Recently a Shura member asked Maulana Fazalur Rehman, in a meeting of his party’s party central executive committee, that under which circumstances could the march to Islamabad be postponed. The cleric-in-chief looked at him in the eye and said, “We can do it under two circumstances. First, if we decide to quit politics for good. Second, if you decide to you kill me.” Complete silence followed these words, as participants absorbed the full weight of the cleric’s determination.
The JUI-F will soon start its marches from the nooks and the corners of Pakistan to eventually gather in the national capital. The announced date of arrival in Islamabad is October 31, but given the hindrances and possible arrests of the marchers, the date is not written in stone. It is quite possible that the marchers may continue to enter Islamabad after the last day of the month and the first week of November.
While the party prepares for the march, they are not banking on their destiny in Islamabad only. An informed beat reporter who covers the party said, “They are planning to create trouble in cities around the country if they are not allowed to reach the national capital in large numbers. They are coming with ambulances and cranes to remove containers. They are equipped with blankets, dry food, water…everything except weapons, knives, daggers, sticks and batons.”
“After the viral videos of zebra-print batons, they have been strictly told not to bring them to prove and establish their peaceful credentials,” he said.
Asked by foreign media representatives on Tuesday if they were disappointed by the ineffective mobilization of other major political parties for the Azadi March, Maulana Fazalur Rehman appeared kind towards his allies in the opposition. “We have been doing the heavy lifting and push ups for almost a year. Now to expect folks who just joined the gym to act like us is very unrealistic. All we need from them is moral and political support. The rest we can easily take care of,” he said.
“All we say is: do not stop your rank and file from attending the march. We just don’t want them to stop their workers. The atmosphere is charged already,” said a JUI-F leader while talking to The Friday Times.
The PTI government appears schizophrenic in its handling of the Maulana and his march. Initially, Imran Khan himself thundered and dared the cleric to come to Islamabad on October 27. Addressing party talking heads on October 4, Khan mocked the Maulana said, “Fazalur Rehman is trying to save his sinking political career. The government is introducing reforms in madrassas which has worried Maulana the most. After these reforms, madrassa students will not be used for such acts,” he said. Taking cue from the prime minister, his cabinet colleagues have been ridiculing the Maulana since. Even last week, when the prime minister announced a seven-member negotiating committee to talk to the Maulana, he went ahead and hurled the “diesel” slur at him at a public ceremony.
“Last week, Imran Khan was advised by you-know-who to handle Maulana’s march by engaging him instead of procrastinating. Earlier, the PTI guys were just joking around. The reality struck them only recently. They thought those who facilitated them to power had the sole responsibility to save them. Not anymore,” said a journalist close to the scene and the players in the game.
First, they tried to engage with a JUI-F leader, but he was snubbed by the Maulana and the other opposition parties. As the Maulana played ‘Catch Me If You Can’ with the government and shifted the burden of negotiations with the steering committee of the Multi-Party Conference, the time flew by.
“How can we talk to those who are arresting our workers and creating hurdles in the way of our constitutional right to protest peacefully?” asked opposition leaders. By Wednesday, Imran Khan’s government caved in, allowing opposition parties to hold their march. The statement issued from the prime minister’s office said: “It was decided that the government, with its firm belief in upholding democratic ideals, would allow the proposed Azadi March, if it takes place within the ambit of law and the Constitution as interpreted in the decisions of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and Islamabad High Court.”
It appears that the administration will approach the marchers to move to the Parade Ground near Shakarparian.
The PML-N has come out clearly supporting the march and the rally in Islamabad. Shehbaz Sharif announced the participation in his joint press conference with Maulana Fazalur Rehman last Friday. The PPP, too, has said they will participate in the Islamabad gathering.
What is not known so far is that, despite the permission granted by the prime minister, how security agencies will manage the marchers headed towards the national capital. Given the anger of the marchers, how will they respond to the state authorities? This, too, is not known.
“Given the magnitude of the economic meltdown, poor governance, widespread restlessness in the length and the breadth of the country, nobody can predict the tipping point or the proverbial last straw breaking the camel’s back. Who knows when streets may give you the looks of Hong Kong and Beirut folded in one?” commented a veteran analyst on the emerging scenario. “Maulana, I think, will decide to contain or confront by assessing his strength in Islamabad. He will show his cards only then and cross that bridge when he approaches it,” concluded the analyst.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad