Azadi March venue could disrupt daily life in Islamabad

Updated October 28, 2019

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The ground where the JUI-F and other opposition parties will hold their public meeting in H-9. — White Star
The ground where the JUI-F and other opposition parties will hold their public meeting in H-9. — White Star

ISLAMABAD: The Azadi March could disrupt everyday life in the capital if it is prolonged or spins out of control because the venue chosen for the march is located in the heart of the city, near educational institutions and government buildings.

The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the capital administration have agreed that the protest will be held in the car park of the H-9 Sunday Market, near Peshawar Mor along Kashmir Highway. The venue is next to the metro bus depot and track.

The JUI-F held public meetings across the country and began marching towards the capital on Sunday. The march is scheduled to reach Islamabad on Oct 31, and the leadership of the party has not announced its duration.

During a visit to the protest site, Dawn found that while the space will accommodate a large number of protesters, the organisers will have to take steps to reduce dust and remove weeds before people gather there.

One half of the venue is used for parking for visitors to the Sunday Market and the other half, which contains a cricket pitch, is abandoned. The car park is also used as an unauthorised link road between Kashmir Highway and H-9.

Defence Minister Pervez Khattak said the protest site is between 20 and 30 acres. He told the press on Saturday that the JUI-F have chosen to hold their gathering there.

This is the first time this site will be used as a protest venue. It is located along Kashmir Highway, which leads to Islamabad International Airport, the G.T. Road and the motorway.

H-8 and H-9 are also designated sectors for educational institutions and home to schools, colleges and universities, as well as several government offices.

Upscale schools, private universities and Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) are located in H-8, while H-9 contains the National University of Modern Languages, Iqra University, H-9 FG College, Technical College, Higher Education Commission Secretariat, Excise and Taxation Office, National Curriculum Council Office, Children’s Library and so on.

Across Kashmir Highway there are government offices such as the Federal Directorate of Education, which supervises the capital’s 423 educational institutions.

H-9 Colony resident Ishaq, who was waiting for his friends at the protest site, said this venue should not have been allotted for the protest because citizens will suffer in the event of a prolonged sit-in.

He said Sunday Market visitors will be inconvenienced and, in the event of unrest, it will be easy for the protesters to block Kashmir Highway, the Peshawar Mor interchange and the metro bus track.

He said the abandoned area in front of the Shakarparian Parade Ground should have been chosen instead.

Typically, political groups prefer a show of force at D-Chowk, which is where the PTI held its 126-day dharna. The JUI-F had also sought to hold its march there.

After 2014, the area near Parade Ground was declared a ‘democracy park and speech corner’, and this was where the PTI held a rally in 2016. Before this, under the last PPP government, it was decided that opposition parties would be given space in F-9 Park for protests, but this venue was almost never used.

A senior capital administration officer told Dawn that this site is better from the administration’s perspective than F-9 Park.

“First of all, the protesters have assured us that they will not enter the Red Zone. If they try, it will be easy for us to curtail them. As far as F-9 Park is concerned, that is closer to Blue Area and the Red Zone than this place,” he said.

The government previously suggested the JUI-F hold its protest in front of Parade Ground, but the opposition parties refused.

Another administration officer, when asked about the proximity of the chosen venue to educational institutions, said that F-9 is designated for a park and as per court orders it cannot be used for any other purpose. H-9 is [further from the Red Zone]and all alternative routes will stay open.”

AIOU has already rescheduled examinations that were due to take place on Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. In its statement, the university did not state the reason for the change but said the exams were being rescheduled for students’ convenience.

An official said the exams were rescheduled because of the protest. They will now be held on Dec 12, 13, 14 and 16. It has also extended the admissions date for already enrolled BA, BCom, BBA, BEd, CT, PTC, MA and MSc students for the autumn semester to Oct 31.

Also on Sunday, Inspector General of Police Islamabad Amir Zulfiqar chaired a high-level meeting to review security planned for the march.

According to the police, arrangements were formally reviewed at the meeting, which was attended by all deputy inspectors general of police, the additional inspector general of police Special Branch, senior superintendent of police (traffic) and zonal superintendents of police.

“The security plan in the city was reviewed and finalised after agreement between JUI-F and district administration. The IGP directed to take every possible step to ensure protection to the lives and property of the citizens as it is amongst prime responsibility of the police,” a statement issued by the police said.

JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman announced in June that the party planned to hold a march in October to topple the PTI government, which he said came to power through ‘fake’ elections. He said the march, which began in Sindh on Sunday, would reach Islamabad on Oct 31.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2019