By Salman Masood
November 26, 2017
Pakistan deployed army troops in Islamabad on Sunday to help restore law and order to the capital, officials said, a day after violent clashes between the police and supporters of an Islamic cleric left at least six people dead and 200 others injured.
The move came after the prime minister and army officials held emergency talks and agreed to send troops to protect vital areas and buildings like Parliament, the prime minister’s residence and the diplomatic enclave that houses embassies.
The military informed the governing party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz that it would rule out the use of lethal force to quell the protest, according to the terms of the deployment in a letter that was shared with The New York Times and circulated by the local news media.
A military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, said the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, had urged Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi “to handle the protest peacefully, avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in the national interest.”
A military official confirmed on Sunday: “The army will remain at the backstage. We will not use force against the protesters. We will just protect important government installations.” The official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media about the protest, which has presented a potentially major crisis for the governing party.
The protests erupted over two weeks ago, when the cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, accused the nation’s law minister, Zahid Hamid, of committing blasphemy after the governing party proposed a new version of an oath for lawmakers that dealt with a declaration of Prophet Muhammad as God’s final prophet.
The law minister denied the blasphemy charge, even releasing a video in which he emphatically stated that he believed that Muhammad was God’s final prophet. The government also reversed the changes in the oath. But the efforts failed to placate Mr. Rizvi and several other religious leaders.
They demanded his resignation, but the government refused.
Blasphemy remains highly contentious in Pakistan, often leading to violence and mob justice. In recent years, hard-line Islamists have killed two prominent politicians who advocated changes in the country’s laws.
On Saturday, protesters stormed the home of Mr. Hamid, in Pasrur in Sialkot District, but he was not there at the time. Another lawmaker from the governing party, Mian Javid Latif, was injured in an attack by protesters in Sheikhupura District, local news outlets reported. Protesters in Rawalpindi also damaged the entrance of the house of a former interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan.
On Sunday, pressure grew for Mr. Hamid to step down. Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, called for his resignation, adding his voice to the clerics.
Mr. Rizvi, who belongs to the Barelvi sect and built his reputation as a staunch defender of the country’s blasphemy laws, was a virtual unknown a few years ago. He has since gained considerable political clout, becoming leader of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party. His sermons have been filled with invectives against religious minorities and opponents.
In September, Mr. Rizvi’s party entered a by-election in Lahore, in eastern Pakistan, for the seat vacated after the ouster of the governing party’s leader, Nawaz Sharif. To the surprise of many observers, it won more than 7,000 votes, or 6 percent.
The relatively strong showing appears to have emboldened Mr. Rizvi, and he used the controversy over the electoral oath to unleash supporters on the capital, where they’ve been camped out for weeks, crippling traffic.
The Islamabad high court had ordered the government to clear the interchange since last week. But on Saturday, as nearly 8,000 police officers and members of a paramilitary force moved in to remove the protesters, both sides attacked each other with sticks, officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and tents burned.
The police suspended the operation.
The spasm of violence raised concerns about the stability of the governing party, which was weakened by the disqualification of Mr. Sharif in July. Political analysts say the current turmoil would worsen if the government did not take steps to calm the unrest.
A regulator had banned live television coverage in most of the country of the police operation for fear it was inflaming religious sentiment. But many news networks taken off the air have since resumed broadcasts.
All colleges and universities in Punjab Province will be closed on Monday and Tuesday, the provincial authorities announced. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube remained inaccessible Sunday, but officials had planned to unblock the platforms by evening.
On Sunday afternoon, an uneasy calm prevailed in Islamabad. The aftermath of the clashes was visible in the charred grass on the sidewalks and burned tents. Boxes of food and plastic bottles of water were scattered on the ground.
Supporters of Mr. Rizvi roamed about the Faizabad Interchange, one of the main entrances to the capital from Rawalpindi and its suburbs, with an air of victory.
“Government used all kinds of force and thousands of personnel, but by the grace of Allah, they ran like rats when the believers of the Prophet Muhammad retaliated,” one protester, Muhammad Zubair, said.
About 2,000 people at the protest site offered funeral prayers for those killed in Saturday’s clashes.
Abid Hussain, a seminary leader who was leading a group of about 100 protesters, said, “We will avenge the martyrdom of our six fellows by continuing the protest.”
As a helicopter flew overheard, dozens of protesters turned their eyes toward the sky, raised their arms and shouted, “I am here, O Prophet of God, I am here,” a defining slogan of Mr. Rizvi’s party.
Residents from neighboring towns and cities, who said they wanted to show solidarity with the protesters, streamed to the protest site to join the sit-in.
The demonstrators seemed emboldened by that fact that protesters had managed to repulse Saturday’s advance by the police forces. Protest leaders have now stepped up their demands.
They are calling for the entire cabinet to resign.