MAULANA Fazlur Rehman’s recent Azadi March on Islamabad was not a new phenomenon, as anti-government agitations have been a part of Pakistan’s political journey since its inception. The Bengali language movement of 1948 and Karachi students’ agitation of 1953 are two early cases of anti-government movements which led to the tragic deaths of a number of students. In contrast to many subsequent anti-government movements, these campaigns were free from religious sentiment.
The movement for an Islamic constitution by Islamic scholars like Syed Sulaiman Nadvi led to the adoption of the Objectives Resolution on March 12, 1949. The movement, which gained momentum in January 1951 when 31 Islamic scholars presented a 22-point framework for an Islamic constitution, continued until the Constituent Assembly passed the 1956 constitution.
Another agitation greatly motivated by religious sentiment was the violent anti-Ahmadi movement of 1953 in Lahore, which led to huge loss of life and property and culminated in the first use of martial law on March 6 of that year.
The use of street power has been a part of Pakistan’s political journey since its inception.
Students’ agitation against a three-year degree course and a highly oppressive university ordinance took the entire country by storm in 1962-63. A number of student leaders were arrested, rusticated from universities or deprived of their degrees; around a dozen student leaders were expelled from Karachi.
A movement against Ayub Khan, which started soon after the Tashkent Declaration was signed in January 1966, gained momentum as his ostensibly strong government was swept away by street agitations across the country in 1968. His successor, Gen Yahya Khan, also faced the same fate after the military defeat in former East Pakistan in 1971.
Popularly elected prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rule was also challenged by a nationwide agitation immediately after the 1977 election — widely perceived as heavily rigged. The agitation, led by the nine-party Pakistan National Alliance, started as a protest against election irregularities but transformed into a ‘Nizam-i-Mustafa’ movement evoking strong religious sentiments. Many of the agitators were killed and a larger number of people arrested, ultimately leading to the government’s dismissal and imposition of martial law, despite several rounds of negotiations between Bhutto and the PNA.
Military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq faced the massive Movement for the Restoration of Democracy led by an 11-party alliance from 1981 to 1985 — 189 persons were killed, 126 injured and 2,000 arrested, mainly in Sindh, during the movement, which left an indelible imprint of resistance against the military governments.
After the restoration of party-based democracy in 1988, both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto mounted marches and agitations against each other, eventually paving the way for their sacking by the presidents of the time. Nawaz Sharif’s march on Islamabad in 1989, Benazir’s long marches in 1992 and 1993, and Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s march from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on June 24, 1996 are some examples. Police fired at the latter march, killed three workers and manhandled Qazi Hussain Ahmed. Benazir’s government was dismissed on Nov 5, 1996, by president Farooq Leghari.
In 2009, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, joined by other parties including Imran Khan’s PTI, planned an onslaught on Islamabad from Lahore for the restoration of judges removed by Gen Pervez Musharraf. The march was called off when the government agreed to the demand at the eleventh hour.
Storming Islamabad was taken to a new level when Tahirul Qadri launched a massive march in 2013 from Lahore sitting atop a refurbished freight container. The march could not achieve its stated objective of removing the government, but Qadri signed an inconsequential face-saving agreement with the government.
PTI Chairman Imran Khan launched an aggressive onslaught on the Nawaz government in Islamabad in August 2014, leading a cavalcade of hundreds of vehicles. Although the march failed to unseat the prime minister, it greatly weakened the Sharif government. It began facing multifaceted challenges from NAB, the courts and the military establishment, which ultimately led to his downfall. Imran Khan’s march and the 126-day-long sit-in set an example to pave the way to remove a government through aggressive street power.
In 2017, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, led by the fiery orator Khadim Rizvi, staged a dharna at Faizabad interchange near Islamabad from Nov 8 to Nov 27 demanding the federal law minister’s resignation for allegedly altering original provisions in the Elections Act with respect to the oath concerning the finality of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) — a highly sensitive issue. The government appeared helpless and humiliated as police failed to disperse the dharna and the military was reluctant to use force in such a case. Finally, the ISI brokered a deal between the government and the TLP. The sit-in was called off after the law minister resigned and the original wording of the oath was reinstated.
The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement launched a spirited campaign to pressurise the government into addressing then Fata’s residents’ grievances. The killing of Naqibullah Mehsud in Karachi on Jan 13, 2018, in an alleged staged encounter by former SSP Rao Anwar, and the government’s reluctance to prosecute the accused, hardened the PTM’s anti-government posture. Its sit-in in Islamabad in January 2018 led to a nationwide anti-government, or more specifically anti-establishment, movement.
Fazlur Rehman seemingly adopted Imran Khan’s 2014 long march model when he launched his Azadi march in October 2019. He mobilised a huge crowd, but his 13-day dharna failed to achieve its goal of ousting the government. The maulana, however, claimed that he had been assured of a change in government by the end of the year.
Most of the past anti-government agitations featured the frequent use of the religion card to secure popular support. The involvement of intelligence agencies is widely believed to be behind most of these agitations. Storming the capital with the help of a crowd is gaining currency among politicians — which has serious ramifications for the smooth functioning of government and routine activities of ordinary citizens.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2019