On Saturday, violent clashes between protestors and security forces were reported in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Sources say the clashes resulted in at least six dead and 200 injured. An estimate of 8,500 elite and paramilitary forces participated in the now suspended operation, where tear gas and rubber bullets were reportedly fired to disperse demonstrators. The military became involved as a result of additional protestors appearing in hundreds, forcing the police to retreat. Military assistance was requested by the government to restore order after the police failed to control the protests Saturday. Despite the high court declaring highway sit-ins illegal two weeks ago, demonstrators continued to block the Faizabad Interchange.
Protests have been increasing in scale over the past three weeks, and many have criticized the government for not having stepped in sooner. According to sources in the interior ministry, despite a high-level security meeting on Friday night, officials had failed to reach a consensus on an operation strategy to remedy the problem. The police did not have a coherent strategy to tackle the situation, leading to failed arrests of protest leaders, and resulting in the protests spreading to other cities. The failure of the government to bring social control emboldened protestors, now demanding the resignation of the government. To deter an escalation of conflict and tension, the government has imposed a controversial policy of creating a censorship blanket over social media websites and private news channels. The media blackout was an attempt to limit coverage of police actions to prevent further inflaming religious sentiments from the public and to contain the spread of protests. Despite such efforts, unrest has spread to other cities beyond the capital, where demonstrators have also blocked major roads. Other cities experienced similar clashes with the police – in Karachi, dozens were reportedly injured.
What do these protestors want? The protests, carried out by Islamists from the ultra-right-wing Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasool-ul-Lah (TLYRA) party, were triggered by a clerical error where the Law Minister had omitted a reference to the Prophet Muhammed in a new version of the electoral oath. Despite his apology, and an official amendment to restore the original oath, protests have continued to grow. Hardline protestors further demand the removal of Law Minister Zahid Hamid from office, accusing him of blasphemy. Within the highly Islamic state, blasphemy has always been a controversial issue, with mob justice and violence being common outcomes. Hardline Islamists in the near past have murdered two prominent politicians advocating to change the country’s laws.
Official sources state Prime Minister Abbasi and Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa have met this morning to discuss the situation. While the government has sought the help of the army, General Bajwa had suggested to Abbasi a peaceful solution in handling the protests to avoid as much, or any, violence if possible. According to the terms of the deployment, the military has stated it would rule out lethal force to subdue the protests, and would take more of a backstage role in focusing on protecting government installations.
In extremely heated and tense situations as the case of Pakistan, violence should be avoided at all costs. Further violent clashes with the police or, worse, the army, in attempt to forcibly suppress protests will only fuel the ante of the demonstrators’ voices calling for the resignation of the entire government cabinet. The government must take action to calm the unrest, up its ruling legitimacy, as it is within its national interest to promote coherence and maintain order. Furthermore, the politicization of Minister Hamid’s error by Ritzvi and his party is harmful to finding a peaceful solution to the current dissent.