Protests that make or break governments in Pakistan

KARACHI, Pakistan

Thousands of anti-government protesters have converged in Pakistan’s capital to stage a sit-in seeking the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan over alleged election rigging and weak economy.

The sit-in led by former opposition leader Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, leader of one of the country’s main religious parties Jamiat Ulema Islami, is not something rare for the citizens of Islamabad who have braced several long marches and sit-ins in the last few decades.

The history of anti-government marches, some of which invited military intervention, is as old as Pakistan itself. Almost all the political and religious parties have used them as a tactic to pressure or topple governments in the past.

The South Asian nuclear state braced the first countrywide protests in 1953, which was aimed at forcing the government to declare the Qadiani or Ahmadi sect as non-Muslims.

The movement led to countrywide protests against Ahmadis which were quelled by the army imposing a three-month martial law in several cities.

In the months that followed Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, a renowned religious scholar and founder of the country’s mainstream religious party Jamat-e-Islami, was sentenced to death for writing a leaflet on the beliefs of the sect, which was said to have stirred the riots. The death sentence was later converted into life term, and eventually set aside by the Supreme Court.

A popular movement launched by left-wing student unions in 1968 against the military rule of Gen. Ayub Khan is considered the actual beginning of political protests in Pakistan.

Students, laborers, and political activists staged countrywide sit-ins and protests forcing the general to step down, but instead of holding elections, he handed over the power to then-military chief Gen. Yayha Khan.

This was followed by protests against rigging in the 1977 elections held by the government of then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The campaign launched by nine major political parties, popularly known as Nine Stars, was hijacked by then-army chief Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who dismissed Bhutto’s government, and imposed another martial law for the next 11 years.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the country’s first-ever democratically elected prime minister, was later hanged following a controversial court judgment against him in a murder case in 1979.

Several political parties joined hands and launched Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) from the port city of Karachi in 1983 to topple the martial law regime. The campaign led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of the center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) , however, remained restricted to the southern Sindh province, its stronghold.

The Zia regime faced another huge movement led by Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), a student wing ideologically associated with Jamat-e-Islami, in 1984 for restoration of student unions in colleges and universities which were banned by the martial law regime.

The ban was partially lifted in the northeastern Punjab province in 1989 only for a year by then-Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif, who went on to become the prime minister thrice. Despite repeated promises by successive governments, the ban remains.

Two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif launched long marches toward Islamabad against each other from 1992 to 1996, which led to the ouster of both governments.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad, a former Jamat-e-Islami chief, introduced sit-in protests to the country’s political history in the 90s. Apart from holding a huge sit-in against Benazir Bhutto’s government in 1996 in Islamabad, Hussain also led several sit-ins across the country against local chieftains and police excesses.

The two major political entities, the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, however, signed a “charter of democracy” in 2006 in London pledging not to topple the democratically elected governments through long marches and sit-ins.

A historic “lawyers movement”, which began after the forced ouster of then-Chief Justice of Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudhry by former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2007, eventually led to the latter’s unceremonial ouster. Musharraf had to resign in August 2008.

Rejecting the charter of democracy, workers of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of then opposition leader Khan, besieged the parliament in 2014 for 126 days seeking the resignation of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over alleged electoral fraud.

Sharif, however, refused to budge and Khan’s claim of electoral fraud was also dismissed by the Supreme Court later.

Now, Khan’s actions are coming to bite him as he is facing the largest protest of his term while the country is battling with economic woes and diplomatic challenges over the current crisis in Kashmir.
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