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Two protesters sit inside a sewerage pipeline to keep themselves warm following rain on Tuesday. — Photo by Mohammad Asim
Two protesters sit inside a sewerage pipeline to keep themselves warm following rain on Tuesday. — Photo by Mohammad Asim

RAWALPINDI/ISLAMABAD: At least five police officials were assaulted on Tuesday by participants of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah protests, which have paralysed the twin cities for over a week now, even as government ministers warned demonstrators to disperse or face police action.

Additional deployment of police, Frontier Constabulary and Punjab Constabulary personnel around the protest venue – in areas such as Islamabad Highway near Faizabad, Sector I-8 and 9th Avenue – reportedly made the protesters nervous, leading to clashes with security officials.

The most severe altercation took place in I-8 on Tuesday morning, where a group of demonstrators, armed with sticks and stones, cornered and assaulted at least five officials, including the Industrial Area station house officer.

The men were rescued by their colleagues, and the extra deployment was withdrawn to avoid further confrontation. Police arrested over a dozen protestors during the clashes and registered more cases against them for attacking police officials.

But later in the evening, security personnel took up positions around Faizabad again, securing Murree Road, I.J. Princpial Road, and both sides of Faizabad on the Islamabad Expressway. However, officers instructed personnel to keep their distance from the protesters and avoid a confrontation.

Police officers said the deployment was made to cope with any situation. “We are ready to round up the protesters if they create a law and order situation, disturb the peace, resist or attack security personnel or citizens,” they added.

Later, a confrontational message from Mufti Mohammad Hanif Qureshi, one of the leaders of the sit-in, was circulated on social media, calling on all prayer leaders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to gather in support of the demonstrators.

“They do not have the courage to attack us, because they know we can gave them a hard response,” the cleric said in the message, adding that in case any action was taken, all religious leaders in the city would mobilise support for the demonstrators from their respective mosques and seminaries.

In Rawalpindi, which is governed by the Punjab government, police began to block people from entering the site of the protest, but the district administration said it had no plans to dislodge the demonstrators by force.

A district administration official told Dawn that the provincial government was not interested in taking action against the protesters and had not asked the administration or local police to hold talks with them.

“When we sought directions, high-ups said that the federal government will deal them. The protesters are staging the sit-in inside Islamabad’s territory, but people from Rawalpindi join them on a daily basis,” he said.

“According to police reports, all main leaders of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah have booked rooms in hotels around the Faizabad area and move there to avoid arrest. Many workers are also hiding in different mosques in nearby localities and will join the protest in case of any police action,” the official said.

Also on Tuesday, the Rawalpindi District Bar Association also joined the protesters and demanded the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid, also announcing a ban on his entry to the district bar premises.

A bar meeting was held under the chairmanship of President Sajjad Akbar Abbasi, and later, a delegation went to Faizabad to express solidarity with the protesters.

Ministers’ warning

The federal government, however, seems to have lost patience with the protesters. In a press conference, three key ministers warned the participants of sit-in that it would take the authorities minutes to clear Faizabad.

“If [the protesters] do not agree to talk to us in rational terms and end the sit-in, an operation to clear the site is eminent and will be conducted in the near future,” Minister for State for Interior Talal Chaudhary said, adding: “All agencies and departments of the country are onboard with the government’s plan.”

Flanked by Minister for Religious Affairs Sardar Muhammad Yousuf and Capital Administration and Development Division (CADD) Minister Dr Tariq Fazal Chaudhary, Mr Chaudhry claimed that the government could not sit idly by as the demonstrators brought the capital to a standstill.

The ministers were asked about rumours that certain quarters were backing the protesters, which was why the government had been helpless in uprooting them from their perch at Faizabad, despite the inconvenience to citizens.

However, the state minister for interior claimed that there were no misunderstandings between the government and any agency, adding that all such rumours were being circulated by participants of the sit-in to create confusion.

In these circumstances, he said the government was seriously considering launching an operation.

“There is no deadline, but we are responsible for the residents of the twin cities too. The government will find another way out if the talks fail.”

“The demand for the law minister’s resignation is absurd since he has not done anything wrong,” Mr Chaudhary claimed, saying that the sit-in was actually politically motivated.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2017