Pakistan has been engulfed in violence as protests organized by a cleric demanding government resignations continue. Meanwhile villagers in the North of the country demand justice following a deadly assault on their settlement that left 15 dead.
Several thousand people took to the streets of north-western Pakistan shouting anti-army slogans and displaying the bodies of 15 local villagers who they claim they were murdered in their homes by the military in an overnight raid.
Around 3,000 protested outside the governor’s house of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Peshawar. They claim that men wearing military uniforms stormed homes and shot the villagers. The protesters called on the army to end its operations in the area. One sign read: “We are also Pakistanis. Don’t kill us.” The villagers were killed in a tribal region where the Pakistani military has been conducting a campaign against Islamic militants.
The rally recalled a similar protest in the city of Quetta last week where the relatives refused to bury the victims of a bomb attack for four days until the prime minister met their demands and dissolved the local government.
Pakistani villagers from the northwest gather around the dead bodies of their relatives during a protest in provincial capital Peshawar on January 16, 2013. (AFP Photo/A Majeed)
The rally comes as thousands of supporters of a Muslim cleric press on with their anti-government protest for a fourth day in the capital Islamabad. The man in charge of the protests, cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri addressed his supporters in a four-hour speech calling for the removal of the government and denounced the politicians as corrupt thieves, as he accused them of failing to fix severe energy and gas shortages. The cleric wants his followers to continue protesting until the government is dissolved and electoral reforms are introduced.
The 61-year-old Qadri recently returned to Pakistan after years in Canada, quickly establishing himself as a poliical force in his homeland. His success has sparked rumors that he is lobbying the army to delay parliamentary elections later this year in favor of a military-backed caretaker government. He denies the allegations.
The government has warned the demonstrators to leave Islamabad by Thursday or else the security forces will use water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, said Interior Ministry spokesman, Nawabish Ali Khan.
Later, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said there would be no operation against the protesters, state-run news service reported. The interior minister then withdrew the earlier threat.
The country’s opposition has demanded an immediate timetable for polls. Their leader, Nawaz Sharif, announced that the opposition would not be joining forces with Qadri.
Meanwhile, the security forces have barricaded Pakistan’s Parliament with three layers of shipping containers. Qadri has issued a final ultimatum with the prospect of revolution as the failure to comply.
RT caught up with Dr Sreeram Chaulia, professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs, to discuss the meteoric rise of the cleric.
RT: In just a few short months, Dr Qadri rose from relative obscurity to political stardom. How’s he managed to do that?
Sreeram Chaulia: Well he has got a lot of media coverage for sure. The media has been acting as the kind of watchdog of the people against the misgovernment and corruption of the ruling Pakistan People Party as well as the student governments which are run by the opposition, the Pakistan Muslim League. So the mainstream parties have been getting flack deservingly for failing people’s expectations both on the economic front and the wars that have been happening there. So suddenly like a meteor, he has risen up. And many people of course have the suspicion that he is being primed by the military establishment in order to further weaken all the civilian parties. That is why he is getting so much billing and being tipped as a savior and a messiah of the country who is anti-system, anti-political parties and he is upholding the common person’s grievances against the establishment.
I think, you know, his message has resonance. He is a televangelist. His brand of Islam, he is a moderate and Sufi. He is a magnetic speaker and a good communicator with the masses. All those areas matter, although frankly speaking in many ways, he is anti-democratic because he has not indicated if he himself will participate to contest the elections and has been demanding all these systemic reforms that mean possibly a delay of elections legislated for the next few months. So all these factors mean that he is a complicated figure and I do not think he should be welcomed outright.
A supporter of Sufi cleric and leader of the Minhaj-ul-Quran religious organisation Muhammad Tahirul Qadri waves a Pakistani flag as he walks on a container in the early morning on their third day of protests in Islamabad January 16, 2013. (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)
RT: What does India think of Tahir-ul-Qadri?
SC: Tahir-ul-Qadri visited India last year and made some relatively pleasant statements which were well received. He talked about the need for peace between the two countries and also for diverting defense expenditure towards the developmental needs of the poor both in Pakistan and India. So he belongs to a sect of moderate Islam. The Sufi sect which also has ties with Northern India, the Barindhi School and all that. So there is a following for the brand of tolerant and open Islam that he espouses.
So in his own ideological way, he is not anti-India. What we are concerned about in India is that he might be opportunistically be riding on the coattails of the military and maybe using unelected undemocratic forces, like the judiciary and the military in order to rise to power. And we know that Pakistan’s history is full of such figures who have taken the help of the military and have later been dissolved by it. So if the military takes over, it means more tensions with India and more problems in Kashmir. There has, in fact, been an uptick in violence, ceasefire and border violations, within the past few months.
RT: Do you think that the government will yield to Qadri’s demands, and let in a caretaker government?
SC: Nawaz Sharif, the main opposition leader has called Qadri’s promise of a revolution as more of a storm in a teacup. And my own feeling is that the media and some of the less democratic forces had a hand in fanning Qadri and making him look more menacing and more revolutionary than he really is. But one thing is for sure- the government is under pressure not only from the Qadri but also from the courts.
And I do not think that the courts are acting in tandem with Qadri but what has happened is that the courts had a long running with a civilian government, the existing one of President Zardari. And there it is like a pincer movement on both sides, possibly not coordinated. But what is happening is that it looks like both the mass movement that Qadri is trying to rig up as well as judiciary are seem to be taking cues from each other and timing their blows against the government almost simultaneously, which means the problem for democratic institutions in the long run. And I’m afraid it allows levy for the military to remain the ultimate king maker and the puppeteer behind the shadows, which is not great news for South Asia as a whole, because if Pakistan does not genuinely democratize, we’re in trouble.
Children sit beside a victim, whom tribesmen said was killed after security forces arresting them during a protest in front of government offices in northwestern Pakistan city of Peshawar January 16, 2013. (Reuters/Fayaz Aziz)
A tribesman mourns his relatives, who were said to have been killed after security forces had arrested them during a protest in front of government offices in northwestern city of Peshawar January 16, 2013. (Reuters/Fayaz Aziz)
A supporter of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) shouts slogans as she burns a tyre during a protest against a Supreme Court decision to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in Lahore January 16, 2013. (Reuters/Nadeem Soomr)
Supporters of Sufi cleric and leader of the Minhaj-ul-Quran religious organisation Muhammad Tahirul Qadri wave their national flags during Qadri’s speech on the third day of protests in Islamabad January 16, 2013. (Reuters/Akhtar Soomro)
A supporter of Pakistani cleric Tahir-ul Qadri sleeps on the third day of a protest rally in Islamabad on January 16, 2013. (AFP Photo/Farooq Naeem)
A supporter of Sufi cleric and leader of the Minhaj-ul-Quran religious organisation Muhammad Tahirul Qadri stands under a big Pakistani flag during the third day of protests in Islamabad January 16, 2013. (Reuters/Faisal Mahmood)