Marching on the capital — a history

Published August 17, 2014
PTI supporters wave flags at the party’s sit-in.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
PTI supporters wave flags at the party’s sit-in.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

ISLAMABAD: The long marches and sit-ins by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and Pakistan Awami Tehreek are not unprecedented. Islamabad has seen a number of political movements over the past five decades.

The most famous marches were spearheaded by the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif when both were in opposition.

The first major demonstration in the capital took place on July 4 and 5, 1980, when the Shia community marched on the capital to protest the enforcement of the Zakat and Ushr Ordinance by former president Ziaul Haq.

The protesters, led by Shia leader Mufti Jaafar Hussain, laid siege to the federal secretariat, effectively paralysing the bureaucracy. It was then that the government gave in to the protesters’ demands and declared them exempt from paying Zakat to the state.

Then, on Aug 17, 1989, during Benazir Bhutto’s first term as prime minister, opposition parties led by Nawaz Sharif surged towards the capital to observe the first death anniversary of Ziaul Haq at the picturesque Faisal Mosque. This was the first-ever challenge to the government of the day, which initially decided – much like the ruling party of today – to seal Islamabad. But later saner heads prevailed and Aitzaz Ahsan, who was interior minister at the time, facilitated the entry of the mourners. They later dispersed peacefully after paying their respects and making political speeches. Some observers maintain that by doing so, the marchers got what they wanted.

A few years later, on November 16, 1992, Ms Bhutto, now leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, announced a long march after declaring that the 1990 general elections were rigged. This movement forced the late Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who was president at the time, to dissolve the first Sharif government, though it was reinstated on Supreme Court orders on May 26 1993.

The next year, on July 16, 1993, Ms Bhutto marched on the capital again, which was completely sealed this time around. The situation was defused after the army chief, Gen Waheed Kakar, forced President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign.

Former Jamaat-i-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed also held a sit-in in Lahore when former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee came to visit the city in 1999, during Nawaz Sharif’s second term.

The lawyers’ movement for the restoration of the judiciary began when former military ruler Pervez Musharraf sacked chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in March of 2007.

This led to countrywide agitation, culminating in the first long march, which consisted of Justice Chaudhry and his entourage, including lawyer leaders Aitzaz Ahsan, Munir A. Malik and Ali Ahmed Kurd, going around the country campaigning for restoration.

After a brief restoration, Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in November of 2007 and sent the top judge packing for a second time. Judges were detained and made to retake their oaths, a move which many judges resisted.

This prompted the second leg of lawyers’ protest, which culminated in a countrywide long march to the capital under the regime of the Pakistan People’s Party. Led by Nawaz Sharif, the march was called off in Gujranwala after then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani made a late night speech announcing the reinstatement of the former chief justice and all the other judges of the superior judiciary.

Between October 2013 and March 2014, the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, a group of people whose loved ones had allegedly been picked up by security agencies, marched from Quetta to Islamabad via Karachi on foot, in what was the first ever long march in the truest sense of the word. Led by Mama Qadeer, a group of about 30 marchers, including a sizeable number of women and children, walked a total of 2,000 kilometres, breaking the record set by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi - the great non-violent activist of undivided India - during the Salt March of 1930. But despite their resolve, the activists were unable to exert enough pressure on the government to secure the acceptance of their demands.

The last major sit-in witnessed in the capital was the demonstration by Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief Dr Tahirul Qadri, who marched from Lahore to Islamabad on January 14, 2013, and camped out at Jinnah Avenue near D-Chowk for over four days. That sit-in ended after successful negotiations between the government of the day and the protesters. However, things do not appear to be going the same way for Dr Qadri as they did last time.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2014

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