Reality Behind Pakistan's Azadi March

Photo source: Dawn
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In the ending week of October 2019, a notable protest happened against Imran Khan’s government. A caravan of people had descended into Sohrab Goth area of Karachi, and the agitation spilled into a thirteen day sit in Islamabad. It then spread across the country, where protestors blocked major roads and highways.

This protest known as Azadi March was the first significant protest against Imran Khan’s PTI led government, more than little a year after his win. The protest at its peak was able to gather 10,000-15,000 people on Islamabad’s Kashmir Highway. This mass rally came after Pakistani businesses observed a nationwide strike against enacted taxes, which the opposition believed were imposed as part of the International Monetary Fund's $6 billion bailout package for Pakistan. It was led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F).

As per statements of secretary information of JUI-F, an estimated 4,100 village councils, 308 cities, 79 districts and four provincial councils had raised funds to the tune of the about Rs 1.1 billion for the "Azadi March" in a matter of four months. The members of the party believed that the 'Azadi March' matched the rallies of political parties in the recent past against the government, outnumbering the '2014 dharna' arranged by Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

The Pakistani government had pledged their support for the Azadi march, as long as it respected the clauses laid out by court for lawful protests. In terms of wider political support, the PPP opposed the use of the religion card by the Maulana against the PTI, and hence didn’t eventually participate. PML-N, on the other hand, was cautious at first about joining the Maulana but its leader, Mian Nawaz Sharif, supported the Maulana’s march unequivocally. 

For Azadi March, Rehman had tried to mobilise thousands of marchers to the streets via religious schools associated with his party. Although, due to JUI-F’s biased gender approach, no women were part of this march. The upper middle class and those not in favour of the mullah narrative were also not backing the march.

The mass protest was conceptualised because the protestors firstly alleged that the 2018 election was rigged. Although, there had been a consensus that the military wanted the election to swing into Imran’s favour, pre-election, some independent evaluations showed that the 2018 election was by and large decided by the mandate of Pakistanis, especially since Imran Khan enjoys overwhelming support amid Pakistani youth.

Secondly, the protestors thought that the economy under Imran Khan’s PTI was struggling, as inflation was sky rocketing. Finally, Rehman had personal resentments against Imran Khan because he had lost his seat to a politician from Imran’s party. He even considered the party a threat to his conservative province of Khyber Paktunwala, and even alleged that Imran Khan was a foreign national, and his government was under an influence of a Jewish lobby, since Imran Khan’s ex-wife, Jemina Goldsmith was a Jew. However, personal attacks merely don’t count when they weigh against facts.

But soon after the demonstrators gathered in Islamabad, a defiant Khan told a rally of supporters that the opposition was only protesting in order to secure “a deal” to avoid scrutiny under a government-led anti-corruption drive. Conversely, if one goes with the views of the opposition, they believe that Imran Khan has failed to represent the middle class and the poor, in terms of prices, jobs and good governance, despite him acknowledging that inflation and unemployment remain big problems in Pakistan, which his government was trying to resolve. Interestingly, he, too, had launched a protest against Nawaz Sharif in 2014 because he claimed to have proof of election rigging.

In an article by Iqbal Singh Sevea in the blog of Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, he wrote: ‘The PTI inherited an economy saddled with a crippling current account deficit and a depreciating currency. For months, the PTI government seemed to lack a coherent policy of dealing with the crisis. It was divided over how to balance implementing urgent economic and tax reforms and pursuing populist policies, such as creating 10 million jobs and building five million low cost housing units, which it had promised.’ Thus, the scenario reflects that opposition wanted to play the nation’s already dispirited economic plight to their advantage.

Talking about Rehman, his political relevance depends upon Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (N). Since PPP and PML (N) sitting in opposition, didn’t support the movement strongly, it was the main reason the Azadi march soon lost steam, like Imran Khan's protests did in 2014 due to statist pressure. Also, getting mere support from smaller parties at the national and provincial level wasn’t enough to make inroads for Rehman because these regional parties lacked major support.

Pakistani politics, of late, has functioned in a way where conservative Islamist parties, largely, are key partners for all of the mainstream, even secular because they offer street power, and coalition of seats in the national assembly, where winning parties have only weak majorities. The Islamists in Pakistan, therefore, pose a threat to any ruling government. In 1970s, the Islamist parties helped manage to stage a coup, against the government, weakening it significantly.

When it comes to Pakistani army’s perspective, it was unclear about the 2019 protests. Although, it issued multiple statements in support for Pakistan’s ruling government. Some observers even believed that Azadi March failed because it didn’t have tacit approval of the army. This important institution in Pakistan never wanted Imran Khan out, as even he once commented that his government and the army were on the same page when it came to policy matters. At the same time, the insider perspective is that if Imran Khan’s government remains shaky, it would benefit the military because it aspires for an upper hand in the policy matters.

Rehman, too, infact, was himself backed by the military during past stints in power. He had criticised the institution but had been careful not to alienate himself completely, arguing that he had disagreed with certain decisions, not the military’s overall role in politics.

Pakistan’s military establishment has been tantamount to power since decades. In the past, those who dared to stand for the cause of civilian supremacy, civil rights, and the constitution, were labelled as traitors, anti-state, Indian or Afghan agents by them. Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was also labelled as traitor when she challenged General Ayub Khan in 1964. Such labelling, however, is not vehemently challenged inside Pakistan, because of fear. The military, however, denies interfering in its regional politics.



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