Despatch from Pakistan | International

Maulana’s march to the capital

Maunala Fazal-ur-Rehman, chief of Pakistani religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam announces his party manifesto for the upcoming elections, Monday, April 15, 2013. Rehman's Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, JUI, party will take part in the upcoming elections scheduled on May 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)  

Mualana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), has announced that he will lead an ‘Azadi March’, which will converge in Islamabad on October 31. The march is like a war and the entire country will be “our war zone”, he said last week, adding that “this war will end only when the government falls”.

Mr. Rehman’s JUI-F, a Sunni Deobandi political party, is part of the joint Opposition alliance. The alliance has been talking about launching street protests for months, but it never took off as some of the parties are not in favour of a lockdown or dharna (sit-in) in the capital. Mr. Rehman unilaterally announced the march and said the protesters would enter Islamabad on October 27, which was later changed to October 31.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had asked him to extend the date. Later, they have conditionally offered their support. Also, there is a perception that Mr. Rehman has the support of some powerful sections. The government, which was earlier dismissive of Mr. Rehman, is now making contact with him for a dialogue. Analysts believe the government is rattled.

Prime Minister Khan’s spokesperson Nadeem Afzal Chan told The Hindu that the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), the ruling party, is not worried about the march. “The PTI is in government right now and it is the government’s duty to protect the people and their livelihood... We are not worried about Maulana’s dharna but are more concerned about pressing matters such as the Kashmir issue and the Afghanistan peace talks. The dharna is only a divergence from these important issues.”

Mr. Chan added that the most interesting thing the dharna has done was to expose those parties that said they would not use the religious card and let anyone attack Parliament. “Now that the tables have turned, they are doing what they opposed once. We will finalise our strategy soon, but we have already decided to have a dialogue with Maulana.”

Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, spokesperson to PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, told The Hindu that the PPP stands for the rights of the people. “We are part of the joint Opposition alliance because we believe that the people’s rights are being usurped by this incompetent government. The media is being muzzled and this government is leading the country towards chaos and anarchy”.

However, the PPP has two basic differences with Mr. Rehman. “One, we will not be part of any movement that misuses the name of religion. Maulana’s use of the religious card against Imran is unacceptable. Two, we have never supported dharnas or lockdowns as it disrupts the lives of the people,” said Mr. Khokhar.

Freedom to protest

He added that since the PPP completely believes in the freedom to protest, “we will welcome Maulana’s march when the JUI-F cadres pass through Sindh. We will also give support for his rallies but if there is a dharna or a lockdown, then we won’t be part of it. But so far, it is up in the air whether on October 31, when Maulana reaches Islamabad, he will announce a one-day rally or a dharna. If it is a rally, we will be with him on the stage.”

It seems that Mr. Rehman is keeping the cards close to his heart about his plans — nobody knows if it will be a long sit-in, a one-day rally or something else. The JUI-F has said the government has given the title of dharna to their Azadi March.

PML-N leader and former Sindh Governor Mohammad Zubair told The Hindu that the PTI government has failed on all fronts — economy, foreign policy and governance. “The situation has continued to go from bad to worse and we expect the slide to continue. That is why the PML-N supports the dharna. We also believe the accountability process unleashed by this government has viciously targeted our leadership.”

There are clear divisions within the PML-N. It was reported that Shahbaz Sharif, former Chief Minister Punjab, had reservations about the march. He told his party stalwarts in a meeting on Thursday that his elder brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not agree with his reservations. Analysts believe Mr. Shahbaz does not want a confrontation with the establishment.

But on Friday, Nawaz Sharif said in Lahore that his party would fully support the march. Speaking to reporters at an accountability court, Mr. Sharif said, “I believe that dismissing Maulana’s call for a march would be absolutely wrong. We commend Maulana’s fervour.”

Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore

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