A file photo of TLP workers carrying batons and protesting on streets.

Analysis: Was the Faizabad commission doomed from the start?

Individuals involved in the 2017 events preferred to take responsibility for how the sit-in ended but sta­yed mum on who was behind the sit-in in the first place.
Published April 21, 2024

LEAKS from the Faizabad commission report have opened a can of worms about an event that gripped the nation some seven years ago, but one that can hardly be dismissed as a ‘thing of the past’ given the long shadows it cast on the delicate issues of civilian supremacy, the role of the military establishment, mass media censorship and the competence of government machinery to handle a crisis.

The purported leaks, specifically the revelation that the commission has exonerated Gen Faiz Hameed, raised eyebrows especially when viewed against the backdrop of PML-N’s stance over the past few years on the establishment’s alleged interference in civilian affairs — as well as on the across the board accountability.

Former premier and party supremo Nawaz Sharif on sev­eral occasions had dec­ried a “state above a state” and in a pre-election interview with Dawn reiterated his desire to see accountability across institutions.

Yet when individuals who played a key role in the 2017 PML-N government were given an opportunity to rec­ord statements about the est­a­blishment’s alleged role in the dharna, they preferred to take responsibility for how the sit-in ended, but sta­yed mum on who was behind the sit-in in the first place.

Incumbent Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has dismissed the commission itself as being “non-serious” and has been publicly saying the same in recent months. In a conversation with Dawn, Mr Asif said the members who spoke to him had “no depth” and were busy in “chit chat”.

Ahsan Iqbal, one of the key figures nominated by then-PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to negotiate with the TLP protesters at the peak of the 20-day protest said, “The report must be made public. Selective and distorted leaks are giving the wrong impressions.”

When pressed to reflect on his role during that period, and whether he is proud of the way the government handled it, Mr Iqbal told Dawn, “There was a sequence of events during a very volatile situation, and there was a threat of sectarian violence. If it had been badly handled, God forbid, Pakistan would have become worse than Lebanon. The government had no other option, no room to manoeuvre. We had two choices: let it linger or defuse the situation.

“We had exhausted all options. They [the protesters] didn’t listen. The Islamabad administration failed to break up the sit-in. So it was an extreme measure to involve senior military officers.”

Was it impossible to find a solution without them, given that the deal struck with the TLP was far from a victory for the government as it sacked a minister and walked away from the episode utterly dejected?

“The military establishment has clout, and of course, our security institutions play a role. Sometimes their presence itself is a deterrence. Things were not working out for us, so we had to escalate things as a response,” he said.

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who was prime minister at the time, said the military and intelligence services were involved in the negotiation process after the Islam­abad High Court interve­ned. Before that, his strategy, “was to wear out the protesters through attrition”.

Mr Abbasi’s responses to the commission’s questionnaire are limited, and on talk shows in recent days he has reiterated that given the sanctity of the office he occupied, he did not engage in speculation on issues he did not have evidence of.

But how much authority did he have during the sit-in, and over how the negotiations went?

“I had and exercised all the authority available to my office as PM. We had a strategy, it may not have been a strategy that was liked by everybody, but it was the strategy of my government. All actions taken by Ahsan Iqbal or the negotiation team including Gen Faiz during the negotiations are my responsibility; we had opted for attrition to avoid loss of life and negotiate with them [TLP] on our terms. But the IHC gave unrealistic directions to remove the protesters without using force.”

He added, “The Islamabad police and administration under threat of being held in contempt by the High Court, made an ill-planned hurried attempt to remove the protesters and failed. After this failure a larger meeting involving senior Punjab government officials and army and intelligence personnel was held to devise a plan to de-escalate and resolve the situation.”

So was it ever in the back of his mind during this negotiation process, when he engaged key military and intelligence officials, that perhaps elements in the security establishment were behind the dharna in the first place? And did Mr Abbasi share this with the commission?

‘Not an isolated event’

“Of course the question of who was behind the dharna was a consideration when we managed the situation. How did the situation snowball? There were many considerations — but the office I held does not allow me to speculate about things when there is no direct evidence. However, the dharna was not an isolated event, this was the same timeframe in which the Balochistan government literally vanished, the Senate elections were manipulated, and the Senate chairman election produced an impossible result.

“I did also wonder if the petition on the dharna to the Islamabad High Court was a collusion of some sort, but again I have no evidence. But it is clear that the High Court’s decision completely negated the government strategy to effectively manage the situation. The interference in executive authority by the High Court undermined the writ of the government and necessitated the involvement of the Army and the intelligence agencies at the highest level to resolve the situation.”

Mr Abbasi went on, “The army is part of the government’s executive authority; the speculation that this process was driven by Gen Bajwa is not correct. Overall, how this event ended is not a matter of pride, the negotiation process undermined the government’s authority, but we were able to resolve a situation which had great potential to escalate.”

On the question of minister Zahid Hamid’s resignation, Mr Abbasi said, “the High Court decision left us with no option but to accede to the demands of the dharna [organisers]; the state failed to maintain its authority. Whether the dharna and the consequent events were by design or default, one can only speculate.”

A commission doomed to fail?

Political analyst Zahid Hussain said it was “well known that the orchestration of events was done by the establishment” and that though the PML-N did not publicly say it, privately its members acknowledged that.

“Despite the commission set out by the SC to investigate the dharna, it seemed that nobody wanted to delve into that subject matter,” Mr Hussain said.

“The terms given to the commission by the SC were meant to determine the culprits behind the dharna. However, it appeared that the terms of reference were limited and did not specify the individuals involved. There were doubts about the power of the commission itself, comprising former police officers and bureaucrats. Now some of those who were interviewed, such as Khawaja Asif, revealed that the people interviewed did not have specific questions asked of them. Thus, the commission’s findings lacked clarity on who was behind the events.”

He added, “Now that the PML-N is back in power, they seem hesitant to upset relations with the establishment and are not clear on their stance.

When asked what he makes of Mr Abbasi’s position, given that he is no longer a member of PML-N and is poised to launch his own political party, Mr Hussain said, “I think Abbasi has been candid, it’s quite difficult for anyone in that capacity to blame any organisation without substantial evidence.”

“The ruling of the Supreme Court, particularly by [Chief] Justice [Qazi] Faez Isa, was seen as more damning, as it named individuals. But commissions in our country are not truly independent, and they are influenced by the government in power — ironically it is the same government that suspected the establishment of wrongdoing, but prefers not to go into that now.”

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2024