All eyes are on the capital city of Islamabad as anti-government protesters demand resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

ISLAMABAD – Thousands of anti-government protesters headed towards Islamabad from the city of Lahore, as Pakistan marked its 67th Independence Day on August 14. The protesters called on the resignation of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as one of their main demands.

The protest was initiated by former cricketer and leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), Imran Khan, who for the past year has accused the government of rigging during last year’s general elections. Khan, who declared the protest as Azadi march or “march of independence”, demands fresh elections along with the resignation of Prime Minister Sharif. ‘’We have come to save our country because of the call of our leader, Imran Khan. We will not leave from here until our leader tells us to go.’’ said Ajaz Khan in Islamabad.

Khan is joined by cleric Tahir ul Qadri, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Sharif government. Qadri, who leads the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party, aims to overthrow what he hails as an “unjust and corrupt system” and called on his supporters to join the Inquilab march or “revolution march.” Qadri, who until recently was based in Canada due to threats received by Taliban following a religious decree (fatwa) issued by him against Taliban, became a prominent figure in Pakistan when he led protests against the previous government in January 2013.

Despite tight security, clashes broke out in the city of Gujranwala at Khan’s convoy, sparking fresh security fears as the protest march entered day two. “300-400 people threw stones and fired on our Azadi March in Gujranwala with police aiding and abetting them”, tweeted Khan. Security has been a major concern, especially since violent clashes between local authorities and Qadri’s supporters last week turned deadly.

The government’s response towards the march – which, according to analysts, is the biggest challenge yet to Sharif’s 14-month old government – has been one of panic. In addition to deploying thousands of military personnel across the Punjab province, roads and highways were blocked by shipping containers, phone services jammed and section 144 of Pakistan’s penal code law invoked, prohibiting large public gatherings and processions. 

In an address to the nation ahead of the march, Prime Minister Sharif offered to investigate the claims of electoral rigging by forming a commission of three Supreme Court judges which Khan had demanded last year. However, the offer was rejected by Khan shortly after in a press conference, who questioned the legitimacy of the judicial commission appointed by the government and referred to the offer as a product of public pressure, officially calling for the resignation of Sharif. 

With the military on an offensive against other militants in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region, many have criticised the timing of the protest march. The military’s role in the current crisis is also a much discussed topic. In a country with history of coups, a risk of possible army intervention lurks, in the wake of the protest march. “This looks like a manufactured crisis, designed to destabilise the Nawaz government. If the military is not behind these protests, then what will Imran get out of it?” asked Rasul Bakhsh Rais, director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.

Nudrat Raza, Correspondent (Asia: South) 

Image Courtesy: Mustafa Mohsin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/8557366@N07/6588016609), Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic | Flickr