Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has spoken at length about his time as premier during the Faizabad protests of 2017 and how he navigated the government through what he said was the “darkest chapter” in the country’s history.
Daily life in Islamabad was disrupted for 20 days (from Oct 2 to Nov 27, 2017) when protesters belonging to religiopolitical parties — including the TLP, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), the Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, and the Pakistan Sunni Tehreek — occupied the Faizabad Interchange which connects Rawalpindi and Islamabad through the Islamabad Expressway and Murree Road, both of which are the busiest roads in the twin cities.
The agitators claimed that during the passage of the Elections Act 2017, the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat oath was deliberately modified as part of a larger conspiracy. The amendment to the oath was deemed a ‘clerical error’ by the government and was subsequently rectified through an act of Parliament.
The government had attempted to negotiate in vain with the protesters to end the sit-in several times. Finally, it launched an operation to disperse the protesters, in which at least six people were killed and scores others injured. After the botched operation, the government decided to call in the army for help.
Negotiations were undertaken with protesters once again, and the government accepted a number of their demands in return for ending the protest. The agreement document bears the signatures of then interior minister Ahsan Iqbal, TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, and Gen Faiz Hameed, who was a major general at the time, among others.
Speaking on Geo News programme ‘Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Saath’ on Friday night, the senior PML-N leader advised the PML-N to lodge a formal complaint against former army generals — provided that the party was serious in pursuing the matter — “instead of delivering speeches and making statements against them”.
He said action could not be taken against one person or officer but rather the entire matter surrounding the Faizabad sit-in needed to be reviewed.
“You will have to review the entire matter. Whose responsibility was it? Who did what was not supposed to be done and who did what was supposed to be done?” Abbasi said, adding that he was in complete support of a probe into it.
The former prime minister highlighted that the PTI ruled for at least three years after the Faizabad sit-in while the PML-N for around 16 months, but neither of them investigated the matter.
“Now we have an interim government,” he said. “They can investigate it too.”
Ex-PM Abbasi said Ahsan Iqbal and Marriyum Aurangzeb were ministers during the time when the Faizabad sit-in was staged. Iqbal was the interior minister and Aurangzeb was the information minister.
“We are ready to present ourselves [to any investigative body]. We will come and tell the facts of whatever we remember.”
“See it’s about facts and the law. If someone has done something, there is a complaint and a complainant against them, then there is evidence, then you have to register a case, and you have to cite the law through the inquiry that takes place. Then things move forward.”
When asked if this statement — to move on from speeches and statements and register a case — was his advice to the PML-N, the former PM said, “Yes, absolutely they will have to do it.”
“If the party has evidence — or if I have it — it is your responsibility to present that evidence and become a complainant and file a case. Then the investigation will take place.”
Later in the show when Abbasi was asked about former finance minister Ishaq Dar’s statement on moving on from the matter, he said, “Perhaps leaving everything up to Allah is the [appropriate] way to end the matter and move on.”
“What the country needs is to set these issues aside but to also learn from them and think about the country’s future,” he added.
The PML-N leader was of the view that such matters should not be discussed on television, reaffirming that if he was summoned, “I will lay before them all the facts and so will Ahsan Iqbal”.
Abbasi termed it the party and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif’s choice in pursuing the matter.
“This started in the 2021 Gujranwala rally. If we want to pursue this, a formal complaint should be registered,” he maintained.
Sit-in ‘humiliated’ sitting govt
Reminiscing over the Faizabad sit-in, Abbasi said his government had to face a lot of humiliation over it as the then finance minister Miftah Ismail was abroad for a fundraising campaign and he used to face many questions about the situation back home.
“Roads connecting Islamabad to Pakistan remain blocked. People were unable to reach airports or travel back and forth. Even lawyers were not able to reach courts. It was chaos.”
“As far as I remember, there were two separate sit-ins at Faizabad and when I was PM, it was the second sit-in. Some people converged on a bridge and we spoke to them. But talks would continue,” he said.
“CCTV cameras were even disconnected. That was not possible without expertise. We had planned that we would block the supply of food to them. But a petition was filed the next day and the IG and other officials were summoned.
“We had decided to settle the matter amicably. I am a witness to all this. The way the police launched action was commendable. I saw everything from a helicopter. Punjab police had 30,000 officers at their disposal but they did not have a single vehicle there. There were only 250 officers. I went to Lahore from there.”
The former PM was of the view that the government was paralysed that day and was not in a position to take any action.
“I saw that the capital police were not ready to take any action and paramilitary forces were not available,” he said. “We had a talk with [then army chief] Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and he pointed out that the army was not meant to handle such matters. They only have guns. The matter was settled somehow later but the writ of the state was affected.”
Abbasi said that later it had become a tradition to paralyse the capital of the country “for your own ulterior motives”.
He said the Punjab police refrained from action fearing any loss of lives.
“When Islamabad police came for action, they had come with ill intent. Demonstrators in fact had chased the capital city police away,” Abbasi said, highlighting that a court order was issued to disperse protesters by the beginning of the next week which was not the wish of the government.
“When Ahsan Iqbal asked the commissioner and IG Islamabad, they said we have to take action otherwise we will face contempt,” he added.
“Then we held a meeting and decided to limit the protests. But the next day a petition was filed, and an order was issued followed by police action. I am witness to how ill-intent action was taken by the police.”
The former premier said he had asked then-minister Iqbal to not sign the agreement, warning that it would turn into a tradition later. “Then they (army and Iqbal) had a discussion [and] after he talked to me, Iqbal signed the agreement as he felt it necessary to sign it at that time. If you go deep down, the situation was quite difficult.”
Abbasi said the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — the country’s premier intelligence agency — was also part of the negotiations and all the signatures were approved by them.
“It was unusual for them to sign the agreement, especially from top officials,” he said. “Usually an officer like the district commissioner signs such accords.”
Abbasi also shed light on how former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar’s home was attacked by the sit-in protesters but the Rangers and police personnel posted there repulsed it.
“There were National Security Council meetings, and it was decided in one of the meetings that the then-law minister Zahid Hamid’s resignation would be forwarded,” he said. “I won’t say it was at anyone’s behest. But it was said that the resignation was necessary to settle this matter. It was an unfortunate thing that we had to do. This was one of the black chapters in our history.”
Abbasi said initially, Hamid had offered him his resignation himself in a bid to diffuse the matter.
“I wouldn’t say it was someone’s desire but after consultations, it was said that the resignation was necessary to finish the matter and that it won’t end before that.”
In reply to a question, he said it would be hard to say after the passage of six years whether it was pre-poll rigging or someone conspired. “Khadim Rizvi is not amongst us now. He would know what actually happened.”
Shutting news channels during sit-in
Ex-PM Abbasi made it clear that he did not have any knowledge of the shutting down of TV channels during the sit-in.
“When channels are closed down in Pakistan, Pemra or the government isn’t behind it,” he said. “You even know on whose directions they are closed.”
He added that he never took part in shutting down or for that matter the opening up of channels as well. “Marriyum Aurangzeb was the minister then it was her job, not mine.”
PML-N future strategy
When asked about the PML-N’s future strategy, Abbasi said he could not defend the party’s position and only the party president would be liable to do that.
“He should give an answer. If our narrative has changed why has it? These things are serious. If yesterday we had a narrative and today we changed it, we will have to tell the public why we drifted away from it.”
He said all the dots connected to one point which was the “theft of the 2018 elections”, concluding that the 2018 elections were the reason where the country is currently standing today.
The PML-N leader said his party’s 16-month performance would definitely have an impact on its vote. “The voter asks us questions that we don’t have answers to and definitely this will affect the elections.”
Ex-PM Abbasi also shed light on how retired Gen Bajwa had himself acknowledged that they (the army) had created a hybrid system. “He even said he got Imran Khan’s government the required numbers for the confidence motion and all these things are on record.”