Ban on rallies mutes Liaquat Bagh’s legacy

Prohibition on holding political gatherings has altered Rawalpindi’s poll landscape

Qaiser Shirazi January 15, 2024
A young woman chants slogans in support of Imran Khan at a rally for his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf on May 9, 2013 in Islamabad. PHOTO: Myra Iqbal/Express


In anticipation of the upcoming national elections on February 8, the administration has imposed a ban on hosting political rallies at Liaquat Bagh, a historically significant venue in Rawalpindi formerly known as Company Bagh.

Once a vibrant centre for political gatherings during election seasons, this decision has led to a decline in political activities, forcing candidates to seek alternative venues like narrow streets, markets, wedding halls, and more.

Consequently, Liaquat Bagh, once a symbol of political popularity, will remain dull and barren during this election season.

Former Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, known for concluding every election with a rally in Liaquat Bagh, has announced that he will hold his final rally outside Lal Haveli on February 6. Political parties have been encouraged to hold rallies in larger cities in the spacious Parade Ground near Faizabad at the junction of the two cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad to avoid overcrowding and ensure compliance with the ban.

The park is currently administered by the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA), which has imposed an undisclosed ban on election rallies. Sources reveal that any political party attempting to hold a gathering at Liaquat Bagh will face substantial penalties.

Liaquat Bagh, once a vibrant political hub, has now transformed into Liaquat Park, witnessing a 60% reduction in its area. Instead of hosting political rallies, the ground now features colourful flowers, shady trees, a jogging track and benches for families. The district administration offices have been established in the vicinity, replacing the once-bustling political arena.

Two years ago, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) held gatherings in Liaquat Bagh with the High Court's approval, resulting in damages to its plants, benches, barriers, and the jogging track. As a consequence, they were slapped with heavy fines.

The park is currently administered by the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA), which has imposed an undisclosed ban on election rallies. The PHA’s ban has left the residents of the garrison city without the traditional political ambience of Liaquat Bagh during this election season.

With a history marked by three instances of bloodshed, including the assassinations of prime ministers Liaquat Ali Khan and Benazir Bhutto, and firing during the 1973 public meeting of the Awami National Party (ANP), Liaquat Bagh holds significant historical importance.

Originally a dense forest around 500 years ago, Liaquat Bagh and its surroundings witnessed the settlement of the oldest Aryan tribe before the establishment of Rawalpindi. The flowing Nullah Leh, once a crystal-clear stream, added to its significance. Arya Mohalla, adjacent to Liaquat Bagh, still exists today.

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From 1880 to 1947, Hindu families used to perform rituals here, burning the remains of their dead in the transparent flowing stream, now known as Nullah Leh. They would also perform ablutions in this area. Hindu and Sikh women would wash utensils and clothes, while both men and women would take baths at this location.

The British military company used Liaquat Bagh for exercises during their cantonment establishment in the early 1900s. The venue served as a gathering point during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah initiated a movement to unite Muslims in the region during a significant gathering in 1936.

Over the years, Liaquat Bagh hosted gatherings addressed by prominent figures such as Quaid-e-Azam, Gandhi, Nehru, Master Tara Singh, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Maulana Bhashani, Ataullah Shah Bukhari, former chief minister of Occupied Kashmir Farooq Abdullah, Wali Khan, Asghar Khan, Maulana Mufti Mahmood, Maulana Maududi, Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, Sardar Abdul Rab Nishtar, Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto.

Current political figures like Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto, and Dr Tahirul Qadri have also had the honour of addressing the gatherings held in this historic venue.

The venue’s original gathering capacity of 50,000 to 60,000 people has now been limited to only 7,000 people. Building a stage for gatherings here was a necessity. In front of it, there was a large pond and a fountain, which remained in existence for 100 years but has now been removed.

On the press club side, there was the Rawalpindi General Bus Stand from where buses would ply all over Pakistan. The bus stand was abolished in the Bhutto era in 1974 and shifted to Pirwadhai. The main entrance to the Company Bagh was from Murree Road, adjacent to the present Police 15 office. It had a 50-foot-wide central gate.

There was also an entrance from the Liaquat Road side, but it was called the side entrance. From the mid-60s to 2000, children and adults were seen playing cricket and other sports here from morning to evening. Next to it was the ancient arena of wrestlers. It is now a small remnant known as ‘Dad Pehalwan Akhara’.

On October 16, 1951, when the first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan was martyred while addressing a gathering here, Company Bagh was renamed Liaquat Bagh in his honour, a name that persists to this day. On December 27, 2007, Benazir Bhutto was also martyred here after a gathering. A memorial monument in her honour has been constructed on one side.

In 1973, during a gathering led by Wali Khan of the National Awami Party (now ANP), a firing occurred, resulting in the deaths of 12 workers and injuries to several others. A case was registered at the City Police Station, in which former governor Ghulam Mustafa Khar, Iftikhar Tari, and Saeed Awan were the main accused, who were acquitted in 1997.

Now, 80 per cent of Liaquat Bagh’s area has been taken over. The bus stand has been replaced by the office of the solid waste management company, RWMC.

The entire area of the side has become the Rawalpindi Press Club. The central entry has been closed, and all the area has been given to Police 15.

A mosque was constructed in the centre. With the Press Club, the PHA office was established.


Published in The Express Tribune, January 15th, 2024


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