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Explained: What does the Azadi March in Pakistan signal?

When in opposition, Prime Minister Imran Khan had led a long march to try and topple the then government. Now he faces a similar protest. What is different then and now for Imran and Pak Army?

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: November 5, 2019 7:10:55 am
Explained: What does the Azadi March in Pakistan signal? Tens of thousands of Islamists at a massive protest camp in Pakistan’s capital awaited a deadline set by their leader calling for the Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign. (AP Photo)

In Pakistan’s hybrid military-civilian politics, the ‘long march’, in which an opposition party attempts a non-electoral power grab through street protests, is now a permanent feature. The government manages to continue in office, but is shaken and weakened. In every such episode so far, the Pakistan Army has had some role to play.

This year’s long march, or Azadi March, comes courtesy Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of a faction of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islami, an Islamist political party, whose main base is in the Pashtun-dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. His target is PM Imran Khan, who himself had tried to topple the Nawaz Sharif government the same way.

Fazlur, a veteran politician who has played on both the military and civilian sides and done deals with both religious and “secular” parties, does not accept Imran Khan’s election, has named him as the cause of the country’s economic woes, and has demanded that he resign by Monday.

Fazlur himself was defeated in 2018 for the first time since 1988, though he contested from two seats. However, his party, along with other religious parties in a coalition, won 14 seats in the National Assembly, all from KP and Balochistan, where too Pashtuns live in large numbers. Since the rise of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, the JUI has been marginalised in its home base of KP.

The march began on October 27 in Karachi, and passed through Sindh and Punjab. The massive gathering is now camping for the third night just outside Islamabad. Fazlur has been threatening to lead it into the heart of the Federal capital’s high security zone, to a place called D Chowk, directly opposite the National Assembly and the Presidential Palace. He has been denied permission for this. Amid apprehensions that he may defy authorities, containers are in position to lock the place down if necessary.

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Imran Khan, then & now

Khan has insinuated that those who want him out actually want a deal giving them immunity from corruption cases. He has alleged the march is a conspiracy by “RAW and India”. However, Khan, who was quite the king of long march politics as an opposition politician, may know there is no room for complacency.

In 2014, a year after Nawaz Sharif was voted in with a majority, Khan had rattled his government with a long march-cum-dharna, with the shadow of the military looming large behind the Tehreek-i-Insaf leader. Then, Khan, who made strident speeches from atop a container at D chowk, had openly appealed to the military to unseat Sharif. He was joined by a Canada-based cleric Tahir ul Qadri, and his followers, who had some years before, demanded the resignation of the PPP government by laying siege to Islamabad in similar fashion. Khan’s four month dharna ended in violence as the protesters tried to storm the Prime Minister’s official residence and other government and media offices nearby.

In 2016, faced with Khan’s threats to lay siege to the capital once again unless his allegations of corruption against Sharif were not investigated, the Supreme Court stepped in and set up a panel, which eventually led to the judicial ouster of Sharif less than a year later.

Even after Sharif’s mid-2017 conviction, the PML(N) government was shaken by another siege, this time by Barelvi extremists called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, in protest against changes to the Constitution that would purportedly water down Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. When the government asked the Army to help it disperse the dharna, Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa refused, and instead counselled PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi that “both sides” must avoid violence “as it is not in national interest “, urging the government to handle the matter “peacefully”. Imran Khan came out on the side of the protesters, who dispersed only after the Army brokered a surrender by the government to all their demands. The present ISI chief, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who was then a major general, was the main negotiator.

Within 14 months of his own election, Khan is now getting a dose of his own medicine. There are some key differences between Fazlur Rehman’s march and the one Khan led. For one, the composition: this march is entirely comprised of male students and clerics mobilised from madrasas; women have been disallowed. While PTI’s middle-class supporters, both men and women, came in SUVs, sporting chic clothes and accessories, the only kind of vehicle in this march is the humble Suzuki Mehran. But perhaps the most important difference is this: while tensions between Sharif and the Army backgrounded the Imran Khan march and other marches when PML(N) was in office, this time, the Army and Khan, as the PM has often declared, are on the “same page”.

Why Fazlur can matter

Nonetheless, Islamabad is rife with questions about Fazlur Rehman’s march. The Maulana belongs to a political-religious family from Dera Islamil Khan, in KP. In his long political career, inherited from his father, he has been a supporter and facilitator of the Afghan Taliban, led large protests against the US bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11, and against Pakistan’s support to the US in the war. He also tried to broker peace deals between the Army and the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban groups in northwest Pakistan. He headed the National Assembly’s Kashmir committee at least three times, most recently between 2013 and 2018. In his youth, he was in the anti-Zia Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, but by 2004, he was helping General Pervez Musharraf legalise his coup by backing changes to the Constitution.

In his latest avatar, Fazlur has been openly critical, even more than the PPP and PML(N), of the Pakistan Army and ISI for “selecting” Khan in the last election, and on Friday, challenged it to declare its neutrality. The Army, which in previous such episodes seemed to be on the side of the protesters, has this time been swift to warn that “attempts to destabilise the country will not be tolerated”.

It could be that Fazlur is signalling to the Army that he still remains relevant to the politics of the country and its north west regions. It is telling that while he invited the PPP and PML(N) to join his protest — an offer not accepted by the two parties, although the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto and the PML(N)’s Shehbaz Sharif made speeches at the gathering — he did not extend such an invitation to the openly anti-establishment Pashtun Tahaffuz movement, a huge opposition movement in KP.

The other question about the march is its timing. It is taking place when speculation is rife about General Bajwa’s extension. The Army chief is due to retire at the end of November, and although Imran Khan announced a three year extension, the matter has not yet been sealed and signed officially. There are murmurs that the march could be a pressure tactic by Gen Bajwa, or the manifestation of an internal war in the military establishment between those who back Imran Khan, and those who do not, including those who are against an extension to Bajwa.

The Azadi march has also shown how the nature of the Pakistani opposition has changed dramatically. Earlier, it was the PPP or PML(N) who would have the street power to organise a show like this. Now a religious party has taken the opposition stage, which is welcome from the Pakistan Army’s point of view. Irrespective of how this ends, Pakistan’s political landscape seems poised for another turn of the screw.

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