RAWALPINDI: When PK 777 – the first Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight to take off since Feb 2 – flew to Jeddah from Benazir Bhutto International Airport (BBIA) on Sunday, it opened the door for more PIA employees to cross the picket across the country.

Once flights began leaving Islamabad airport, it was easy for the government to convince other stations, such as Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar, to resume flight operations. “Pilots who were working as part of ground crews were asked to take the initial flights, and once that happened, other cities were told to follow suit,” a senior PIA official told Dawn.

Flights could not take off without the catering service, as per international norms, and since PIA’s own catering service was completely shut down, the management had to arrange for food from Qatar Airlines at five times the normal price.

“Only 20 per cent of staff came back to duty by Monday, despite the government’s best efforts to restart flight operations. But it was the arrest of their leaders that finally convinced many employees to come back,” he said.

When the protesters’ camp was moved from outside the airport, the government made major headway. While many explanations were offered for this move, it was obvious that the camp was shifted to ensure the security of PIA employees who were returning to work.

Employees and pilots who operated these flights from Islamabad were also brought to the airport under the protection of Elite Force commandoes.

PML-N flexes muscle in Punjab by booking union leaders; picket-crossing in Islamabad paves way for resumption of flight operations

When flight operations resumed on Sunday, both Shujaat Azeem and the aviation secretary remained at the airport until the first three flights departed.

Internal rifts

Divisions between pilots, ground staff and other PIA employees also played a part in helping the management resume flight operations from BBIA much faster than other airports.

But what really tipped the scales in the government’s favour was the ruling party’s use of its muscle in Punjab, where it controls the district administration, police and allied institutions.

“It is no secret that People’s Unity leaders were arrested, but Air League leaders were not,” a People’s Unity office-bearer told Dawn.

A senior official from the City District Government Rawalpindi told Dawn that local Air League leaders had been in touch with the district administration over the past five days. He said local police were asked to register cases against Air League office-bearers, but were instructed to provide them enough margin that they could obtain bail.

“In Islamabad, police and the local administration were pestering air hostesses to go back to work,” said Zulfikar Ali Khan, an executive member of the PIA Air League. He said the local administration and police had initially allowed protesters to set up camp outside the airport and had plied protesters with tea. But at the same time, he said, it deployed policemen outside the houses of PIA employees to intimidate them into rejoining their work.

Zaigham Kiyani claimed that certain employees had been offered money to come back to work. “Flight stewards Asadullah Khan and Noor Sher, for example, were offered financial rewards if they came back to work, but they refused,” he said.

Three of the protesting leaders, PIA Supervisor Sohail Mukhtar, Tariq Aziz Dar and Saleem Akhtar Bhatti, were detained by the district administration after the imposition of Section 144 under the Maintenance of Public Order, on Sunday.

In addition, four other protesting leaders, PIA Employees Union President Ramzan Laghari and Employees Union General Secretary Zaigham Sajjad Kiyani, Shoaib Yousufzai and Talat Azad were booked. The latter three belong to the PML-N supported Air League, while Mr Laghari hails from the PPP-backed People’s Unity faction. These men were not arrested, but were given time to post pre-arrest bail until Feb 16.

Palpa President Amir Hashmi told Dawn that pilots had not been on strike and nobody was stopped from resuming flight operations, even though there were concerns for the safety of those who crossed the picket.

Even media access was controlled. The airport management had already imposed a ban on journalists’ entry, only allowing them to enter when invited by a competent authority. Although this ban had been in place ever since the refurbished BBIA was opened to the public, it really helped push the official narrative.

Enter Shahbaz Sharif?

However, despite the ‘subversive’ role played by the Punjab government in ending the strike, Joint Action Committee Chairman Sohail Baloch had suggested that they wanted to negotiate either with Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif or Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

“The government accepted their demand and Shahbaz Sharif sent his son Hamza Shahbaz to hold talks with the protesters. Throughout the talks, he was in touch with the chief minister,” a senior PML-N leader told Dawn.

He said that after the remarks made by the prime minister and cabinet members such as Mushahidullah Khan and Pervaiz Rasheed, the JAC was forced to hold talks with ‘impartial’ representatives from the government side.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2016



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