Two protests, one purpose

ISLAMABAD: A month on from the terrible tragedy at the Army Public School in Peshawar, politicians and members of civil society gathered in the capital to pay tributes to the fallen and present a united front against terrorists and extremists. But with two separate protests planned on the same day, it seemed like the response to the challenges of terrorism was far from a fully united front.

Members of civil society, led by #ReclaimYourMosque campaigners Jibran Nasir, Shaan Taseer and the Awami Workers Party’s Farzana Bari, had announced a major demonstration at Aabpara Chowk in a press conference a couple of days ago.

But on Friday afternoon, certain members of civil society organised their own vigil and demonstration outside Parliament House. This vigil appeared contrived, with more politicians and cameras than demonstrators and little cohesion between the groups. A few spectators stood on the sidelines near lit candles, while some others sat on the ground.

Speaking to the crowd, Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed insisted that the government had been taking the necessary steps to counter terrorism.

Veteran activist Tahira Abdullah said: “The civil society vigil was almost hijacked, but thankfully there were enough citizens enunciating our message.” She demanded action against the likes of Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz and the heads of banned organisations that are still roaming free.

Rabia Pasha, a participant of the Aabpara protest, told Dawn: “We received the message for the parliament vigil and did not understand what was happening. I thought maybe the time and venue for the same protest had been changed.”

However, as night fell on the capital, a gathering of nearly 500-strong people assembled at Aabpara Chowk. Rallied by Jibran Nasir, the activist behind the movement against Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz, Friday’s turnout was larger than any previous rally held by the activists.

This time around, there was also a clear change of tact on the part of the activists. It appeared that there were many other shades of opinion and groups represented at the demonstration than there were before. People from different backgrounds, religions and even members of the Pakistan Army were on hand and were seen demanding the vacation of the Lal Masjid.

The activists leading the protests also had greater success, some participants observed, because they linked their anti-Abdul Aziz movement with the Peshawar tragedy.

Following the Army Public School attack, Abdul Aziz had said, controversially, that he would not condemn the killing of children in Peshawar because he did not consider them martyrs. Angered by his callousness, civil society launched a protest movement against the cleric. When the cleric threatened protesters directly, FIRs were lodged on both sides and the matter acquired a legal significance.

In addition to regular faces, the organisers had invited representatives of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims), lady health workers (LHWs), lawyers, trade unionists and even members of Dr Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). A large contingent of Christian activists as well as an Ahmadi delegation were also present.

This demonstration also looked better organised, as a proper sound system and a large projection screen was placed at the venue so that all participants could see and hear what was going on.

Speakers showed the photograph of Lt-Col Haroon Islam, who was killed in the Lal Masjid operation in 2007. They repeatedly called on Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif to take action against the killers of Col Islam, adding that members of the Ghazi Brigade had killed many SSG Commandos.

Protesters shouted slogans against Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and accused him of protecting the Lal Masjid cleric.

Rubab Mehdi, chairperson of International Human Rights Associations, came to Islamabad from the UK specially to participate in this protest.

She said the word ‘minorities’ should be removed from the law because it was becoming the basis for rising intolerance in society.

“Pakistan’s issues were never resolved through committees. It is time to take strict action against the terrorists,” she said.

Shaan Taseer, son of slain Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, said that Dec 16 will always remain a black day in history of Pakistan.

“For me, the death of my father was a major tragedy, but now I feel that the tragedy of Dec 16 is a much bigger tragedy than my father’s death. It is unfortunate that the government is still hesitant to arrest Abdul Aziz,” he said.

Huma Beig, from the Peshawar-based organisation Ministry for Change, said that students of the APS and nearby schools were still under shock and needed psychotherapy.

Mukhtar Masih, father of Shama and Shahzad, the unfortunate Christian couple who were lynched and burned alive on false blasphemy charges in Kot Radha Kishan last year, told the crowd that religious intolerance had afflicted the whole society.

He alleged that his daughter and her husband had been killed at the behest of a local influential, who was opposed to his role as a local labour leader.

President LHW Association Bushra Bano Arain said that Taliban had killed as many as 66 polio workers but they were still continuing to administer polio vaccines to the children of Pakistan.

“It is unfortunate that the government has not paid LHWs salaries for over four months now, but we are true to our job,” she said.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2015


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