The Pakistani government appears to be employing a range of tactics to prevent a major opposition protest aimed at toppling the administration of Prime Minister Imran Khan from reaching the capital, Islamabad.
To deter the Islamist party Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI) from flooding Islamabad with supporters, the authorities have arrested members and unveiled plans to close roads to the capital. Authorities are also weighing a ban on volunteers associated with JUI and are pushing for a complete media ban on covering its events and leaders.
Senior officials have also reached out to Muslim clerics to undermine the appeal of JUI leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman. The government announced plans to hold talks with Rehman while amassing police forces in Islamabad.
JUI leaders say their “freedom march” will see more than 1 million supporters descend on Islamabad by October 31. Most opposition parties support the protest, which Rehman says aims to force Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) to resign from office to pave way for new elections.
“I want to request [Maulana] Fazlur Rehman to consider the gravity of the current situation and make a sane decision,” Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan’s railways minister, told journalists in Islamabad on October 21.
Ahmed said he hoped opposition leaders would postpone the protest given Pakistan’s ongoing clashes and tensions with archrival India along the Line of Control. The militarized border demarcates the limits of Pakistani and Indian rule over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
“They [the opposition leaders] are all mature politicians, [and] I have some expectations of them in these hard times,” he said.
But JUI leader Akram Durrani poured cold water over his hopes. “There will be no compromise on the freedom march,” he told journalists late on October 21 after some leaders of the nine opposition parties supporting the protest met to deliberate a joint strategy.
“If the government team wants to negotiate, first it has to give assurances that it will not create hurdles in the march,” Durrani demanded. Last week, Khan tasked several cabinet members with forming a negotiations committee to approach Rehman for talks. The JUI leader, however, refused to negotiate with the committee.
Pakistani media reports indicated that the Interior Ministry had established a “control room” in Islamabad to monitor the protest and ensure that protesters from the adjacent provinces are unable to reach the capital on October 31.
Reports by local television stations and journalists indicate that authorities are amassing a large number of shipping containers to block roads and cordon off key government offices within Islamabad.
“The police stopped me and forced me to take my truck to the Khairabad Bridge, where they removed the container from my truck,” Nisar Ahmed, an elderly trucker, told private Geo News television.
Two bridges across the river Indus in Khairabad connect the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Islamabad through the districts of Attock and Rawalpindi in the eastern province of Punjab. Parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are considered traditional JUI strongholds while ally Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) counts Punjab as a key bastion.
Pakistani media reports say authorities in Islamabad were also contemplating digging ditches along footpaths leading to Islamabad to prevent protesters from circumventing roadblocks by foot.
On October 21, Islamabad police arrested JUI leaders Maulana Shafi-ur-Rehman and Maulana Mohammad Irshad for promoting the protest. Pakistani media is rife with reports that Rehman and other senior JUI leaders are likely to be detained or barred from leaving their homes before October 31.
Last week, authorities floated the idea of banning Ansar-ul Islam. The stick-wielding volunteers are part of the JUI and are typically tasked with providing security and enforcing discipline during its meetings. On October 16, Geo News television said it stopped live coverage of Rehman’s press conference on the orders of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.
To fend off a possible government crackdown, JUI leaders are vowing to remain peaceful. “I promise that the march will be peaceful but warn the administration against creating hurdles,” Durrani told journalists.
Pakistani Defense Minister Pervez Khattak is heading the government’s committee tasked with approaching the opposition. He warned the JUI recently that the state will enforce its authority and the “law will take its course” if the opposition presses ahead with its protest plans.
Given the preparations by both the JUI and the government, the protest is likely to be a major showdown between the two. Both are uncertain about coming out unscathed from the confrontation.