The whole country has heaved a sigh of relief that the 22-day protest sit-in Islamabad has come to an end. The protest was organized by a religious political party, Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRAP) in support of its demand for the resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid. For more than two weeks, the twin cities were held hostage by a group of religious zealots whose leader Allama Khadim Husain Rizvi has earned national notoriety for his vitriolic speeches. Over more than two weeks of protest, Allama Rizvi was unsparing in his unabashed attacks on every institution of the country, be it the government, the judiciary, the civil administration or the media.
As a result of the Islamabad sit-in and its aftermath, many lives were lost, over 300 injured and untold damage done to property across the country. Under a six-point agreement, mediated by an army representative between the government and the protesters, the controversial law minister of the PML-N government has tendered his resignation, and the Tehreek has given an assurance that it will not issue any kind of “fatwa” against him. Some analysts have described the agreement as an abject surrender and a devastating blow to the legitimacy and moral standing of the government.
In hindsight, the whole episode was mishandled from the beginning. The Tehreek activists were allowed to freely travel from Lahore all the way to Rawalpindi. Had the authorities and law-enforcement agencies in Islamabad and Punjab done their jobs as soon as the relatively small groups of TLYRAP supporters moved towards the capital, they could have been diverted to another site or to the Parade Ground in Islamabad that is the officially designated area for rallies and protests. For whatever reason, this was not done and the protestors were allowed to occupy Faizabad, paralyzing life in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. What is more, after they gathered at Faizabad, no attempt was made to stop their supporters from joining in or to prevent in food and other supplies that were needed to sustain the sit-in.
According to media reports, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal tried to get the help of ulema and mashaikh to negotiate a peaceful resolution with the demonstrators, but in vain. There was disunity and confusion within the government circles as to how to tackle the situation. Some reports said that the government in Punjab was not wholly committed to an operation against the protesters. It may be recalled in this connection that some time back, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif himself had called on Law Minister Zahid Hamid to resign. The Islamabad dharna exposed the PML-N as a house divided and in disarray. Lately, the ruling party has shown a tendency to dither on issues of national importance.
It was only after the Islamabad High Court and the Supreme Court ordered the government to end the standoff that action was taken in a state of confusion and without a sense of direction. The police crackdown failed due to lack of proper planning. Later, the army was called out to restore security in the federal capital. The government panicked and committed one blunder after another. In an unprecedented move, all private TV channels were taken off air and social media platforms blocked. A clampdown on the media was widely condemned as it did not help the government and fuelled rumour mongering in the country. The government was paralysed with fear, leading to debate and negotiation within institutions and, in a state of panic, it surrendered completely to Allama Rizvi.
Initially, the military showed reluctance to intervene. The army leadership reportedly told Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi that troops may be employed only as a last resort, pointing out that in its order the IHC had directed the government not to use firearms during the clearance operation. General Bajwa was also quoted as advising the government to “identify and punish” those responsible for causing the chaotic situation. But the government seemed to be unwilling to take responsibility for its own actions. Surprisingly, Interior Minister Iqbal Ahsan refused to accept any liability for the police crackdown, saying that he did not oversee the action and that it was undertaken directly by the local administration and the police chief. This is strange as internal security is the direct responsibility of the interior minister. Indeed, it is the job of the administration and the police to ensure peace and they share much of the blame for not taking timely preventive measures.
The protesters won the day by exploiting an emotional and religious issue. But the initial ammunition was provided by the government which unnecessarily tinkered with the oath regarding the finality of prophethood in the Election Bill 2017. This was a serious blunder. The government also blundered on the issue of the law minister’s resignation. The protest sit-in could easily have been dispersed in the beginning had the law minister resigned earlier. The way the whole thing was handled has exposed the incompetence of the government and weakened the authority of the state.
The government’s abject surrender to the TLYRA has serious implications for the future. Every extremist group can now gather a few hundred supporters and blackmail the government. The government showed cowardice and was scared from the very beginning, allowing a violent mob to dictate policy. The religious extremists have snatched more political space which they will use to their advantage in the coming days.