Muhammad Bilal watched his eight-month-old son die last week. His wife, the mother of his only child, was there. For them, if not more people, this was the biggest casualty of the protest the residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad have been facing since November 7.
The protesters blocked main Faizabad interchange, choking the flow of traffic on a crucial artery for the twin cities. Their demand was the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid who, according to them, had changed that part of the text of the oath for the holders of public office that pertained to the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
Bilal’s father has registered a police report. He told the police that at 7am last Wednesday, his son suddenly fell ill. The couple rushed him to a nearby hospital where the doctors advised going either to PIMS or Polyclinic hospital. The family could not reach either because the protest was not letting any vehicles pass the Faizabad interchange. In a last ditch effort, the family took Bilal to the nearby Rawal Hospital.
For his part, the head of Tehreek-i-Labaik, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, said that the protest would press on until the resignation or removal of the law minister. He also demanded the release of his followers who have been arrested and a withdrawal of all cases against his person.
Half of the protesters had camped on one side of the interchange that falls in the jurisdiction of the Punjab government, while the rest sat on the other side that is federal capital territory. This strategy enabled them to evade police action from either the federal or the provincial governments
On one of the early mornings of the protest an estimated 500 to 700 protesters, many sleeping in makeshift tents, were at Faizabad interchange. A handful guarded the surroundings. The number of protesters would go up to roughly 1,500 during the day time. Half of the protesters had camped on one side of the interchange that falls in the jurisdiction of the Punjab government, while the rest sat on the other side that is federal capital territory. This strategy enabled them to evade police action from either the federal or the provincial governments. On October 5, Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif publicly advised the federal government to fire one of the ministers who, according to him, was responsible for the situation.
On Monday, Islamabad Deputy Commissioner Capt (r) Mushtaq Ahmed received orders from the interior ministry to have the Faizabad interchange and Express Highway cleared. He reached the site with a contingent of police. Tension escalated and the protesters injured a few policemen, including the SHO of the I-9 police station. They also detained a couple of constables. This prompted Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal to issue a warning, saying the “abduction” of a police official was a serious breach of law.
“The only reason we cannot take action against them is because of the Punjab government,” said one police official. “If we take action, they would move their protest to Rawalpindi’s jurisdiction which is just a few yards away from Islamabad’s.” There were fears that taking any drastic measures might cause the protest to spread to other parts of Punjab. By the time we went to press, the federal government had been appealing to the Punjab government to devise a joint strategy.
“It took me four hours to reach Islamabad. Normally, I reach office in half an hour,” snapped a commuter when asked to comment. “This is so frustrating. What do they want from us? I was not the one who changed the oath.”
The controversy surrounds an amendment to the Elections Act 2017 that concerns a declaration required of those who wish to hold public office. Last month, several parliamentarians pointed out a change in the text of Form-A, which candidates submit at the time of the election. In the amended Form-A, the words “I solemnly swear” were replaced with “I believe” in a clause relating to a candidate’s belief in the finality of prophethood. It was not made applicable for non-Muslim candidates.
For the ruling party, the main purpose of the entire exercise was to get ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif re-elected as the head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. The same bill allowed any disqualified person to head a political party. Previously, this was not allowed.
The ruling party managed to get the bill passed from the Senate where it did not hold a majority. When the bill reached the National Assembly, the controversy surfaced. The ruling party or the federal government had two options: send the bill back to the Senate with any changes or have the bill passed from the National Assembly to enable Nawaz Sharif to become the head of his own party again.
Sources in the ruling party said that the PML-N leaders decided to have the bill passed along with the text because it was virtually impossible to have it passed from the Senate once again. At one point, it was believed that the motivation was to back a protest to damage the ‘Barelvi’ vote bank of the PML-N. This ‘theory’ gained steam as two previously unknown candidates with religious credentials contested the Lahore NA-120 by-elections and managed to secure more than 10,000 votes. Both candidates, Azhar Hussain and Pir Aijaz Afzal, also participated in the Islamabad protest and delivered strong-worded speeches.
Shahzad Raza is an Islamabad-based journalist. He tweets at @OldPakistan_