LAHORE: Conflicting statements from opposition politicians about the Islamabad jalsa have created confusion about its timing as the PML-N said on Thursday that the event had been deferred until tomorrow (Friday) due to the train tragedy in Rahim Yar Khan, while ANP insisted on 'recording their protest' today (Thursday).
The Maulana Fazlur Rehman-led 'Azadi march', which started its marathon journey from Karachi on October 27, was supposed to morph into a sit-in in the federal capital today (Oct 31) where workers of other opposition parties were to join it.
However, senior PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal said on Thursday that due to the train tragedy the demonstration would be held on November 1 after Friday prayers. He called on PML-N workers to stay in Islamabad till tomorrow and fully participate in the jalsa.
His party colleague Marriyum Aurangzeb also confirmed the deferment.
ANP calls it conspiracy
The announcement didn't go down well with the Awami National Party of Asfandyar Wali. ANP workers travelling in buses and cars and on motorcycles are en route to Islamabad from different parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).
The party rejected the PML-N announcement as a 'conspiracy' and 'propaganda'. "The protest would be staged today (Thursday) as per schedule with or without PML-N," ANP spokesperson Zahid Khan said. "Asfandyar Wali Khan will address the rally in Islamabad today, come what may," he added.
The PPP also decided to join the jalsa according to the plan. In a video statement, Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari would briefly address the Islamabad gathering on Thursday.
Confusion in JUI-F
Perturbed by the brewing controversy, the JUI-F denied the PML-N announcement, but the politico-religious party itself appears to be confused about their plan.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman was quick to announce that it was JUI-F's event and it would decide to go ahead with the jalsa or defer it till tomorrow. He went on to add that the JUI-F was going ahead according to the plan.
However, later 'Azadi march' participants were told that the JUI-F had never intended to hold the jalsa on October 31 and that the plan supposedly was to reach Islamabad on Thursday and hold the jalsa after Friday prayers. For media consumption, the JUI-F leaders said that convoys of march participants were stuck in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and could not reach Islamabad on time.
March slowed down
JUI-F leader Maulana Amjad, while speaking to The Express Tribune, confirmed that the original plan was to stage the Islamabad jalsa on Oct 31, but since the Maulana Fazlur Rehman-led main convoy would reach Islamabad late Thursday night, it would not be possible to hold the demonstration so late.
He said 'welcoming camps' set up en route to Islamabad had slowed the march down to almost snail's pace. He also blamed the large number of vehicles in the main convoy and mismanagement for the slowing down of the march.
‘Azadi March participants must abide by law’
Apparently, the JUI-F has deferred the jalsa on purpose due to some strategic reason, otherwise it wouldn't be an issue for the main convoy to reach Islamabad from Gujjar Khan, which is less than an hour drive from the federal capital.
Insiders say that the PML-N has never been clear about the JUI-F strategy because many leaders say they were not privy to Maulana Fazl's plan to stage a sit-in. Perhaps this was the reason none of PML-N leaders shared the stage with the JUI-F chief in Lahore on Wednesday, though PML-N Lahore President Malik Pervaiz was supposed to make a speech.
Azma Bukhari told The Express Tribune that the PML-N wanted to attend the event but could not do so given some mismanagement between the two parties.
Islamabad sealed off
Meanwhile, schools were shuttered and entry points to Islamabad sealed off on Thursday as thousands of marchers converged on the federal capital.
Police and paramilitary troops used shipping containers to block several major traffic arteries between the capital and the neighbouring Rawalpindi ahead of the march, causing traffic jams and frustrating commuters.
"The main entry points were closed to ensure the safety of the citizens and government offices," Islamabad police spokesperson Zia Bajwa told AFP, saying a 17,000-strong force was overseeing security in the capital.
The 'Azadi march' represents the first major challenge to Prime Minister Imran Khan's government as his administration battles rising public anger over a faltering economy and double-digit inflation.
Ahead of the march, social media users panned the JUI-F chief and his followers over their refusal to allow women to participate, questioning their commitment to democratic principles.
"Looking at the 'Azadi March' from afar, one thing is clear to me. In the democracy that Maulana sahib is (fighting) for, women would have no place," tweeted Marvi Sirmed.
"Ask yourselves dear democrats, do we want THIS?"
(With additional reporting by Khalid Mehmood in Islamabad and AFP)
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