Govt, opposition end hours-long discussion on 'Azadi March' with no result

Updated October 25, 2019

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The two sides pictured holding talks at Akram Durrani's residence in Islamabad on Friday. — Video screengrab provided by author
The two sides pictured holding talks at Akram Durrani's residence in Islamabad on Friday. — Video screengrab provided by author

Discussions between the government's negotiation committee and the opposition's Rehbar Committee on the anti-government 'Azadi March' ended late Friday night without any results.

The two sides had initially held talks on Friday evening with the government team putting talks on hold briefly to seek time to take into confidence top government leadership.

The meeting, which was held at JUI-F leader Akram Durrani's residence in Islamabad, later reconvened after both sides had a discussion within their own groups.

Talks were to resume at 10pm, according to Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani, but started at around 10:30pm.

The Rehbar Committee members had also earlier in the day, prior to the meeting with the government, gathered for a discussion between themselves.

Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, who led the government side, said the initial talks — which lasted around two hours — were held "in a cordial environment". "Both sides put forward their recommendations. God-willing we will give the nation good news soon," he had said.

Later, after the second phase of discussions concluded without any headway, he said: "No important conclusion could be brought about today even after much discussion. But talks will continue."

From the opposition camp, JUI-F leader Durrani said "no conclusion could be arrived at".

Sources privy to the meeting told DawnNewsTV that the venue of the protest remained a sticking point in the first round of discussion, with the government refusing to grant permission for it to be held at D-Chowk and instead offering that it may be held at Parade Ground. The opposition did not agree to the government's offer.

The sources further revealed that of the opposition's demands — which include the prime minister's resignation, fresh elections, supremacy of civilian institutions, and the safeguarding of clauses pertaining to Islam within the Constitution — in the first round, talks were held only on the protest venue.

According to the government team, the opposition presented them with a written proposal of the demands. These were discussed with the prime minister before talks resumed.

The opposition committee members in attendance included Durrani, Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP)'s Awais Noorani, PPP's Nayyar Bukhari and Farhatullah Babar, PML-N's Ahsan Iqbal, former National Assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq, Awami National Party's Mian Iftikhar Hussain, Qaumi Watan Party's Hashim Babar and National Party's Tahir Bizenjo.

Top leadership of the main opposition parties including PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman were not present in the meeting.

From the government's side, the seven-member negotiation committee comprised Khattak, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, Sanjrani, MNA Asad Umar, Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood, Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri, and Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervez Elahi.

During the course of the first meeting, Islamabad Assistant Deputy Commissioner Waseem Ahmed was summoned, who arrived a few minutes later to join the discussion.

Earlier, when asked by a journalist if the government team had brought with them the prime minister's resignation — as demanded by the JUI-F chief a day earlier — Khattak said talks about the resignation are "off the table".

Meanwhile, JUP's Awais Noorani, in a casual conversation with reporters, said that the opposition were standing by their demands. "If they haven't brought in the resignation today, they will have to one day."

'Azadi' March

JUI-F chief Rehman had announced in June that his party had decided to hold an anti-government long march to Islamabad in the month of October in a bid to topple the government, which he sad had come to power through "fake" elections.

The Maulana had first set October 27 as the date for the long march, but later deferred it till October 31, saying they would instead organise rallies on October 27 to express solidarity with the people of Kashmir, who would be observing a black day all over the world against Indian atrocities in occupied Kashmir on that day.

Prime Minister Imran Khan last Friday had constituted the seven-member negotiation team under Defence Minister Pervez Khattak to engage the JUI-F and other opposition parties ahead of their planned march. The JUI-F chief had given a go-ahead, the following day, to his party’s secretary general and Senator Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri to meet the Senate chairman, who, as a member of the government negotiating team, had contacted him over telephone and sought a meeting.

On Sunday, after the PPP objected to the negotiations, Rehman had stopped his party's delegation from meeting Sanjrani, saying a decision on talks with the government would now be made by the opposition’s collective Rehbar Committee.

On Monday, after a meeting of the Rehbar Committee, JUI-F leader Durrani told the media that the option of negotiations with the government is subject to the party being permitted to take out a peaceful 'Azadi March' on October 27.

Subsequently, on Wednesday, the government had decided to let the opposition's 'Azadi March' protest in Islamabad proceed as long as parameters laid out by courts for lawful protest are not breached.

That same day, Khattak and Elahi had reached out to Durrani and JUI-F chief Rehman regarding their protest march.

It was then decided that a meeting between both sides should be held on Friday (today).