Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) chief Fazlur Rehman on Saturday likened his upcoming 'Azadi' March to a "war", which he said would "only end when the government falls".
"The entire country will be our war zone," he told reporters at a press conference in Peshawar.
The JUI-F leader has announced to set out on a long march against the government on October 27 that will culminate in the capital, where the party plans to hold a sit-in.
"Our strategy will not remain stagnant. We will keep changing it to cope with [any] situation," he said. He insisted that a "flood of people from all over the country" was coming to join the march and the "fake rulers will drown in it like a straw".
When asked whether he has been able to garner the support of other opposition parties, he said that he "hope(s) to see them" in the march. He added that since all opposition parties agreed that last year's general elections were "fake" and that a reelection should be held, they should all be "on the same page and same stage".
Both PPP and PML-N — the two major opposition parties — have been non-committal on the issue of participation in the march. The PML-N had urged Rehman to delay the march, while PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari had yesterday said that he would hold a party meeting to decide "the extent to which [they] can help" Rehman.
The PPP had expressed unwillingness to participate in the anti-government movement because of the inclusion of the issues of blasphemy laws and Namoos-i-Risalat on its agenda. Moreover, both the PPP and the PML-N had also opposed the idea of holding an indefinite sit-in, as the PTI did in 2014.
Rehman, in his press talk today, said that while he was not afraid of being arrested, such a move would fan the protesters' anger against the government.
In response to a question about the government's claim that the JUI-F chief was "using" children studying in seminaries against the government, Rehman alleged that the rulers were trying to deny the students their democratic right.
Moreover, he claimed, the proportion of seminary students would be minimal, as people from every walk of life were joining the march.
A PTI leader had told Dawn that Prime Minister Imran Khan, during a meeting yesterday, had lamented that Rehman was using innocent children of madressahs against the government, but he [JUI-F chief] should realise that after the victory of the government’s stance on the Kashmir issue in the recently held United Nations General Assembly session, he would not be able to exploit the “religious card”.
"By taking up the madressah issue, you (government) want to garner international support," Rehman said today.
"The prizes you (prime minister) distributed among students of seminaries was an attempt to counter us but it was in vain."
He urged the "establishment, bureaucracy and police not to back this illegitimate government and distance themselves from it".
"We have stated our policy. We do not want to clash with institutions, that we want to respect them.
"But if the institutions adopt a policy to clash with the people, then, if these institutions suffer damage in future, whose fault will it be?"
When asked if he thought that the "selectors" were disappointed in the current government, Rehman said: "That would be in accordance with human nature. Our institutions should be tired and disappointed [...] but it surprises me that even after such obvious failures and crises they (institutions) insist that they will back this government."
The JUI-F chief denied that there was any similarity between the sit-ins held by the now-ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Pakistan Awami Tehreek's Tahirul Qadri and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan's Khadim Rizvi, saying he was leading a march for the "independence" of the public.
He was visibly annoyed when asked if the party was collecting donations for its march and said: "Why wouldn't we? It is our right, where else will we get money from? Why is there so much noise over this?
"We are not being funded by any western country. We are asking our workers, friends."
Rehman, during his press conference, also criticised the government's plan for educational reforms in the country after launching into an anti-Semitic attack against prominent billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros.
He alleged that the government's "agenda" was to "make Pakistan's educational system subservient to the West".
"We know who he [Prime Minister Imran] met in New York," Rehman said. "[He met] George Soros, who runs an NGO and distributes funds all over the world in the garb of bringing about educational reforms. By meeting that infamous Jew, [the government] has made it clear that they don't want to bring reforms in religious education. They want to make Pakistan's educational system subservient to the West."
Rehman went on to accuse the prime minister of meeting people who "conspire against other countries".
"They [the government] befriend such conspirators, who are Jewish, and then tell us they want to reform the education system," he declared.
'You will find support nowhere'
The government's chief spokesperson Firdous Ashiq Awan, in response, called out the JUI-F chief for consistently having misused his position as a man of (religious) knowledge and who will now find that "he will receive support from no where".
"On the one hand you have a prime minister who feels the pain of the 22 crore (220 million) people of the country and is determined to rescue them from these difficult times and on the other, you have a man who is weary and restless from being away from the house number 22 where he used to live — Fazlur Rehman.
"I will not call him Maulana because that is a term used for a custodian of knowledge. And all he has ever done is use that knowledge for his own person and to benefit his own self.
"He has always used the politics of gain, and with hypocrisy and blackmail, used religion as a shield," said Awan.
She spoke of how in accordance with the premier's vision, for the first time in the country's history, Madressah Reforms were brought in under the National Action Plan.
"Those children who were always used as a religious card, and propped up as shields, were instead provided computers and armed with the benefits of a uniform education system linked with the latest technology which will be in line with all the quality education systems other children had been benefitting from.
"Now because these children are linked to the prime minister's vision and are partners to the progress in the human development index we wish to see, those who always thought themselves to be the guardians of Islam, using the religious card to make their way into the government benches, are now going beyond that mission."
Referring to Rehman, she said that "such people" are now in cohorts with two parties who are being investigated by National Accountability Bureau (NAB), are faced with multiple charges, and are serving their sentences. She remarked that the imprisoned leadership, in turn was "hiding behind the maulana and firing shots at the government".
"When Kashmir has become a flashpoint instead of embalming their wounds maulana sahib has decided to launch into a useless, untimely campaign," she said.
She said that in the midst of when Pakistan is shoring up support and when the prime minister is working hard to project a strong and economically stable image to the world, the JUI-F chief was spreading chaos and propaganda with the aim of benefitting his own self.
"This campaign you have undertaken to speak on the people's behalf, this is not the country's narrative or their pain. This is your own pain of staying away from power which is not letting you rest in peace."
"The government is well aware of all your trickery [...] this donation campaign you have started of which you are very proud.
"Those who wish to use the children for Rs100 handouts, the government has them pegged.
"Now, neither will you get support on a religious platform nor will the people in any way sacrifice themselves to your wishes," said Awan, avowing, "We will counter your every hit, with the support of the people."