LAHORE: The relatively less-equipped and poorly trained workers of the proscribed Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) on Saturday managed to bulldoze all security layers of the Lahore and Sheikhupura police and entered Gujranwala while chanting slogans and calling other activists to join them.
They removed several containers from GT Road on the Ravi bridge, the last main security point of Lahore police using a crane, and entered Sheikhupura from where they marched towards Gujranwala after violent clashes with the law enforcement agencies at Kala Shah Kaku.
When multiple security strategies failed, the Gujranwala police dug up a 12-foot-deep ditch and filled it with water as a preventive measure to stop the violent protesters besides making heavy deployment.
The TLP’s Central Shura (committee) in the meantime refused to talk to a delegation of federal and provincial ministers, saying the federal government could not have it both ways: negotiate peace and shell them simultaneously.
The Shura took this stance late on Saturday as a three-member team comprising Ministers for Interior Sheikh Rashid, Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri and Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan Ali Amin Gandapur arrived in the city to kickstart dialogue with the TLP leadership.
The two-member Punjab government team comprised Law Minister Raja Basharat and Minister for Prosecution Chaudhry Zaheeruddin joined their federal colleagues to thrash out a strategy. They reportedly sent an emissary to the incarcerated TLP chief Saad Rizvi to offer talks.
Punjab government spokesman Hasaan Khawar confirmed to Dawn that talks were going on under three guiding principles: the government will protect life and property of citizens, ensure rule of law and that talks are always better than violence. “The government is talking to the TLP within the boundaries set by these parameters. Talks are still going on and one should not preempt a conclusion.”
Since there was no official word about what the federal government had to offer, the media was rife with speculations. None of the members of the official team, federal or provincial, was ready to divulge the details either. “Since it is a sensitive issue, operational details cannot be revealed,” one of the members said, hoping the talks would yield positive results.
At the time of the TLP’s exit from Lahore, the size of its procession had swelled to 10,000 people after several small groups awaiting the main rally outside the provincial capital joined in.
Reportedly, a TLP worker died, while several other activists and policemen got injured when the rally crossed Lahore. A Lahore police spokesperson said the number of injured personnel had reached 80 with some of them in critical condition.
As soon as the procession exited Lahore, the Central Police Office (CPO) alerted the Sheikhupura and Gujranwala police to beef up security and use all available options to stop the marchers, an official privy to the development told Dawn.
He said fierce clashes erupted for a second consecutive day between police and the marchers when the TLP rally reached Kala Shah Kaku where the top leadership of Sheikhupura police, including the regional police officer (RPO) and district police officer (DPO), was already present.
The DPOs of nearby Kasur, Nankana Sahib and Sialkot districts also joined in, he said, adding that the senior leadership then requested the Punjab Rangers to lead.
Some reports suggested that the violent mob of TLP workers attacked the law enforcement agencies with petrol bombs and torched several police vehicles at Kala Shah Kaku. Video clips on social media showed dozens of burnt police vans besides many passersby also being attacked.
Reportedly, the protesters took hostage the Sheikhupura RPO and some other senior officers who were later rescued after fierce clashes.
The situation remained tense at Kala Shah Kaku for several hours, making it the third point after Chauburji Chowk and Ravi bridge in Lahore to have witnessed clashes between police and the TLP men, claiming the lives of two policemen and as many party workers besides leaving dozens of injured on both sides.
The official said despite all-out efforts of the law enforcers, the TLP men compelled the force to retreat at Kala Shah Kaku and moved ahead raising slogans and calling their workers to join them on the way to Islamabad. On reaching Kala Shah Kaku, the walking marchers were offered support from hundreds of vehicles, including luxury cars, buses and commercial vehicles.
He said the high command monitoring the entire situation from the CPO issued directions to the Gujranwala, Jhelum and Rawalpindi police to dispatch more force.
The TLP, on its part, seemed to have at least slowed down the march after leaving Lahore, and decided to spend the night in a suburban town of Muridke on GT Road. “The pace of the march will now depend on the results of the negotiations,” a TLP worker believed.
The leadership does not want to negotiate, at least at this stage when it has already committed itself to the march and more so after the death of seven workers and countless injuries, without any concrete achievement: like throwing out the French ambassador, he added.
The Islamabad police also wrote to the Punjab inspector general of police seeking 10,000 trained policemen for deployment in the federal capital. The CPO also dispatched additional force to Rawalpindi where the Punjab police authorities were expecting a major law and order situation as they believed the number of marchers could increase to 30,000 before reaching the twin cities.
Also on Saturday, the Punjab police senior command joined heads to review why the Lahore police had failed to stop the rally despite using excessive power. The authorities believed the situation could have been averted by arresting the TLP’s second- and third-tier leadership in the city.
They were also of the opinion that the sit-in of the proscribed organisation that prolonged for over a week outside its Masjid Rehmatul-lil-Aalameen headquarters at Yateem Khana Chowk had offered enough time to its leaders to organise their network between Lahore and Rawalpindi.
It was a strategic mistake to let them mobilise, the officer said, adding the professional training and competence of the anti-riot force also came into question when some videos showed them clashing with the relatively less-trained TLP men.
The disappointing role of the district administration, including the commissioner and Punjab government, also came under discussion for not bringing the TLP leadership to the table. The police authorities discussed the role of the TLP social media team that they believed was uploading old, misleading and edited pictures and videos of the group’s clashes with police, presenting the force as being the oppressor.
Some media reports suggested that after the refusal of the TLP Shura, the federal team involved some Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat ulema and was trying to press the protesting group into negotiations.
“For the government, it is a tightrope to walk,” explained a Punjab government official, who did not want to be named. It could not offer anything to the TLP but intimidation, which, unfortunately, might not work due to the religious factor. The government was operating in the context of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) actions, GSP-Plus scheme and negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) where it could not afford to be seen as weak let alone yielding ground, he said, expressing the hope that the TLP would back off.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2021