Imran Khan’s role in the protests remains controversial. He strenuously denied that he was a military cat’s paw, despite the dramatic claims of the then PTI President Javed Hashmi. His actions, if not sinister, were reckless and as much as Nawaz Sharif’s stubborn pursuit of Musharraf, threatened the hope of consolidation of democracy in Pakistan.
The PTI leader in a speech at Bahawalpur on 27 June warned of a ‘tsunami’ march to Islamabad if key questions relating to the 2013 polls were unanswered. The march was to become known as the Azadi March. At the end of May, in a separate development, Dr. Tahirul Qadri had met the PML-Q leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain in London. They agreed on a Ten point Agenda to achieve a ‘real democratic government’, warning that if the PML-N did not meet their calls for ‘electoral reforms’, it would have to ‘face consequences.’
The government’s response to these threats escalated tensions to such an extent that a military coup appeared possible. On the eve of Dr. Tahirul Qadri’s return to Pakistan, the Punjab Police had become involved in an eleven-hour stand-off with PAT activists over the removal of barriers outside the Minhaj-ul-Quran headquarters in Model Town Lahore. Ten PAT workers died in the police action that brought it to a close. The brutal operation led to calls from PTI and PAT for the resignation of both the Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif and the Home Minister Rana Sanaullah. There was further violence at Islamabad airport when Dr. Qadri’s flight from Dubai was diverted to Lahore to prevent his protest motorcade through the Punjab. ANP and PPP were significant absentees however from the multiparty conference PAT hosted in Lahore which called for Shahbaz’s resignation and the investigation of the Model Town episode by the Supreme Court in place of the judicial commission set up by the Lahore High Court.
The PTI supported the PAT demands, but kept a discreet distance in the run-up to the Azadi March. Just a week before its departure for the capital, Imran Khan declared its aims were Nawaz Sharif’s resignation and the holding of early elections which would rid Pakistan of ‘one family rule.’ PAT supporters commemorated their fallen comrades in ‘Martyrs Day’ on 10 August. Dr. Tahirul Qadri used the occasion to declare that 14 August would be the day of his ‘revolution march’ to Islamabad to topple the government. This was the signal for the arrest of PAT activists across the Punjab and a lockdown of Lahore, as police manned all exits and entry points. A visibly agitated Nawaz Sharif appeared on television to report that he had requested a Supreme Court commission to investigate alleged irregularities in the 2013 general elections. This was however, too little, too late, as the PTI condemned the blockade and agreed on a four point agenda with PAT regarding the Azadi and Revolution Marches. The PPP also condemned the closure of roads with containers in Islamabad and Lahore making Punjab a ‘police state’. Police barricades were eventually removed to allow the PAT procession to move off to Islamabad The PTI march proceeded separately to Islamabad where it was joined both by participants from Peshawar and a delegation from JI which had agreed to take part at the last moment.
But it was not the marches which generated political theatre and drama so much as the camps which PTI and PAT established in the capital. Both had unexpectedly large numbers of female participants. The PTI event had elements of a youth festival with nightly concerts. This led JUI-F to condemn the sit-in at D-Chowk as a ‘centre of vulgarity’. The mounting economic costs and the failure of attempted dialogue with the two camps led to Nawaz Sharif appointing the Chief of Staff of the army as a ‘mediator’ in the crisis. He initially attempted on the floor of the National Assembly to portray this move as being undertaken at the request of Qadri and Imran Khan. The move broke the deadlock, but revealed that whatever it’s outcome, Nawaz Sharif would thereafter be greatly weakened in his ability to assert civilian control over the army. Indeed, the violence of Saturday 30 August when PTI and PAT activists battled police as they moved towards the official buildings in the ‘Red Zone’ momentarily raised fears of a coup. Two days later, protesters broke into the headquarters of Pakistan television and only vacated the building when the army intervened. The Prime Minister fought back with the calling of a Joint Session of Parliament in which opposition parties joined the government in condemning the violence and extra- constitutional demands of the protesters in Islamabad. The onset of monsoon flooding provided further respite for the beleaguered Prime Minister as it diverted attention from the Islamabad theatre. Imran Khan nonetheless still received a blaze of publicity when he left his encamped supporters in Islamabad to travel to Sialkot which had been badly flooded. His projection of PTI as the party of ‘change’ was further boosted by a by-election success at Dera Ismail Khan.
A solution to the stand-off in Islamabad appeared no nearer as the protests entered their fourth week. Whatever the final outcome, it was clear that events of the summer of 2014 had undermined the moral authority and political power of the Sharif brothers. Nawaz Sharif might continue in office, but his ability to assert civilian control had been ended by bringing in the army as an umpire. Moreover, he faced the prospect of ruling without the support of his brother because of the Model Town episode. Shahbaz was vital not only for ensuring stability in the PML-N Punjab heartland, but had been an important channel,for communication both with the military and New Delhi. The army rather an the democratic forces had clearly emerged as a winner in the political crisis that some believed it had secretly orchestrated.
Courtesy of : Pakistan, A New History by Ian Talbot, Oxford University Press, New York 2015