Friday Times

On the road to comeback

Published on Sept 28, 2012

Among the protesters who fought with Islamabad Police last week – as they tried to force their way into the Diplomatic Enclave and reach the US embassy – were operatives of banned religious groups.

Joining countrywide protests against a controversial anti-Islam video on YouTube, they had first gathered not too far from the ISI headquarters – an office that was once known to have influence on them.

Last week’s riots left more than 20 people dead and another 200 injured. Dr Farrukh Saleem, an economic and strategic analyst, estimated a loss of Rs 100 billion to the economy. More than Rs 25 billion worth of public and private property was damaged, he said.

The journey towards the Diplomatic Enclave began after the Friday prayers as groups of people coming out of local mosques including the Lal Masjid began to gather at Aabpara Chowk. Interior Minister Rehman Malik had suspended mobile phone services in Islamabad and all other major cities, but could not stop the coordinated violence. Local clerics asked the worshippers to join the rally organized by Tehrik-e-Ghalba-e-Islam, a little known group.

Sources said the local administration had approached Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz on Thursday and asked him to pacify his followers.

On the frontline of violence were young students of local madrassas. Some of the protesters were ordinary people who were not associated with religious organizations. Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf had announced its own protest, but reporters preferred chasing the violent protesters over broadcasting the verbose speeches of its leaders.

Islamabad Police had explicit instructions to stop the protesters from reaching the American embassy at any cost. Some protesters who wanted to sit in in front of the embassy included workers of Jamaat-e-Islami and Tehreek-e-Ghalba-e-Islam. Later, some PTI and PML-N workers were also seen fighting with the police.

On the frontline of violence were young students of local madrassas
Over the years, some people have learned the art of pitched battles with the police. They are daring enough to throw burning teas gas shells back towards the police with bare hands.

Large containers on the streets of Islamabad could not keep the protesters at a safe distance from the Diplomatic Enclave. The police had to fire in the air and use tear in a clash outside the protected area that lasted for hours. Military and paramilitary troops were also guarding the area where embassies and houses of diplomats are located.

Ubaidullah Usmani, a spokesman for Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (formerly known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan) denied his organization was involved in the acts of sabotage.

“We cooperated with the local administration and stayed away from the Diplomatic Enclave. Our workers did not throw a single stone at the police,” he said. He said his group had changed its name and modified its flag and was not linked to the people carrying Sipah-e-Sahaba flags. Not all political commentators agree with him.

For Amir Rana, director of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, the appearance of banned outfits in protest rallies is not new. “This is something quite understandable,” he said. “They capitalize on such occasions and push for more space in the society.

Issues like blasphemy help them come out of the shadows.”

In a bizarre allegation, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Punjab police personnel were among the protestors who came from Rawalpindi. Sources in Punjab confirmed Rawalpindi police did not stop the protesters from entering Islamabad at the Faizabad interchange, but dismissed the allegation that the Punjab government had patronized the protesters.

The protesters travelled four kilometers, from the Faizabad interchange to Serena Hotel, before they met the first signs of resistance.

The Interior Ministry had planned to engage with the protesters near the Diplomatic Enclave and exhaust them. About 2,000 policemen were deployed outside the enclave along with the additional support from the Frontier Constabulary. Army troops had been stationed inside the enclave.

Protesters could not get into the protected area but destroyed the reception of a nearby residential compound, traffic signals and an electric transformer, among other things.

“We did not have enough force to engage with them at different points,” Islamabad police chief Inspector General Bani Amin Khan said, “so we decided to hold them near the Diplomatic Enclave.” He also said the Punjab police had given the protesters a free passage into Islamabad. A crackdown was underway, he said, to identify and arrest the people involved in sabotage and violence.

Intelligence reports ahead of the protests were based on the general analysis of the situation. The tone had already been set on Thursday, when scores of college, university and seminary students under the umbrella of Muttahida Talba Mahaz tried to reach the American embassy. When they failed, they turned violent and damaged public and private property.

Amir Rana said protests in Islamabad would continue to attract banned outfits because they need more space in the society and especially the electronic media. The process of banning extremist groups – by sealing their offices, freezing their bank accounts or temporarily holding their leaders – was inherently flawed, he said. A number of high profile suspects have been released because there was no evidence against them and prosecution was weak. The groups continue to operate under new names and continue to recruit new people, he added.

Islamabad IG Bani Amin Khan said his future strategy would be similar – to protect sensitive areas by holding the protesters outside them.