Pakistan's triple M: Maulana, March & Military
Yet another ‘Azadi (Freedom) March’, on this occasion led by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, has last week travelled long, slogan-laden miles within Pakistan and converged to drop anchor in the country’s capital, Islamabad. The primary demand of the march and the ‘dharna’ (sit-in) is that Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan resigns, but he has quite expectedly refused to oblige. At the time of writing, four inconclusive rounds of talks between representatives nominated by Khan and the Rahbar committee of the opposition parties led by Fazlur Rehman had already been held, and media reports suggest that these talks had not made much headway towards finding a way to diffuse the escalating crisis.
Maulana Fazlur, a religious leader who is also among the most pragmatic and deft politicians in Pakistan, had in June this year announced that his party would hold a long march to Islamabad in October. The march kicked off from the port city of Karachi on 27 October, with rallies from Balochistan province also joining the march in Karachi, and descended upon Islamabad on 31 October. The most remarkable feature of the Maulana’s march was the massive number of participants that he succeeded in attracting, and despite wide variations in the figures claimed by the different factions based on their leanings it was clear that with close to 100,000 people this was the biggest such congregation at a political rally in Pakistan in the last several years. The appalling economic situation in the country that had fuelled public anger lent to the numbers, as did the desperation shown by Imran Khan to target his main opposition rivals which polarized Pakistan’s polity and gave Fazlur the space to mobilize the people. Another factor claimed by some Pakistani analysts is the covert support extended to Fazlur by those sections of the Pakistani Army that were aggrieved at the three-year extension given to the current Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Over 20 Lieutenant Generals will retire over the next three years, some of whom would have been contenders for the Army Chief’s post but have lost out due to the extension.
After initial objections, the two main Pakistani opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) had joined several smaller parties in extending support to the Maulana. It is another matter that in part due to their apprehension that Fazlur would steal the political thunder, and also due to their traditional fear of the military establishment, which stood firmly behind PM Khan, these two parties balked at involving themselves too deeply in the march. Nevertheless, their leaders, PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari did join the protesters in Islamabad and addressed the gathering.
Whether the ‘Azadi March’ succeeds in ousting Imran Khan or not, Maulana Fazlur Rehman has already achieved his primary objective of bringing himself back into political reckoning after the dismal performance of his party in the 2018 general elections in which it failed to even open its account with even the Maulana losing his seat in his bastion of Dera Ismail Khan. Emboldened by the massive support that he has received at the march, and conscious of the jitters running down the spines of both Imran Khan and some sections of the military establishment, Fazlur has been unsparing in his criticism of both. He told the protestors, “The elections of July 25 were fraud elections. We neither accept the results nor the government that came into power after those elections. We gave this government one year but now we cannot give them any more time”. Accusing Imran Khan’s government of destroying the economy and endangering the very existence of the country, he added, “The Gorbachev of Pakistan must go. We give (Khan) two days to resign, otherwise we will decide about the future”. On the military establishment, Fazlur said that only the people of Pakistan and not any “institution” had the right to govern the country. He ventured a direct challenge to the establishment by saying that “We do not want conflict with our institutions. But we also want to see them stay neutral. We give two days to the institutions to decide if they will continue to support this government. After that, we will decide what opinion we should have about them (institutions)”. Fazlur also criticized the Pakistan government’s Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) policy and accused it of abandoning the Kashmiris.
Fazlur has been letting out his plan of action incrementally. He said, "We are standing up for what’s right. Retreat would be a cardinal sin and there’s no going back. This is our Plan A, we also have a Plan B and Plan C. We will not leave until our demands are met. This flood of people will not stop here. We will shut down the entire country next. We are sitting here in H-9 sector because there is not enough space at D-Chowk (in Islamabad, located right outside the National Assembly of Pakistan, the President House and the Prime Minister House, which constitutes the barred ‘Red Zone’). Even here in this open wide space, we have a problem in accommodating all the people. However, if we decide to march towards the Prime Minister’s house, there is no force that would be able to stop us”. Media reports suggest that Fazlur’s Plan B envisages expansion of the protests to other parts of the country, bringing cities to a grinding halt, blocking highways, and a possible forward movement towards D-chowk.
As an editorial in Pakistan Today put it, “The Azadi March has shaken an arrogant government to the core. The sit-in that followed has given it another jolt”. The Pakistani government finds itself in a tough spot as the Maulana is only following the precedent set by Imran Khan himself in 2014 when he tried to dislodge Nawaz Sharif and sat in the Red Zone in Islamabad for 126 days. Imran Khan, however, tried to put up a brave face when he said while addressing a rally in Gilgit Baltistan that “Gone are the days when one used to use Islam to gain power. This is a new Pakistan. Sit however long you want. When your food runs out, we will send more… Who are they wishing to gain freedom from? I want the media to go there and ask people who they wish to free themselves from”. Using the dog-eared India card yet again, Khan said that the ‘Azadi March’ had made Pakistan’s enemy happy. He separately claimed that the Kashmir cause had gone into the back-burner because of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Pervez Khattak made it clear that “There is no possibility of the Prime Minister’s resignation. That is not even an option to discuss with the Rahbar committee. We can negotiate on other demands but no talks will be done on PM resignation”.
The military establishment has come out strongly in support of Imran Khan. Responding to Fazlur’s challenge, Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said that “Maulana Fazlur Rehman is a senior politician. He should clarify which institution he is talking about. Pakistan’s armed forces are an impartial state institution which always supports democratically elected governments. Nobody would be allowed to create instability as the country cannot afford chaos”. General Bajwa reiterated this line at Army’s 226th Corps Commanders’ Conference in Rawalpindi. Addressing the senior Army leadership, General Bajwa said that the Pakistan Army as an organ of the State will continue to support national institutions as and when asked in accordance with the Constitution of the country. He added, “We have attained better internal security and stability through cohesive national efforts and sacrifices rendered by Pakistan’s armed forces, all national institutions and above all the nation. We shall not let it reverse to suit any vested agenda at any cost”.
Opinion is divided on the degree of success that the march has had thus far, and on how it will pan out in the days ahead, but its timing does suggest recognition at least among a section of the Pakistani political class that the Pakistani military establishment, widely believed to have propped up Imran Khan as a convenient, gullible front, is more vulnerable than it has been in a long time owing to a number of factors, not least among which is the establishment’s limp response to India’s 5 August decision to dilute Article 370 of its Constitution. Having muscled away the ownership of Pakistan’s J&K- and India policies in its entirety from the politicians, the establishment has not only cut a sorry figure in Pakistan due to its inability to anticipate, leave aside stall or adequately oppose, India’s decision, but has also blown off ounces of respect and faith from the establishment’s disproportionately empowered shoulders.
An important reality that the march has brought sparklingly into light is how little J&K and its people actually matter to the Pakistani leadership. The Pakistani ruling class is fond of referring to J&K as its ‘jugular vein’. At a time when by all indications and proclamations the Pakistani leadership, both military and political, believes that its jugular vein is in a serious India-propelled crisis, the political opposition has chosen to turn a blind eye to J&K and has instead immersed itself in a full-blown tussle to wrest political space and influence from the government, while the Prime Minister, with the full backing of his military benefactors, is trying to exploit the J&K issue to the hilt by repeatedly asserting that the march was divesting attention from it. Other than pay, the now obligatory lip service, none of these sections of the Pakistani leadership have displayed the gumption to do anything meaningful for J&K and its people. Those in J&K who have been sneaking glances westwards after India’s 5 August moves would, and certainly should, make careful note of this.
In any event, the ‘Azadi March’ would have made the people of J&K highly skeptical of the mischievous Pakistani claims of supporting J&K’s freedom. They are bound to wonder how a country that is itself repeatedly engulfed in freedom marches every few years in which apart from senior Pakistani politicians, other communities like the Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhis, Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, Mohajirs and others, are asking for their own respective freedoms, could conceivably help J&K achieve freedom.