If Talat Husain could sense six days ago that the Faizabad dharna was not about Islamabad alone, and if Afrasiab Khattak could sense that it was not about the federal law minister alone, what was it that the government could not sense with so many resources and 30 years of political experience behind it?
The government’s own ministers are on record as having said they wanted to avoid another Model Town, that they were proceeding with caution to avoid violence and fatalities. Then why did the interior minister blink and start an ill thought out operation all of a sudden without proper planning? After Justice Shaukat Siddiqui’s order to remove protestors from Faizabad, the Supreme Court had already taken notice of the situation and provided an excellent way forward for the government: the supreme court had cited the ISI’s report as having identified the aims of Tehreek Labbaik as being political not religious; it had asked why electricity to the area had not been cut off; it had asked why intelligence agencies and the city administration had not found out who was bankrolling and feeding those obstructing the Islamabad highway.
Instead of following the Supreme Court and creating logistical obstructions for the protestors, interior minister Ahsan Iqbal, without considering the wider implications of an ill thought through operation, followed through on Islamabad High Court directives which were clearly pointing in the direction of trouble. He should have challenged that order and submitted the case was in the Supreme Court and the matter being dealt with as the Executive thought best.
Iqbal has no excuse to not have foreseen what we witnessed yesterday after having dealt with two dharna’s under this government’s rule. Every time it was about regime change. Did the government’s intelligence gathering not tell it that cities in Punjab will be made to light up in a supposedly religious war against it? We see violent Barelvi mobs burning and bringing cities to grinding halt all over Punjab as if on cue just as the operation in Islamabad started. Mosque and madressa crowds are holding Bara kahu, Faisalabad, Okara, Sahiwal, Lahore, Sialkot, Kharian, Gujranwala, Sheikupura, Multan, Sargodha, Muridke etc hostage perpetrating violence on roads, police stations, plazas and ordinary citizens on the call of Khadim Rizvi and his backers.
The government’s panicky reaction after the riots has a total blackout of news channels in place; Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Dailymotion stand blocked country wide, with rumours of mobile networks being suspended soon. However, nine hours after the start of the operation, Khadim Rizvi’s live Facebook stream remains intact, with instructions going out on where to gather in every city of Punjab. The incompetence of government is stunning. While citizens cannot communicate, Khadim Rizvi continues to do so. The government has not even managed to shut down electricity in the area where he is sitting in and charging his phones.
Apart from the operation being ill planned, the forces sent in were ill equipped: police throwing tear gas shells didn’t have tear gas masks – the protestors had masks and threw the shells back at the police besides using their own tear gassing equipment at the police, in addition to pelting them with small boulder sized stones and killing one as a result. The protestors managed to nab quite a few law enforcers and beat them up too. Is this what an ‘operation’ should look like?
A political worker visited the dharna site yesterday afternoon and spoke to workers of the Sunni Tehreek, who are part of the ‘protest’. They reported they were under strict orders from Rizvi to not attack the police, but only to resist. The police had managed to move the mob when a large crowd of ‘unknown’ elements joined in the fray and started to beat the police back. Was the minister of interior unaware that this would happen?
As of now, the operation is suspended and ‘meetings’ are ongoing in Lahore of all places. The Prime Minister of the country is sitting at the ex-Prime Minister’s house to strategise. Well timed. Strategy being made after utter failure. It is not as if this party and this government has not been up against the dark forces for decades. Most of Punjab is shut with the motorway shut, all its exit and entry points shut, major roads in major cities shut, with the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of Punjab try to devise strategy now.
The public advised the government to stop the Tehreek Labbaik in its tracks when it was moving on Islamabad via GT road 22 days ago. But it failed to take action. The public advised to order the army to move the protestors once they were ensconsed in Faizabad. The government didn’t budge. Had it done so then, it would have been better placed than it is now, even if the army had refused to obey orders. Neither does the government take timely action, nor does it make key information publicly available in a timely fashion, but seems to be expert in starting untimely and ill planned operations.
Why has government failed to announce the military refused its requisition of extra Rangers for Lahore? Why is only Punjab alight with the exception of Karachi? Why is there no trouble in Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkwa? Is it because Punjab is the stronghold of the PMLN? And the plan was to burn Punjab?
With homes of three PMLN ministers having already been attacked by mobs, the DGISPR tweets that the Army Chief phoned the Prime Minister to observe restraint and for ‘both sides’ to avoid violence for the sake of national cohesion. What does that even mean? Both sides? As if the government and the goons are equal? And in which world do armies advise chief executives and then tweet their accomplishment? The government knew this agitation was not about Namoos e Risalat, there having been no such act committed by anyone. This was a blow in a series of blows meant to bring down government, parliament, democracy and the constitution in that order. Already, channels and anchors are talking about the resignation of the Law Minister not being sufficient any more. They want the government to go.
I had always argued the feud was not about Nawaz Sharif, but about what he represented: people’s will, people’s power, democracy, the constitution. And every element of the argument is proving true with every passing day. This is why much more craftiness was required than was demonstrated by the interior minister. He needed to have ordered the military to deal with the protestors. And he needed to have gone with the Supreme Court instead of falling in the trap of the well known Islamabad High Court.
The writer is a human rights worker and freelance columnist.