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Pakistan govt gives in to Islamist protesters, minister quits

Questions about the military’s role were raised after Tehreek-e-Labbaik chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose protest paralysed Islamabad for three weeks, thanked the army chief for helping end the stand-off.

world Updated: Nov 27, 2017 22:01 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad
Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times, Islamabad
Supporters of the radical religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan celebrate after law minister Zahid Hamid's resignation during a sit-in protest in Islamabad on November 27, 2017. Pakistani Islamists announced they were disbanding their sit-in after the law minister resigned, caving in to the protesters who had been demanding his ouster in a three-week-long rally.
Supporters of the radical religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan celebrate after law minister Zahid Hamid's resignation during a sit-in protest in Islamabad on November 27, 2017. Pakistani Islamists announced they were disbanding their sit-in after the law minister resigned, caving in to the protesters who had been demanding his ouster in a three-week-long rally. (AP)
         

The radical Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan called off countrywide protests and its followers dispersed in most cities on Monday after the government gave in to its demand that law minister Zahid Hamid should resign over a blasphemy row.

Blockades by the anti-blasphemy group’s supporters in Karachi and Lahore were lifted and life slowly returned to normal. But protestors remained in Islamabad, saying they would disperse after the government freed their arrested colleagues.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose protest had paralysed Islamabad for almost three weeks, thanked the army chief for helping end the stand-off, raising questions about the military’s role.

The government’s climbdown will be an embarrassment for the ruling PML-N party ahead of elections expected in mid-2018, and it also highlighted the power of religious groups.

Seven people were killed and nearly 200 wounded during an unsuccessful police operation over the weekend to disperse the protesters in Islamabad. The clashes in the capital triggered violent protests in other cities.

File photo of Pakistan law minister Zahid Hamid at a news conference in Islamabad.
File photo of Pakistan law minister Zahid Hamid at a news conference in Islamabad. ( AFP )

Law minister quits

Law minister Hamid sent his resignation to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi “to take the country out of a crisis-like situation”, state-run PTV reported. Hamid said, “The decision to resign was taken in a bid to steer the country out of the prevailing critical situation.”

Karachi was blocked at 10 places while roads in Lahore were blocked at16 points by the group, which staged a prolonged protest in Islamabad’s Faizabad area, demanding the ouster of Hamid over a hastily abandoned legislation that it considered blasphemous.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik and the government signed an agreement following negotiations apparently brokered by the army. The agreement was signed by interior minister Ahsan Iqbal, Rizvi and an ISI official, Maj Gen Faiz Hamid.

According to the agreement, the government also agreed to free dozens of protesters who were arrested over the weekend.

Head of the radical religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, arrives for a news conference regarding his talks with the government to end the sit-in protest in Islamabad on November 27, 2017.
Head of the radical religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, arrives for a news conference regarding his talks with the government to end the sit-in protest in Islamabad on November 27, 2017. ( AP )

The Pakistan Army’s role

The government had called on the army to tackle the protests after the failed police operation, but the troops remained in the barracks. The military said army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa had advised the premier to resolve the protests peacefully during a meeting on Sunday. Media reports quoted military sources as saying that Bajwa was opposed to the use of force as he believed it would affect the people’s trust in the army.

Rizvi highlighted the army’s role in ending the standoff. “The honourable chief of army staff, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, sent his special envoys to us. We said we do not want to talk to the government; they are our murderers,” he said.

“So the general took personal interest and sent his team, saying ‘We will become the guarantors, and have your demands fulfilled.’ So we said, ‘All right. That is what we want.’”

Supporters of the radical religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan celebrate after the country's law minister Zahid Hamid's resignation during a sit-in protest in Karachi on November 27, 2017.
Supporters of the radical religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan celebrate after the country's law minister Zahid Hamid's resignation during a sit-in protest in Karachi on November 27, 2017. ( AP )

Judiciary criticises army and government

However, the Islamabad high court criticised the army’s role in the entire affair, questioning how it had acted as a “mediator”. An order issued by the court raised several objections to the agreement with the protesters and the role played by the army chief, which was “besides the Constitution and the law of the land”.

The Tehreek-e-Labaik launched its protest after blaming the law minister for changing the wording of an electoral oath. It claimed the words “I believe”, used to replace the clause “I solemnly swear” in a proclamation of Mohammed as Islam’s last prophet, amounted to blasphemy.

The government blamed the change on a clerical error and swiftly restored the original wording.

The military high command also intervened to have news channels reopened after they were shut down over the weekend. A block on social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook was also lifted.

The law minister’s resignation is the latest in a series of blows to the PML-N. In July, party chief Nawaz Sharif was ousted as prime minister by the apex court over graft allegations while finance minister Ishaq Dar – also accused of corruption – has taken indefinite medical leave.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik is one of two new ultra-religious political groups to reach prominence in recent months. It won 6% and 7.6% share of votes in two recent by-elections. Islamist parties are unlikely to win a majority in the next general election but could play a major role.

First Published: Nov 27, 2017 21:58 IST

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