Govt offers talks or ‘action’ to marchers

October 20, 2019

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Federal Minister for Defence Pervez Khattak and Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood address a press conference on Saturday.—White Star
Federal Minister for Defence Pervez Khattak and Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood address a press conference on Saturday.—White Star

ISLAMABAD: After getting a cold response over its talks offer, the government has once again ‘requested’ the opposition to come to the negotiating table, but with a veiled warning that “the state has all the right to establish its writ otherwise”.

The fresh offer for talks was made by Federal Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, the head of a seven-member committee formed by the government to engage the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) and other opposition parties ahead of their planned Oct 31 ‘Azadi March’, at a press conference at Parliament House on Saturday. He was accompanied by Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, another member of the committee and, like Mr Khattak, one of senior leaders of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Pakistan (PTI).

Hours after the presser by the two ministers, the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) came out with a reaction and asked Prime Minister Imran Khan to first apologise to the nation and to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for having staged a sit-in in 2014 before offering talks to them.

Mr Khattak again outright rejected the opposition’s demand for the prime minister’s resignation, saying such a demand amounted to “an attack” (on the constitution).

“The prime minister’s resignation is impossible. This will be an assault. We will not let it happen. Then there will be an action,” Mr Khattak warned. “If the talks fail, law would take its course to protect life, property and businesses of the citizens.”

PML-N asks Imran to apologise over 2014 sit-in before dialogue

Addressing the opposition parties, particularly JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Mr Khattak said: “We are repeatedly asking you to come and sit with us. If you have any issues, you should talk. There is democracy (in the country). If you don’t sit with us and talk, we would have fulfilled our responsibility. Whatever happens afterwards, only you (the opposition parties) will be responsible for it,” Mr Khattak said.

The defence minister warned that if the opposition tried to foment unrest in the country, the government would be left with no option but to “act” and make decisions according to the law.

“If you will not come (for talks), then there will be chaos. There will be riots. Whichever situation emerges, then don’t complain,” he said.

“We have opened our cards. The government will act in accordance with the law. It has decided to establish its writ. We will not allow anyone to harm businesses of the people,” he went on saying.

“... If someone challenges the government, it is not just Imran Khan that is the government, it is the state. And it is not just the PTI that forms the state; we have an entire system and those who want to harm it, will receive rightful response.”

Asked to elaborate what action the government would take to stop the marchers from entering Islamabad, Mr Khattak said it would be decided by the interior ministry and other institutions.

He said some people were unnecessarily objecting to inclusion of National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser and Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani in the government committee.

“We have included them and the Punjab Assembly speaker to show that the government is serious about talks. These figures have been included in the committee as they are to talk with the political heavyweights like Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif and PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.”

Mr Khattak said they had also requested Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal to become part of the committee and if he agrees, Mr Sanjrani would no more be a member of the panel.

The minister said messages had been sent to all opposition parties and now “we are waiting for their response”.

He said the country was faced with several crises, including the Kashmir issue, which had gone on the backburner due to the opposition’s protest march.

“It seems there is some other agenda. They are following an Indian agenda to bury the Kashmir issue,” he said, asking Maulana Fazl to think about the country and Kashmir. At one stage, Mr Khattak desperately said if the opposition wanted to “appease Narendra Modi” and if they had an “anti-state agenda”, only then they would not opt for talks.

The defence minister said no one should have a misunderstanding that the government had formed the committee under some pressure.

Shafqat Mahmood said they had the information that the JUI-F was planning to bring students of madressas in the protest march.

“Do politics but do not drag children in it,” he said.

When reminded that the PTI had also brought college and university students in its sit-in, Mr Mahmood said “madressa students are considered to be school going children and there is a difference between them and adult college students”.

Drawing comparison from the PTI’s sit-in, Mr Khattak said the party’s approach had been different whereby the National Assembly, courts and Election Commission of Pakistan were approached before a protest was called. “When all options exhausted, only then Imran Khan decided to march on Islamabad.”

The defence minister further said despite the Panama Papers scandal, the PTI held talks with government representatives even in containers and discussions continued. “When a commission was formed to probe the election rigging, we accepted its decision.”

On its part, PML-N secretary general Ahsan Iqbal sought to remind the government that carrying out protest was a right accorded to citizens by the Constitution.

“How can those who themselves had staged a dharna object to a protest?” he asked, terming the talks offer a “two-faced move”.

“The 126-day sit-in caused a shutdown of schools, the Chinese president’s tour was cancelled and now you are worried about children’s education,” Mr Iqbal said in a statement.

“Imran Khan should first render an apology to the nation and to Nawaz Sharif before talking about negotiations,” the PML-N senior leader insisted.

On the one hand, he said, this “incompetent” prime minister had laid down before them (the opposition) this “farce” of the committee, and on the other, he was using foul language against political opponents.

“The entire opposition, the traders, labourers, students and media would all come out (on Oct 31) to rid themselves of Khan’s follies,” Mr Iqbal concluded.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2019