Has the government set a wrong precedent by allowing the Faizabad sit-in to continue?
The pleading of Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Sardar Yousaf, the warnings and deadlines of Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, the hard-hitting statement of Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani, the order of the Islamabad High Court and the suo motu action of the Supreme Court have not worked to remove a few thousand protesters of religious parties at Faizabad in Islamabad -- or at least till the filing of this report on Thursday.
These protesters -- representing the Tehreek-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan (ST) -- overstepped the red line on Wednesday by manhandling 12 policemen and FC personnel by stone pelting and two photojournalists by snatching their cameras. Yet nobody dared to apprehend them despite the presence of thousands of law enforcers.
They have made themselves quite comfortable at the protest site with blankets, food, tea, dry fruits… While they keep themselves cozy at what looks like a camping site, the regular commuters between Rawalpindi and Islamabad face immense difficulties as their routine to workplace and back has been drastically disrupted.
During a Supreme Court hearing on Thursday, Justice Qazi Faez Isa shared the anger of people suffering because of this prolong standoff between the state and the protesters. He even asked the government why it did not block the news of dharna on social media.
The honourable judge also came hard on the intelligence agencies, asking who is funding the sit-in and who is providing them food. He expressed dissatisfaction over the reports submitted in the court by the IB and the ISI, noting a mediaperson perhaps know more than the intelligence personnel. He warned if the situation was not brought under control, the country’s major decisions would be taken on the streets of the country.
Such warnings seem to have fallen on deaf ears and the state seems to be appeasing the clerics. The more space the state cedes to the religious right, the bigger they grow in size and influence. Z.A. Bhutto did everything in his power to appease the clerics but in the end he was ousted because of an agitation that was mainly led by the religious right and backed by the powers that be. The government’s offer to send Law Minister Zahid Hamid on leave was unacceptable to the clerics who want nothing short of his resignation, and a strict action against those behind the amendment to the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat oath in the Elections Act 2017, which, to them, it "is not a mistake but a conspiracy".
"We think that it was a well-thought-out conspiracy, and want those responsible for it to be punished. If the government’s five-member committee comes up with the offer of the minister’s resignation then we will hold talks. Nothing short of [the minister’s] resignation will be acceptable. If the investigations prove him to be innocent, he can take his job back," says Pir Ejaz Shah, Spokesman Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, continuing that it is a serious matter. "A matter that is close to the heart of 200 million people of this country."
The Faizabad protest has provided an excuse to other religious organisations to do politics on the issue. Deobandi clerics, whose very existence is hated by Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi, have also thrown their support behind the firebrand orator. A meeting of Deobandi clerics in Karachi recently endorsed the same demands. The Shuhada Foundation of Laal Masjid has also extended its support for the protesters.
So, what do we know about Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the man who has held the federal capital hostage?
Chief of Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Khadim Rizvi, shot to fame after making fiery speeches in favour of Mumtaz Qadri. Hailing from a small village of Attock, he moved to Lahore decades ago, according to sources. He studied at a Barelvi seminary, Jamia Nizami. After graduating from there, he started teaching at the same religious institution. He later also joined Makki Masjid near Data Darbar as Khateeb of the Auqaf Department. He was sacked for making speeches in favour of Mumtaz Qadri.
When Jamia Nizami forced Rizvi to resign after his diatribe against the state institutions, thousands of his students scattered all over the country and some wealthy individuals came to his rescue. Some of his diehard devotees are camping with him in Islamabad.
Rizvi has turned his oratory into a profession. His devotees would voluntarily give him anything between Rs30,000 to Rs100,000 for a speech. These days he is affiliated with a mosque in Lahore besides running his own religious outfit.
He joined Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) as a worker decades ago, becoming the head of its wing, Fidayaan e Khatm e Nabuwat, that works on the issues related to finality of Prophet (peace be upon him).
After the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, he parted ways with his old party, accusing them of adopting silence over the hanging of the assassin. Rizvi also lambasted the JUP for supporting the MMA, which included Deobandi religious parties.
Political parties are silent on the issue. The meeting of some office bearers of Pakistan People’s Party with the controversial mullah prompted Chairperson Bilawal Zardari Bhutto to remove them from their posts and issued them showcause notices.
"The PPP and the PTI must not forget that such situations may arise when they are in power," says Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed, former director Pakistan Study Center, Karachi University. "In the past, the religious parties were used to dislodge civilian leaders. In 1953, the agitation by the religious right culminated in the sacking of Khawaja Nazimuddin and the then Punjab government that also threw a covert support behind these religious agitators. So, the political parties and the parliament should come up with a mechanism to deal with this situation."
He adds, "If an individual becomes the judge of everything and ignores even the orders of the judiciary that ordered these protesters to be removed, then it will push the country towards anarchy and lawlessness."
But Afzal Shigri, former Inspector General of Sindh Police, believes politicians should not meddle with administrative affairs. "It is too late now. The government should have let the police deal with the situation. It is not difficult for police to disperse a few thousands protesters but politicians kept on dithering, holding this meeting, forming that committee, issuing warning now and then. Such dithering allowed the protesters to swell in size besides emboldening the clerics."
Now, he says, it’s a complex situation and there are protests in other parts of the country as well. "At this stage, the use of force could be counter-productive."
Shigri thinks the government has set a dangerous precedent by its inaction. "It has exposed the weakness of the state authority, besides creating an impression that law and order has collapsed in the federal capital. Such inaction does not augur well for the future of Pakistani state because it will encourage other people and parties to come up with unacceptable demands which the government will find difficult to accept."
Some pro-PML-N analysts suggest that these protesters may have the support of the invisible hand. But PPP Senator Taj Haider does not buy this argument. "PML-N is a reactionary right-wing political party that even helped the Taliban to get regrouped and rearmed in the name of talks. The ideology of these people sitting in Islamabad and those of Noon league is the same."
Haider believes in politics ideology matters a lot. "Captain Safdar threw his support behind such people. The ruling party cannot move against its own people. Such people have been supporting PML-N. So the party will not offend them by using force."
Marxist political activist Dr Lal Khan believes that these protesters are not ordinary people and that they do have links with parts of the establishment. "We witnessed the brutal state force against the peasants of Okara, the workers of Faisalabad and elsewhere. Had it been a demonstration of PIA or Steel Mills workers, the state would have crushed it within no time but these are not ordinary people. These people enjoy ties with some of the ruling circles. It seems there is a division within the ruling elite with some supporting the religious right and others wanting an action against them."