Crackdown belies govt claims of tolerance to PTI march

Published May 24, 2022
A combination photo of Awami Muslim League chief Sheikh Rashid (L) and PTI leaders Hammad Azhar (C) and Yasmin Rashid (R).—DawnNewsTV/File
A combination photo of Awami Muslim League chief Sheikh Rashid (L) and PTI leaders Hammad Azhar (C) and Yasmin Rashid (R).—DawnNewsTV/File

LAHORE: Even though the PML-N claimed that it would allow the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) to march on Islamabad as long as the procession remained peaceful, the government launched a crackdown late on Monday night.

The government action, which came after a high-powered party meeting at Model Town — chaired by PM Shehbaz Sharif and attended by his elder brother Nawaz via video link — also resolved that the government would not be dictated by ousted premier Imran Khan’s demand for early elections.

PML-N elders, however, directed the interior minister to make all kinds of preparations to deal with the PTI’s long march. The PTI leadership had earlier claimed the government has prepared a list of those it intends to arrest to scuttle the protest.

Reports of raids on leaders’ homes across Punjab; PML-N brass resolve not to let Imran dictate govt on early polls

Late-night crackdown

The opposition party’s fears were realised late on Monday night, when despite assurances that their leaders will not be targeted or arrested ahead of the planned march on the capital, police raided the residences of several key PTI figures.

PTI chairman Imran Khan had, on Sunday, announced the PTI’s plans to hold an ‘Azadi March’ on Islamabad on May 25 (tomorrow), reportedly after talks with the establishment over early polls fell flat.

There were reports of late-night police action at the homes of former federal minister Hammad Azhar in Lahore, while the Lal Haveli residence of Sheikh Rashid Ahmed as well as the homes of Fayyazul Hasan Chohan and Ijaz Khan Jazi in Rawalpindi were also raided.

In addition, former information minister Fawad Chaudhry also claimed in a tweet that his home in Islamabad was under observation, which was why he had left for Jhelum.

Sources claimed that on Monday evening, a high-level meeting chaired by Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz was held at the CM Office to discuss measures to control the PTI’s protest plan, where the CM had directed police to take action. However, Lahore Capital City Police Officer Bilal Siddiq Kamyana was not available for comment.

The police action was in stark contrast to the resolve expressed by PM Shehbaz’s spokesperson Malik Ahmad Khan, who had claimed earlier in the day it had been decided not to arrest any PTI worker ahead of the long march.

Even Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal had made the same committment when he said that the “coalition government believes in democracy and respects the right to protest.” He claimed that as long as whatever Imran Khan does is within the boundaries of the law and Constitution, it would be accepted while the government will deal with protesters if there is any violation.

However, Hammad Azhar tweeted just before midnight that police had raided his house to arrest him, but that he managed to evade capture. Talking to reporters, his mother claimed that a heavy police contingent had first knocked at their door before entering to search for her son.

After the incident, former Punjab health minister Yasmeen Rashid reached Mr Azhar’s residence and started a sit-in to protest the police action. Footage circulating on social media showed the former Punjab health minister, a cancer survivor, seated on the pavement as police vehicles were visible in the background.

Other videos circulating on social media purportedly showed police raiding the homes of other Punjab-based PTI leaders, including Usman Dar, Malik Waqar Ahmed, Engineer Kashif Kharal, Mazhar Iqbal Gujjar and others.

Won’t take dictation

Earlier, the high-level PML-N meeting attended by Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz, his cousin Maryam Nawaz, federal ministers Ahsan Iqbal, Rana Sanaullah and Khurram Dastgir, and Awais Leghari, lasted for about three hours.

“We cannot take dictation from Imran Khan to dissolve assemblies and announce fresh polls forthwith. We are not afraid of going to the masses, but if we do so now it would mean we are succumbing to Imran’s pressure and showing weakness, which we should not,” a party insider quoted the elder Sharif as having said.

The PML-N and its eight allied parties have so far agreed in principle to complete the remaining term of the government till August 2023. However, the coalition is open to reviewing its decision as per the fast-changing political situation.

The PML-N believes if it shows flexibility over early polls it will be deemed to be succumbing to Imran’s pressure, which the party cannot afford to, at least at this stage. “We should not allow Imran to take a group of people to the capital every now and then, and dictate his terms. We can talk with anyone on the issue of early elections as it suits us too, but Imran can’t force us,” Nawaz made it clear.

After the meeting, Nawaz took on the PTI chief on Twitter and said: “People can’t be left at the mercy of miscreant jathas which have already played havoc with their lives in terms of poverty, inflation and joblessness. We as a nation need to stop them.”

Mr Khan’s impatience has made it relatively easier for the coalition government to take a decision. “Deliberations among the coalition parties were under way whether to call early elections or not, as the PML-N was reluctant to take the blame for any unpopular decisions to fix the ailing economy, and wanted guaranteed backing of the powerful military establishment to help it see through the remaining 15-month tenure. But the PTI chairman rushed to announce his long march, making it easier for the coalition to decide to stay in power and not give in to Imran’s demands,” the party insider said.

PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, who in her recent speeches at public rallies, has vociferously advocated for fresh polls and even claimed that her father (Nawaz) also thought so, agreed that the coalition should now face Imran’s pressure tactics and defeat him.

Moreover, the participants of the meeting also agreed to take on board all the allies while making government decisions. Nawaz also directed Shehbaz to start consultations with his ‘handpicked’ National Assembly opposition leader Raja Riaz for the appointment of a new National Accountability Bureau chief.

In the meeting, talks with the IMF, tanking economy, free fall of the rupee, Hamza’s problems running Punjab in the absence of a cabinet and the election commission’s de-seating of 25 PTI dissident MPAs were also discussed. The PML-N leadership stressed consolidating power in Punjab, which it said was its stronghold. In the possible run-off election for a chief minister in the province, Hamza’s position appears weak with 172 votes against the PTI-PML-Q’s 173.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2022

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