By Wajahat Latif
The long march started on the 9th June, the hottest month of the year. Starting from Karachi and Quetta with caravans joining from the interior of Sindh and Balochistan, the long march came to Islamabad through Multan, Lahore, Gujrat, Jhelum and Rawalpindi.
Full of excitement throughout, the processions seemed utterly indifferent to the hot and muggy weather, proceeding happily, delivering full-throated speeches to tumultuous welcome at halting places.
Caravans came from the NWFP and Azad Kashmir, everybody converging on the Capital. In the event, they arrived at Islamabad in the small hours of 14th June when the main procession led by Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan arrived at the so-called parade avenue in front of the parliament house on Shahrah-i-Quaid-e-Azam.
Here, I saw the rally build up all evening. This was a phenomenal occasion in every sense, people from all provinces joining, turning it into a national event. Lawyers, political workers, media people, professionals, members of civil society, students, citizen protestors, women and children moved about in the arena on the broad avenue. The atmosphere was like a carnival. Voluntary cold drink and snack bars had come up and people were chatting away, the literate mixing with the illiterate, sharing a “dream” as Aitzaz puts it, of a better future; justice, fair play and the citizen’s welfare. Two basic messages came from the slogans being raised: reinstatement of the judges and Musharraf’s removal and trial.
From all accounts, it was a massive gathering. At its peak early hours of Saturday, it seemed the biggest in the history of political gatherings in Pakistan; certainly the biggest ever in Islamabad. Beyond saying that it was in hundreds of thousand, it is difficult to be precise.
But Mr. Rahman Malik, the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Interior, in a photo-op next morning, the Interior Secretary standing next to him self consciously, said it was no more than “fifteen or twenty thousand; may be twenty five”. Ms Sherry Rehman followed suit repeating that figure, which became the official line.
But AFP and BBC estimated hundreds of thousand, adding that they made a statement the world could not ignore.
Nor can the Pakistani establishment, which includes the government, ignore it. Ignoring the absurdity of the ostrich-like official estimate of the Islamabad rally, the following points need to be considered.
First and foremost, the long march was a massive political statement on the judges’ issue. The prevarication of the parliament on the restoration of judges and backtracking of the PPP was squarely condemned. It forcefully reminded the parliament that the PPP and the PML(N) had agreed to reinstate the judges to the 2nd November position through a resolution in thirty days, a publicly made promise yet to be kept.
Secondly, the long march establishes that the lawyers’ movement, which is now actively supported by the civil society, the professionals, former generals, diplomats, bureaucrats and students, is an urban middle class uprising unprecedented in the history of this country.
Thirdly, it demonstrates that the people of Pakistan can act together, regardless of the provincial disharmony and discord that Musharraf encouraged with his militant policy in the smaller provinces.
Fourthly, this urban middle class movement is self managed, funded and disciplined. From Kemari to Khyber, it acted in unison without a single untoward incident and was exemplary in being a self-resourced operation.
Fifthly, the long march showed that the people understood why the judges had not been restored. They blame the NRO and the PPP. If you have participated in the processions you heard of the “deal”. PPP flag carrying workers openly condemned the official PPP line on the judges’ issue.
Sixthly, the PML(N), especially its leader Mian Nawaz Sharif, has stolen a march on the PPP. PML’s participation in the long march and the lack of ambiguity in their leaders’ passionate speeches reconfirmed their high moral ground.
Finally, the long march puts the government and other stakeholders in the power structure of Pakistan on notice. Such a massive turn out of people from all corners of the country de-links the judges’ issue from the 82-point constitutional package seen as pro-Musharraf. An extraordinary event, the long march could have easily gotten out of hand. But for Aitzaz’s brilliant oration in the final hours, the restless youth would have spread mayhem in the red zone of the capital.
On the other hand, deal or no deal, the pressure on Mr. Asif Zardari outside and inside his party is palpable. The perception that he is saving Musharraf is spreading in the PPP as well. Fast losing political ground to PML, he cannot afford to play for time any longer.
As an expression of public outrage, the long march seems just the beginning. Let us hope that the next time round it does not spin out of control, something the public is itching to do.
The writer is a former Inspector General of Police
The Nation, 20/6/2008