The Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) and other opposition parties on Wednesday kicked off their movement to “force the PML-N out of power — both in the federal and provincial governments” with a protest staged on Lahore's Mall Road.
PAT chief Tahirul Qadri arrived at the venue a little before 5pm and was welcomed by a large crowd of gathered supporters and prominent leaders from multiple political parties. PPP flags mingled with the PAT tricolour and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf's (PTI) green-and-red standard as supporters waited for their leaders to address the gathering.
The chiefs of PTI, PPP, Jamaat-i-Islami and the PML-Q had on Tuesday reaffirmed their pledge to be part of the inaugural rally on The Mall.
Asif Ali Zardari was slated to address the crowd before evening prayers, allowing Imran Khan to take over after maghrib after the PTI refused to share a stage with Bhutto's party. However, that plan seemed destined for problems as the PPP co-chairman arrived late for his address.
I will consider resignation from NA: Imran Khan
Before PTI Chairman Imran Khan began his address to the protest rally in the evening, a documentary was shown on a large screen on the stage detailing the alleged excesses of Punjab police.
"I wanted to show you all that the police was not fighting an army but was firing towards unarmed citizens," said Khan as the video ended. He said such response by law enforcement to people's democratic right to protest could not be seen anywhere in the world.
Comparing incidences of social injustice in Punjab to those in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the PTI is in the government, Khan said that while no justice had been served in the Model Town incident and the child sexual abuse and Zainab murder cases of Kasur, police in KP had actively moved against the accused suspects in the murder case of a young girl, the DI Khan girl stripping case and the Mashal Khan lynching case.
"No one hopes that justice will be delivered [by Punjab government]," he said.
He said the success story of KP's law enforcement was that the provincial police of KP had been depoliticised and there was no interference by the government in police functions.
He challenged Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to visit Mardan and criticise KP police, saying the residents of the area will throw "eggs and tomatoes" on him as they have full confidence in the local police.
The "fascist" Sharif brothers had ordered police to open fire on protesters in Model Town in 2014, Khan alleged. He alleged that instead of investigating the culprits involved in the incident, the Sharif brothers had six fake first information reports (FIR) registered against him through police.
"Shahbaz and Nawaz Sharif, listen with your ears open, no General Zia brought me into power... I have come here after standing on my own feet for 22 years.
"Whatever you do, you cannot compete with me," Khan said.
The PTI chief said his party stood with the PAT leadership and would support whichever direction Qadri intends to take the protest towards.
Regarding Awami Muslim League (AML) chief Sheikh Rashid's announcement that he would resign from the National Assembly and his invitation to Khan also resign from his seat, the PTI chief said he thought Rashid idea was "very good".
"I will immediately talk to my party and it is possible we will soon join you [in resigning]," he said.
While wrapping up the protest gathering, Dr Qadri said the protest was no longer a movement of PAT only, but has now become the entire Pakistan's "battle to acquire justice".
He warned the PML-N leaders to not mistake the protesters' peacefulness for "weakness", adding that future decisions will be taken with "collective ownership" of all parties.
"You will have to go," he concluded, addressing the PML-N leadership.
Taking a jibe at Rashid's announcement to resign, PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz said in a tweet: "Those asking for resignations have been forced to resign! Glory be to Allah!"
The conscience of Pakistan has awoken: Tahirul Qadri
PAT chief Tahirul Qadri began his address by saying that the conscience of the nation has woken up.
He said the fact that the opposition parties had joined hands to present a united front has "everything to do with the blood of the martyrs of Model Town", and of Zainab, the minor girl who was raped and murdered in Kasur earlier this month.
Qadri said today the whole political and religious leadership of the country has gathered at Mall Road as proof of the fact that the country has awakened and its conscience has been invigorated.
"We are here to get rid of this modern day Mujibur Rehman," he said, in a reference to Nawaz Sharif, who had recently likened himself to Rehman. "And to keep the judiciary free, and to uphold democracy. and to uphold the sanctity of this country."
Claiming that he had been "persecuted" over the years and "pushed towards revolt", Sharif had earlier this month drawn parallels between what he considers to be his own 'cornering' by the state and the events that led to the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan.
"[Former Bangladesh prime minister] Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was not a rebel, but was made into one," Sharif had remarked, referring to the tragic consequences that followed the state's refusal to allow a popularly elected leader to hold the prime minister's office.
Qadri urged the crowd to "wake up" and take a look at the "enemy", referring to the PML-N leaders.
"It is that 'enemy' who is not awakened when our girls remain unsafe... the 'enemy' that does not bring the law into action when a young girl loses her honour."
Qadri said the protesters had not gathered in Lahore to take any steps against democracy but "we want supremacy of the Constitution and law in the country".
"We only want to bring down this sultanat-e-Sharifiya (sultanate of the Sharifs)," he said.
He said the protest is in fact a movement of justice for "Zainab, Shazia, shuhada-e-Islamabad (martyrs of Islamabad) and shuhada-e-Model Town (martyrs of Model Town)".
Alleging that Shahbaz and Nawaz Sharif had accumulated their wealth through corruption, the PAT chief said it was due to the their "character" that one brother (Nawaz) was facing cases in the Supreme Court and the other (Shahbaz) has allegedly turned Punjab police into a "militant wing of PML-N".
He claimed that Rs7.5 billion of the budget had been allocated to the Punjab police in the past few years to provide protection to the Sharif family.
"Why did the police not provide security to my sons and my daughters?" he asked. "Was this country created only for the sultanat-e-Sharifiya?"
He alleged that the Sharifs run Punjab as it were a "business". "While these people are [in power] this country cannot have democracy and supremacy of the Constitution and law," he said.
Qadri said the protesters wish to rid the country of the Sharifs and bring hope to the people.
"The martyrs of Model Town and those of Kasur are the emblems of their oppression," he said, adding that nations which do not raise their voice against oppression end up forgetting their own history.
Zardari lashes out at Nawaz
Zardari began his speech by turning his guns on ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif right off the bat.
Recalling that Sharif had a few days ago claimed that he was being treated like Mujibur Rehman, Zardari asked: "Is it a matter of pride for him that he should be unfaithful to the land and be called a traitor?"
"What has happened to you?" he asked, addressing Sharif.
He said the PPP will take every step possible to take the rulers out for the sake of the country. "These people know I can get rid of them whenever I want," he said.
Zardari recalled that Benazir Bhutto had gone to all parts of the world and delivered speeches, "but not one of her speeches is against Pakistan". He said Benazir had spoken against dictators but never against the country.
"The problems we see here today are the fruits of a dictator, Ziaul Haq."
He said the Sharifs do not have any concern for Pakistan, "they only know what Jati Umra is" — a reference to the Sharif family's residence near Lahore.
We are all one: Khursheed Shah
Senior PPP leader Syed Khursheed Shah set the speeches in motion after 6:20pm, saying in his address that all parties were united in the anti-government cause.
"We are all together... the people of Pakistan are one," he said, adding that all leaders had gathered at the protest for the sake of democracy.
"We are asking for justice for the blood of the martyrs," he said, in a reference to those killed in the 2014 Model Town incident.
"Today there is a bouquet of all people and we are one and we will move forward together."
The Lahore High Court (LHC) had earlier in the day allowed PAT to go ahead with its sit-in, but with certain conditions — including ending the sit-in by midnight.
The judgement was announced on a petition filed against the protest.
"Media should not cover the dharna after 12am," the court said in the verdict, which had been reserved earlier in the day. "Lahore police should provide full security to the sit-in but the provincial government can take action if the sit-in gets violent."
Justice Aminuddin Khan, reading the verdict, had stressed that the sit-in should remain peaceful, and added: "No one should be allowed to take the law into their own hands".
The district administration had dithered in granting formal permission for the rally till Tuesday night, but did not thwart the arrangements either. Meanwhile, the PAT workers transported a container, hundreds of chairs, large screens to show documentaries of the Model Town incident, and a sound system to the venue. Police, in a way, facilitated the would-be protesters by diverting traffic and keeping the venue clear.
The city traffic police had claimed that The Mall would be officially closed at 12am (Wednesday) but it remained closed for the better part of Tuesday as well, creating hurdles for commuters. The government had further announced that educational institutions — the Punjab University (old campus), the Government College University, the National College of Arts and seven schools — in and around the venue would remain closed on Wednesday.
The Lahore Zoo administration, too, announced that the facility would not open the whole day through.
Police had drawn up a security plan for the day in advance. SP Security Ammara Athar said the venue would have three-tier security, with more than 6,500 policemen and 1,500 wardens being assigned duties. This would be in addition to three companies of the Punjab Rangers, who would be manning ‘vulnerable points’ along the venue. An upward of 40 walk-through gates would be used and six entry points were finalised, one of these for women participants, she said.
The steering and action committees formed during the Multi-Party Conference had also met to finalise the protest plan. After the meeting, PAT chief Dr Tahirul Qadri briefed the media on the plan. “There will be one container and one stage, where all the leaders including Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari will address the protesters from the same podium,” he said.
The protest, he said, would be split into two sessions: one before Maghrib prayer and the second after it. The PAT says such an arrangement is meant to facilitate people during prayer timings though it was rumoured that it was a deliberate plan to arrange separate the addresses of Imran Khan and Zardari.
Speaking at a press conference at his party headquarters in Lahore, PTI spokesman Fawad Chaudhry also made it clear, “the PTI cannot share the stage with Asif Ali Zardari. That’s why it requested for separate sessions for Imran Khan and Mr Zardari and Dr Qadri obliged.”
Dr Qadri also told the media that all the decisions had been taken with consensus. “All the parties have agreed on two points: one that Shahbaz Sharif, being the prime accused in the Model Town case in the light of the Justice Baqar Najafi report, must go, and second, the protest would go on till he is forced out of office. We are not asking for his resignation but will force him out of office.”