The fifth power show of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) was held on Monday at Multan's Ghanta Ghar Chowk after days of conflict between the city administration and opposition workers over holding a public event at a time when the incidence of coronavirus is rising.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-(F) Chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz and PPP's Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari, along with other PDM leaders and their respective supporters attended the public meeting.
Aseefa, who attended the rally on her brother and PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari's behalf, said that the public has given its verdict and the "selected will have to go now".
"I have come among you today at a time when my brother, your brother, Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is suffering from coronavirus. I hope that just like you supported the mother of democracy and the daughter of the east, you will support Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on PDM's platform. And I promise that I will support Chairman Bilawal and you at every step."
She said that if the government arrested their brothers, PPP's women will step out to struggle and save the country.
"If they think we will be scared of arrests, they are deluded. If they arrest our brothers, every female worker of PPP will step outside to save our brothers and the country," Aseefa told a charged crowd.
'Campaign for Israel's acceptance'
PML-N Vice President Maryam, in her address, said she was "convinced of the bravery of Multan's people" as she had been told that the administration had refused to give permission for a rally, yet people had gathered to hold one.
She accused the government of "throwing occupied Kashmir in [Indian PM] Modi's lap" and said that a campaign was being run for Pakistan to accept Israel as a state.
"Public wants to know if the selectors and selected are on the same page on the matter of Israel," she said.
Maryam also congratulated PPP on its Youm-i-Tasees (founding day) and said that Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari — who is attending the gathering on her brother Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari's behalf — and herself had come out of their homes to fight for the rights of Pakistanis. The PML-N leader said that though her grandmother had passed away recently, she had decided to attend the public meeting because the "pain of the people is greater than mine".
She accused the PTI government of not informing her of her grandmother's passing. Maryam was in Peshawar to attend a PDM rally when her grandmother passed away.
"They knew that I didn't know about my grandmother's death. My family kept calling me but couldn't reach me because phone signals were suspended," she said in today's public meeting. Maryam also bashed the government for telling the opposition to postpone public meetings due to rising cases of Covid-19, saying, "Once Covid-18 goes home, Covid-19 will leave as well".
"This Covid-19 is very intelligent. It doesn't spread in Jamaat-i-Islami's gatherings, it doesn't spread in government officials' public meetings. It doesn't enter gatherings of 300 people. It only spreads in opposition rallies."
Maryam said that PTI's promise to make a South Punjab province was a "lie". The PML-N leader said that she "feared for the country" because an "inexperienced player" was running it.
"Two selectors are constantly trying to push this bus (government) forward, but this bus is not running," she said.
Maryam also said that despite allegations of receiving foreign funding for his party, building offshore companies to evade tax, Prime Minister Imran Khan insisted he was honest.
"He says I won't give an NRO [...] first he receives donations from mafias and then allows them to rob the public. He gives them an NRO and allows them to eat and when a government official says you're wrong, he (prime minister) expels him."
Maryam said that she will continue to fight for the public's rights "even if I have to go to jail".
JUI-F chief Rehman also addressed the crowd at the end of the rally and said that though the government had warned PDM against holding a public meeting, the PDM alliance had scared the administration off by "merely waving a baton". He was referring to a press conference by PDM leaders yesterday, where they had vowed to hold a public meeting, come what may.
He told the crowd to be prepared for the next PDM rally, which will be held in Lahore. Rehman said that the people should go home and tell other people about PDM's agenda.
Balochistan National Party (Mengal) Chief Sardar Akhtar Mengal criticised the government and the military leadership and said that if the latter "wants to participate in politics, do so after taking off your uniforms".
Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party's Mehmood Khan Achakzai, while speaking at the public meeting, said that PDM was not created to speak against anyone. The alliance's purpose, he insisted, was to ensure that intelligence agencies and armed institutions should not interfere in political matters.
He warned that "dangerous blocs" were being created around Pakistan and warned that the country may be bombed by foreign forces just like Iran's scientist and military general were slain. The solution, he said, was that the incumbent assembly be dismantled.
Today's gathering was part of a series of public meetings the PDM is holding across the country to pressurise the PTI government to step down. A huge number of people have gathered to attend the rally.
Special Assistant to the Punjab Chief Minister on Information Firdous Ashiq Awan, in a series of tweets, criticised the PDM alliance and said: "PDM nexus is depending on pilgrims arriving from Sindh to visit shrines of Sufi saints. To solve their personal and family problems, unsuccessful attempts are being made to burn innocent people in corona's furnace. The government is providing facilities to the visitors and all avenues are open but PDM is roaming the streets instead of going to the stadium."
PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari did not attend today's gathering as he is in quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19. His sister, Aseefa, attended and addressed the public meeting in his place.
Speaking to workers part of her entourage on the way to the venue, Aseefa had urged all supporters of the party to reach the gathering.
In a statement issued on PPP's Youm-i-Tasees today, Bilawal said: "PPP has invited the entire PDM leadership to the public meeting [held to observe] Youm-i-Tasees. Today every democratic worker will reach the venue despite the tactics, brutality and arrests by the selected government.
"Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari will represent me and welcome PDM leadership to the grand Youm-i-Tasees gathering."
Although the administration removed blockades along routes leading to the public meeting's venue at Qila Kohna Qasim Bagh Stadium, some roads remained blocked even though permission, conditional on following virus SOPs, for the gathering was granted. PDM leaders and supporters, however, settled at Ghanta Ghar Chowk and the public meeting was held there instead of Qila Kohna Qasim Bagh Stadium.
Earlier, a consultation meeting of PDM leaders was held at Gilani House, which was attended by former premier Yousuf, Awami National Party's Mian Iftikhar Ahmed, BNP-M's Mengal, PPP's Nisar Khuhro and other opposition leaders.
'Rally has succeeded before it started'
During the day, while speaking to the media prior to her departure, Maryam said that she would have delayed her political activities for a few more days to grieve her grandmother — who was laid to rest in Lahore on Saturday — but the government's "brutality against [PDM] workers was pulling her towards Multan".
She condemned the crackdowns on PDM workers and supporters by the administration and said that the government was taking all steps to dismantle today's public meeting because it was "scared". In a question pertaining to holding public gatherings amid the novel coronavirus, Maryam said that even police officials deployed along the route of the venue were not following standard operating procedures.
"Is corona only spreading through opposition's gatherings?" she asked.
"This rally has succeeded before it has even started," Maryam claimed, adding, "every container placed along the [venue's] route, every checkpost and all the arrests that are being made are a reflection of their (government) fear". Maryam was referring to the arrests of former premier Yousuf Raza Gilani's son, Qasim Gilani, along with other PPP activists.
"Whether this rally is held inside the stadium or outside, or on any road in Multan — God willing it will take place," Maryam said.
In a late Saturday night move, police launched a crackdown on the PPP workers, who had earlier gone against government orders and overcame obstacles to take control of the stadium, and got the venue vacated.
The Lohari Gate police on Sunday registered two first information reports against 80 identified and 800 unidentified workers under sections 353/156, 379/506, 427/148 and 149 of Pakistan Penal Code besides section 17 of the Punjab Infectious Diseases (Prevention and Control) Ordinance 2020. According to the FIRs, activists armed with clubs damaged the barriers and fence installed to control the law and order situation and attacked police.
Earlier today, Yousuf's son Ali Haider Gilani announced that the Lahore High Court's Multan bench has ordered the release of his brother Qasim before 3pm and that a case registered against the latter under Section 16 of the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance has been dismissed.
Covid-19 and PDM gatherings
The government had said that it was blocking the Multan show to check the spread of coronavirus. The district administration removed flags and banners of PDM parties from the stadium and city roads yesterday and Deputy Commissioner Aamar Khattak, on the recommendation of the city police officer, sent PPP leader Qasim Gilani to the Multan district jail for 30 days.
However, speaking to the media today, Special Assistant to Punjab Chief Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said the government "is not stopping the opposition from holding gatherings but don't trample over SOPs and court decisions". She further said the government did not want to use force.
As the country reels from the second wave of Covid-19 — which experts have termed to be more "lethal" than the first one — the government has urged the opposition alliance to suspend their public gatherings in order to curb the spread.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Imran Khan lashed out at political leaders whose "sole and desperate goal is to save their families' looted wealth and corruption" and once again declared that the government will not grant an NRO even if pressurised.
"Problem confronting us in Pak during Covid-19 is of a political leadership that has never gone through any democratic struggle, nor worked with ordinary citizens to understand the problems they confront, nor contributed in any substantive way for betterment of ordinary citizens," tweeted the prime minister.
Without naming the PDM or any opposition politician, the premier in a series of tweets said that due to the increase in Covid-19 cases in the country, the government needs to impose smart lockdowns but the opposition "want(s) jalsas not caring for the lives and safety of people".
Last week, the prime minister had categorically stated that the government would not give permission to the opposition to hold its rallies in Multan and other cities.
“The coronavirus is spreading dangerously, therefore the opposition should postpone PDM public meetings,” the prime minister was quoted as saying.
The National Command and Operations Centre, which is overseeing the situation and response to Covid-19 across the country, has also warned that if the virus spread is not curbed, Pakistan would face the same situation it faced in June, unless public changes its attitude.
With additional input from Taser Subhani.