voters come 2018.

Justice Isa sensationally claimed that if the situation isn’t managed properly the country’s decisions will be taken on the streets, and not in parliaments and courts. Come to think of it, our decisions have been made or at least coerced into reality on the streets for some time now. Only 4 years back, Imran Khan led his party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and a huge number of supporters into the Red-zone of the Capital that houses high-level buildings including the Prime Minister House, Parliament and the Supreme Court, before the government decided to meet him halfway. This new episode appears to be a different ball-game altogether: for one the issue they have taken up with the government has already been addressed. Yet they are insisting on the removal of the Law Minister, who is already being investigated for his possible role in the amendment and he could well be removed if such involvement is proved. Even more concerning are some of the threats that were directed towards the families of the relevant ministers. The potential of violence from amongst the gathered protestors cannot be ruled out, since they have beaten up Police officials who have at best been on-lookers for the past three weeks. Wooden sticks and steel rods were seen in the hands of the protesters who tried encircling and roughing-up the deployed policemen, and turned violent towards the journalists trying to take pictures of the incident as well. Around 200 arrests have been made in connection with the violence against the Police, from a crowd reported to be around a couple of thousands.

Make no mistake, it is not a question of a few thousand. The case of Khatam-i-Nabuwwat and the opposition to the minority Ahmeddiya Community has existed since the 1950s and is fairly widespread. It has snowballed multiple times, sometimes bordering on the edges of genocide. A vast majority of the Sunni community, which is by and large the majority in Pakistan, deems them as blasphemers. Instead of providing protection to this persecuted minority, governments have over the years exploited the misery of this persecuted minority to their advantage. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the last person one would expect to be far-right or conservative, had them declared non-Muslim in a last ditch effort to regain his dying legitimacy and popularity in 1974. Not much has changed, as Captain (R) Safdar was quick to push the Ahmedis against the wall yet again, in a recent hate speech in the Parliament. This effort was motivated by a desire to direct attention away from the government’s failures or to widen their voter base – prior to this sit-in. Only two days back, when asked about the government’s failure to resolve the Faizabad sit-in, the same PML-N MNA Capt. (R) Safdar carefully remarked: If it was up to him he would be part of the Islamabad Dharna. It is relevant to note that the political party mainly involved in the sit-in, Tehreek-i-Labaik, has recently gained prominence and was able to bag over 7,000 votes in NA-120 by-elections.

The weakness of the State is at display as they are trying to weather the storm, while the protestors grow bolder and more violent, which is worrying to say the least. There is an ominous silence on the part of almost all State institutions of the country, while the Army has categorically stated that they would follow the Governments decision in this regard. Religion is a sensitive issue and these protestors are exploiting the strength of these religious sentiments, which has the potential of brewing into a breeding ground for increased religious intolerance. The Judiciary appears to have shown strong resolve, and has sought clarification from the Government over the handling of the situation. The Judiciary, nevertheless, cannot deal directly with the issue, with the Interior Minister trying to avoid confrontation at all costs. Probably all State institutions are wary of dealing with this religiously politicized issue, unless the nation itself introspects and works to remove the monopoly of religious thought from the political clergymen who incite violence at will.