Finding order in disorder

November 17, 2019

The JUI-F-led Azadi March protest was different from the ones Islamabad witnessed in 2014 and 2017 when roads remained blocked and public life disturbed for weeks


“We are not a crowd. We are an orderly movement,” Abdur Razzaq Lakho, the chief organiser or salaar of the Jamiat UIema-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) sit-in in Islamabad said as he dished out instructions to participants of the protest and the baton-wielding members of Ansarul Islam, decked in their yellow shalwar kamees uniforms. A subordinate organisation of the JUI-F, the Ansarul Islam was sought to be banned by the government ahead of the Azadi March which started from Karachi. At the sit-in, it maintained order and ensured security in collaboration with the local police. Most of Ansarul Islam’s members are people with a background in performing security duties at seminaries.

When Lakho was asked about the sharp decline in the number of protestors over the past two weeks, he said, “The protestors who have left Islamabad can and will be called back if and when needed.” Within hours of The News on Sunday speaking to Lakho, JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman announced his Plan B – asking more supporters to join them in blocking major intersections across the country – reflecting the clarity of command and control of the protest.

On Kashmir Highway at Peshawar Morr, the protest camp had been set up right opposite the sprawling office of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). The tents had been put up in an organised fashion. On the service road, deghs were being prepared perpetually to distribute food among the protestors. Lakho explains that protestors were served food regularly and had instructions to keep the area clean.

Following Wednesday’s decision by the Maulana to leave the sit-in site at Peshawar Morr, the protestors vacated the area peacefully. Lakho says his job is clear – to maintain order wherever they are.

On the other hand, the Islamabad administration too says it was committed to maintaining order. “We are constantly on high alert. Every day speeches are made and new decisions are taken. We tackle the situation accordingly as it is our responsibility to maintain law and order in the city,” says Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat, the Islamabad deputy commissioner. “Order comes first for us… sometimes we have to compromise on law to maintain order. The protestors reached Kashmir Highway which was beyond the agreed point and a violation of law. But we accommodated considering they were cooperative.”

The protestors had been cooperating with the district administration during their sit-in in the capital, said Shafqaat, adding that they had neither cut water supply lines, nor damaged any state buildings nor gotten into altercation with law enforcers. “So we reciprocated. We provided medicines to over 1,000 patients, gave them warm sheets and cooperated with them in other ways,” he said.

“An elderly protestor died of a heart attack. I went and joined funeral prayers where were led by Maulana Attaur Rehman. We also arranged for the shroud etc,” he said. “But our cooperation is conditional on maintenance of order. The moment they cross the red line, we will deal with them accordingly.”

Inspector General of Police Aamir Zulfiqar says that for the police, security of protestors is the top priority. “They are Pakistanis and we are here to protect them. Second, security of all citizens is our responsibility. Third, we need to be safe ourselves, and fourth, we need to protect sensitive installations at all costs. This is the plan of action for the police,” he says.

“We have dealt with protestors respectfully and when you do that you win half the battle.”

When inquired about the security plan in case the protestors move to block the Motorway or GT Road, he says the police will not allow that. “If the protestors fail to maintain order, they will face the full force of law. In either case, we are fully prepared to deal with the situation while staying in the ambit of law. Our top priority is to maintain order and use as little force as possible,” he says.

He adds that organisers of the protest ought to know that if and when there violence is, and the situation gets out of control, even the leaders become irrelevant. “The police are ready for any eventuality.”

Islamabad Chief Commissioner Amer Ahmed Ali holds the main responsibility for maintaining order in the city. “I don’t like to speculate – what will happen if protestors go to this place or that place. My sole concern is that the city life remains functional,” he says. “During the two weeks of protest, traffic was flowing and children went to schools. There was no panic. This is a big achievement. Children have traditionally enjoyed unscheduled holidays during such instances but it adds to uncertainty. And we have not let that happen this time,” he says.

The JUI-F-led protest was different from the ones Islamabad witnessed back in 2014 and 2017 when the roads remained blocked and public life disturbed for weeks.

Ali says they are actively using social media to keep people informed of the situation. “Our DC is very active on social media. Time is precious and information sharing can save time.” The city administration understands the need for information sharing in such situations, adds Ali which is why, he says, we have developed a free app to keep citizens informed of important developments and the road situation.

Ahsan Raza, a journalist, says both sides have emphasised order and restraint. But the fact that huge crowds were present bang in the middle of the federal capital smacks of disorder. “Why should only the Islamabad administration be held responsible considering this crowd has moved through all the provinces to reach here?”

“Food trucks are still coming from Khyber Pakhtunhwa. There has to be coordination on a large sale. In case of an escalation, things will get out of the hands of the federal administration,” he warns.

The police strategy

In addition to the Islamabad police and the Frontier Corps, 5,500 cops had been called in from the Punjab, 600 from Railways Police and 2,000 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Inspector General of Islamabad Police Aamir Zulfiqar told The News on Sunday. “From our force, we made sure that senior and culturally sensitive police are deployed close to the protestors. They know their sensibilities,” he says. “The rationale behind this decision was that those police officials who understand the language and lifestyles of the protestors will be unlikely to provoke them or be provoked by them,” he adds.

When inquired about the disorder in police ranks that was witnessed during the 2014 and 2017 sit-ins in Islamabad, he says that was not something that happened this time. “This time, there were about 19,000 police officials in the town. Arranging safe lodging and food for them was a big task. But food was properly served to them thrice a day. For their lodging, we made arrangements at Police Lines, Liaquat Gymnasium, Rawat and other places.”

Senior police officials, including the IGP and the DIG, also took meals with other officials on the ground. Wearing riot gear had been made mandatory for all officials, he says adding that if someone was hurt, as happened during the past protests, due to negligence regarding wearing protective gear, it was ordered that action would be taken against the relevant SP.

Police officials had been told to bring warm clothes and quilts with them. “It was not an easy task to make arrangements for so many officials but it had been done in a satisfactory way though one always has the feeling things could have been even better,” he says.

The writer studies and teaches media. He can be reached on Twitter at @furraat

Finding order in disorder: Azadi March vs 2017 Islamabad sit-in