ISLAMABAD: Volatility of the countrywide security situation forced the chief of the army staff (COAS) to weigh in. General Qamar Javed Bajwa called up Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Saturday and advised him to handle the Faizabad sit-in peacefully as “violence is not in national interest”.
The army chief made the telephone call after the Faizabad crackdown set off protests across the country, including the major cities of Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar.
The abortive operation brought embarrassment for the government which had claimed that dealing with a “handful” of protesters was “no big deal”.
“[The] COAS telephoned PM. Suggested to handle Islamabad dharna peacefully, avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in national interest and cohesion,” chief military spokesperson Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said in a tweet.
Premier Abbasi was in Lahore where he held a crucial meeting with PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif in the presence of Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
A government official said the army chief’s statement was aimed at cautioning the government that miscreants could exploit the situation to provoke hatred and fuel unrest and violence in the country — and that the situation needed to be handled tactfully.
The official cited reports from a premier intelligence agency recently submitted in the Supreme Court, suggesting that Tehreek-e-Labbaik, the organisers of the sit-in, have political motives.
The matter was reportedly discussed during the Sharif-Abbasi meeting. Sharif is reported to be adamant that Law Minister Zahid Hamid would not resign and that the government would not give in to the protesters.
According to sources, the prime minister was in favour of securing the protest site without resorting to violence and to pacify the protesters in various parts of the country by involving religious groups. However, the government’s mishandling of the issue appears to have landed it in trouble.
The confusion provided grist to the rumour mill throughout Saturday. Some reports suggested the law minister had resigned. There were other reports that the protesters had killed a police inspector, which proved wrong after the Islamabad police and the district administration denied that any policeman was killed during the clashes.
In the panic mode, the government took private news channels off air to prevent live coverage of the operation, but that only added to uncertainty as viewers were left in disarray about the unfolding developments.
Political analyst and former bureaucrat Kanwar Dilshad accused the government of mishandling the situation. “Right from day one the government has played it poorly,” he said.
Dilshad wondered why Sharif set up a three-member inquiry panel to probe the “inadvertent change” in the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat clause from the previous Election Bill 2017 when the inquiry report was not to be released and no action was to be taken.
“Why the government allowed the protesters to enter the twin cities? Why the government kept watching the situation as a silent spectator for two weeks and made no sincere effort to tackle the mess that has posed grave challenges to it?”
Dilshad advised the PM and his government to heed to the army chief’s advice and act with caution. “The ruling camp has to show some kind of flexibility to defuse tension. Confrontation in this kind of situation ends up in nothing but disaster,” he told The Express Tribune.