ISLAMABAD: The three-week-long dharna at a busy traffic interchange of the federal capital finally ended on Monday after the government acquiesced to the demands of a previously obscure religious group in a deal some analysts believe might set a dangerous precedent.
Hundreds of Tehreek-e-Labbaik supporters had been camping at the Faizabad Interchange since November 6, calling for the resignation of Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid who they blamed for a hastily-abandoned change in the oath of elected representatives.
"On the assurance of the chief of the army staff, we are calling off the sit-in," Tehreek-e-Labbaik leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi told a crowd of around 2,500 supporters who had occupied the Faizabad Interchange for three weeks.
Cleric Rizvi’s announcement came two days after a government operation to break up the dharna went awry, sparking off violent protests across the country.
When the situation spiralled out of control, the government ordered police and paramilitary troops to stand down and called on the army to restore order in the federal capital.
Subsequently, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa went into a huddle with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi where they concurred that army troops would not use force against protesters and would only provide back-end support.
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According to the deal that was signed, the federal and Punjab government would pay for the losses incurred to the properties during the dharna and those arrested for various charges would be released.
The deal carries the signatures of Rizvi, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, Interior Secretary Arshad Mirza, and Major General Faiz Hameed.
The deal, according to Iqbal, “was unfortunate” and “not an end that we can be proud of”.
But he also said that the draft was prepared with suggestions from both sides.
Speaking on Express News’s Kal Tak with Javed Chaudhry, he said the government accepted six of the protesters’ conditions. He also tried to spin the agreement between the government and the protesters as “not a defeat for anyone”, but “a victory for Pakistan. He said that if an agreement was not reached, unrest could have spread across the country and the situation would worsen.
“Sometimes you have to swallow a bitter pill for the greater good of the country,” he added.
Meanwhile, cleric Rizvi told his supporters that the army chief himself had become a guarantor.
After the announcement of the deal, the protesters started packing up, and by the nightfall, the Faizabad Interchange was partially opened.
According to Rizvi, the army-brokered deal featured the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid and a commitment to unveil the report of the Raja Zafarul Haq-led committee within 30 days.
The committee had been formed by PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif to investigate who was responsible for 'clerical error' in the Khatm-e-Nabuwat clause in the new election law.
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It was agreed that all the criminal cases – more than two dozen in Islamabad alone – against the protesters would be withdrawn, and those arrested released while the federal and the provincial governments would foot the bill for the damages caused during three weeks.
With dozens of vehicles and motorcycles burnt and other properties damaged during the protest, the damages could run into tens of millions of rupees, according to some estimates.
Political analysts believe the government decision to give in to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s demands is a “major embarrassment” for the ruling PML-N as ahead of the 2018 general elections and underscores the influence of religious groups.
“Politically, this is a major embarrassment for the PML-N,” Hasan Askari said, warning that it would undermine their credibility and predicting more defections.
He also warned it had strengthened the position of religious groups such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik, and weakened the PML-N, which has previously benefitted from the religious right’s vote.
Sit-ins called off
Tehreek-e-Labbaik chief Rizvi also called upon his supporters across the country to call off their respective sit-ins and open the roads. He announced that the Chehlum of those killed in the November 25 clashes between the police and protesters would be held on January 4 in Rawalpindi’s Liaqat Bagh.
At the end of the hour-long press conference, Rizvi and other protest leaders vented their anger at the media when they were informed that no TV channel had broadcast his presser live. “Why are you all here if you are not broadcasting us live,” Rizvi said, addressing the media persons there.
A spokesperson for the protest leaders said they had no information how many of their supporters had been arrested and how many released so far. “They are in the hundreds. People are still coming to us to inform us about their missing friends.”
Across the country life also began returning to normal. By Monday afternoon, protesters in Sindh had cleared out from the port city of Karachi, Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas and Nawabshah.
Peshawar’s Ring Road, where sit-ins were held for three consecutive days, was also reopened and all 14 places occupied by demonstrators were cleared.
In Lahore, however, there was a different story. Ashraf Asif Jalali, the leader of the Idara Sirat-e-Mustaqeem (ISM), who is leading the protest in front of Punjab Assembly, announced on Monday that they would continue their sit-in till the acceptance of their four demands.
At a press conference, flanked by various gaddi nasheens (custodians) of different dargahs and leaders of other religious organisations of the Barelvi sect, Jalali demanded the registration of an FIR against those behind the deaths of protesters during the operation at Faizabad, lifting the ban on use of loudspeakers in Punjab, the resignation of Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah over his alleged pro-Ahmadis remarks, and holding accountable the persons responsible for changing the Khatm-e-Nabuwat oath.
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