Tensions soar high in Punjab as PTI sets out to march to the capital

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Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has set out to lead the “Azadi March” to the federal capital Islamabad on Wednesday. The government, however, is adamant about not letting the marchers reach the capital. The police have placed blockades on all the routes to Islamabad in an attempt to prevent the protestors from entering the federal territory. PTI supporters have clashed with the police forces on multiple fronts in Lahore and elsewhere, leading to injuries and material damage. Tensions in Punjab and the capital are high and analysts fear that the bedlam presages a military takeover.

Imran Khan was ousted as the prime minister of Pakistan through a no-confidence motion passed in the National Assembly. He was succeeded by Shehbaz Sharif, the leader of the PML-N and the former Chief Minister of Punjab. The new government is based on an alliance between several major political parties, including the PPPP and the JUI-F.

Weeks before his ousting, Khan was adamant that he is being thrown out of power through a foreign conspiracy because he has pursued an independent foreign policy by visiting Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. He blamed the United States for a regime change conspiracy against him and said that the other political parties – who were in opposition at the time – are the pawns in this great game.

Since being removed from the power, Khan has further fanned the flames. He has held power shows in major cities of Pakistan like Karachi, Peshawar, Islamabad and Multan where he criticized the Pakistani military and the opposition for being a part of the “foreign-funded conspiracy.” Khan has also pointed fingers at the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which had opened its door at midnight during the no-confidence mayhem to prevent Khan and his cronies from thwarting the vote.

Khan recently announced that he will march to the federal capital Islamabad to achieve “true freedom” for the people of the country. The government, however, announced that it will not allow Khan and his supporters to enter the federal territory. The government has placed shipping containers and blockades on various routes leading to the capital. In a video message shared on his social media pages on Wednesday, Khan vowed that he will enter Islamabad at all costs.

As the PTI supporters and leaders started their “Azadi March” toward Islamabad, they clashed with the Punjab Police in Lahore. Videos of the clashes posted on social media and televised on news sites show the PTI supporters trying to push their way through the barricades as the police hurls tear gas canisters their way. Khan also emboldened his supporters when he called on the youth on Tuesday to remove the obstacles themselves.

Analysts and experts say that the ill-advised government tactics to intimidate the PTI supporters and force them into submission are likely to backfire. They say that the “naïve” government response to the “Azadi March” will only worsen the political situation in the country. After a key meeting between the Sharif brothers in London, the government had concluded that early elections – which the former PM demands – will not be “dictated” by Khan and his cronies. The government reportedly gave carte blanche to Rana Sanaullah, the Interior Minister of Pakistan, to deal with the protestors.

The interior minister immediately ordered raids at the houses of key PTI leaders. The police broke their way into the houses and manhandled and arrested the PTI leaders, spreading widespread anger. Political figures, activists and journalists condemned the midnight arrests, chastising the government as “fascists and undemocratic.”

As the Tuesday wore on, both government and PTI appeared unwilling to take a step back and re-evaluate their stance. The government is using heavy-handed tactics to prevent the PTI supporters from entering the capital and Imran Khan is adamant that he and his supporters will enter the capital no matter the cost. Khan has also invited the judiciary and the establishment to step in and ensure an early election before the situation gets out of control. Analysts fear that the tussle between the government and the PTI leaders is rapidly opening the space for non-democratic forces to intervene.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan directed the Islamabad chief commissioner on Wednesday to provide an alternate site for the PTI to hold its “Azadi March” and create a traffic plan for the protestors. A three-member bench of the apex court headed by Justice Munib Akhtar and Justice Sayyed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi issued the directives while hearing a petition filed by Islamabad High Court Bar Association President Mohammad Shoaib Shaheen a day earlier, seeking removal of the blockade in the capital ahead of PTI’s march.

“Let them protest and go home”, Justice Ahsan said. He said that the court would also seek assurances from PTI that the protest will be peaceful, the property would not be damaged and there will be no torture and violence. PTI leaders, however, had warned that the march will be “bloody.”


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