Faizabad is a prime site for protestors who can cripple Rawalpindi by choking the traffic artery
It is sometimes said that the real Pakistan starts at Zero Point, Islamabad. Faizabad is the first stop on the way.
The funeral of Mumtaz Qadri, the confessed killer of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2016, started a trend. According to the BBC, around 50,000 people gathered for the prayers held at Liaqat Bagh, on March 1. Some of the local media persons who covered the event said the number of people in attendance ran into hundreds of thousands. The gathering gradually turned into a protesting crowd. By the time the rally reached Faizabad, fiery speeches were being delivered against the government.
The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which was officially formed in 2015, came into its own with the funeral.
The following year, the party staged a violent return to Faizabad and paralysed the twin cities for weeks. Islamabad High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice of the situation but the protestors refused to budge. They broke up only after an agreement was reached with the state. It stated that they were grateful to Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, for saving the country from a “catastrophe”.
Mufti Muneebur Rehman was pleading on behalf of the TLP back then, as he did this time around.
Since then, the party has returned to occupy Faizabad almost every year.
Faizabad lies at the junction between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Murree Road is the main route from Rawalpindi to Murree and Azad Kashmir. Islamabad Expressway links Islamabad with the GT Road and serves the bulk of motorists headed to Islamabad. IJ Principal Road connects Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The three roads converge at Faizabad.
The municipal administration of Rawalpindi has shown little imagination in dealing with the situation. This is evident from the mess around the place. It is due to this mismanagement that the situation in Rawalpindi went from bad to worse last month in anticipation of the TLP march to Faizabad.
On October 22, the city was all but sealed. The movement of heavy vehicles stopped. From Mareer Chowk to Faizabad Interchange, Murree Road was sealed using shipping containers. Liaquat Road, Gowalmandi, Moti Mahal, China Market, Iqbal Road, Dhok Khabba, Circular Road, Kohati Bazaar, Chandni Chowk, Rawal Road, Sixth Road, Shamsabad Double Road and Dhok Kala Khan Road were also closed.
These roadblocks prevented timely transport of perishable food items to various city markets. Many patients were unable to reach hospitals for potentially life-saving treatment.
The riot police on emergency duty were also largely left to fend for themselves. They were deployed at crowded points and there was no adequate arrangement to supply them food and water.
An ASI, who wishes to remain anonymous, mentioned in a conversation that their plight improved only after the media highlighted the issue.
The Rawalpindi administration failed to contain TLP protestors and prevent them from reaching Faizabad. The current Punjab government has changed the Rawalpindi deputy commissioner on a yearly basis. For all their efforts, they have yet to establish order in the city.
Ziaul Qammar, a journalist living in Rawalpindi, says that many weddings were postponed due to the roadblocks. He says hotels and marriage halls were also closed. According to Barrister Mansoor Shah, senior vice chairman of the Pakistan Hotels Association: “The hospitality industry took serious economic hits from the pandemic and closure of roads.”
He says: “When a violent protest is feared, hotel customers postpone or cancel their plans. Of particular importance is the cancellation of seminars and conferences which are a major source of revenue.”
“It’s this side of the business that takes a massive hit when there are protests or security issues. The hotel business is not just about selling rooms, there is also large-scale catering and hospitality operation going on as part of the business. The growth potential is immense, but it is constrained by such issues,” he lamented.
Ahsan Reza, a news analyst, says, “Violent protests at places like D Chowk and Faizabad can be used to bring the state to its knees. But when protesters occupy these spots, what happens to the public opinion? Everybody heaps scorn on them.”
He says peaceful picketing is an accepted form protest worldwide.
However, things tend to turn violent in Pakistan once the protestors occupy such places. Many in the crowd then start showing aggression towards law enforcement personnel.
Aware of the trend, the federal government did not leave anything to chance this time. It was determined not to let the TLP proceed to occupy Faizabad once again.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed appeared to change his stance on the matter. Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain was clear and consistent.
“It is never advisable to block roads. If it is inevitable, alternate routes must be available and flow of traffic must be made uninterrupted. If a truck carrying tomatoes is stopped for a whole day, the produce will begin to rot,” says Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat, the Islamabad deputy commissioner.
He says the Islamabad administration had put containers only around Faizabad. “All other roads were kept open, which is why supply of daily use items in the federal capital was not affected.”
“At times like this, order is more important to us than law. We succeeded in keeping order. In the past, when JUI-F came to Jinnah Avenue, we signed an agreement with them and they abided by it. Despite weeks of camping at Srinagar Avenue, we made sure that all roads in the city were running. The protestors never crossed the limits.”
Muhammad Salim, an ASI in Islamabad police, says that the cops staying in Islamabad were provided food on time and kept in clean places to prevent the spread of contagious diseases.
At the time of the first agreement with the TLP (2017), the party was at Faizabad; at the time of the latest deal, it was en route to Faizabad.
The writer teaches development support communication at International Islamic University Islamabad. Email: Hassan.email@example.com