Lack of leadership turned crowds into mobs
There may be widespread condemnation of the violence that took place last Friday when thousands of people took to the streets across Pakistan to express their “love” for Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). But some people have tried to delve deep into what caused the mayhem and destructions.
However, the reasons for the violence remained unclear even after a week. Some officials, especially police personnel, blame the media while politicians point fingers at their rivals. For instance, in Islamabad’s case, the federal government argued that it was the Punjab government’s fault.
Eyewitness accounts suggest that there was perhaps no single reason behind the violence. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify a few factors that were at work in the twin cities.
For instance, it appears that instead of any mainstream participants the violence was initiated by smaller groups. For example, a procession from Lal Masjid converged with a group of workers carrying Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI)’s flags and the two groups initiated the violence by stoning the police at Serena at around 3pm.
As soon as the Madressah students took charge of the situation, it could be seen that others, such as traders, began to move away from the larger crowd. This charge was, however, denied by Lal Masjid.
“This is a conspiracy, we stopped all our stick-wielding youngsters from blocking the roads but the larger crowd pulled them into violence,” said Hafiz Ahsanulllah, who has the secretarial responsibilities at Lal Masjid and is also the imam for Friday prayers at a mosque in Koral.
At the same time, the blame game also provides an insight into some of the violence. In Islamabad at least, politics and the PPP- PML-N rivalry did lead to some of the clashes.
After Thursday, when the capital police ended up fighting rowdy and violent crowds in the Red Zone, it was decided that crowds would stopped at the entry points of the city.
This is where some of the worst violence took place and the opposition parties and religious groups claim that the police caused the violence by stopping the participants.
“The people had been peaceful and were marching silently. They reacted to the road blockade and the shelling by the police at Serena,” said Maulana Abdul Qadir, secretary to Maulana Abdul Aziz, the Khateeb of Lal Masjid.
He pointed out that nothing untoward happened at Aabpara because the police did not offer any resistance. Similarly, the procession by female students of Jamia Hafza on Saturday was also peaceful.
The local PML-N leadership makes a similar argument: that there was violence when the police tried to stop them at Faizabad, where the protesters coming from Rawalpindi failed to enter Islamabad as the roads were blocked.
The protesters, who were mainly the residents of various localities of Rawalpindi, managed to get through after brief skirmishes with the Islamabad police simply due to their larger numbers.
However, at Tarnol, the clash was far from small. Before prayers, some buses from Fatehjang, Taxila and other nearby areas were stopped by the police at Tarnol. The travellers were on their way to Lal Masjid for Friday prayers.
Islamabad’s jurisdiction on the G.T. Road begins at Tarnol. It is here that these zealots were joined by some local people who then overpowered the 20 officials posted at the police station after an exchange of fire.
One ASI was shot while four other policemen had their legs broken – all for trying to stop the protesters from entering Islamabad.
But neither Mr Qadir nor Hanif Abbasi, an MNA of the PML-N, could explain what led to the burning and looting of a toll plaza at Kashmir Road early in the morning, the damage to intercity busses at Pir Wadhai and the stoning of scores of buildings. The toll plaza at Kashmir Highway was burned and looted at around 10:30am. The staff told the media and police that some Afghan/Pashtoon youth were responsible. It did not appear as if they belonged to any party or madressah.
A similar inexplicable bout of violence took place at Pirwadhai where a group of protesters attacked buses parked at the terminal.
“They were youngsters aged between 12 and 22,” said Malik Kausar, a member of the governing body of the Motor Transport Federation of Pakistan. “They all looked uneducated and came from the adjoining slums inhabited mostly by Afghan nationals.”
Mr Kausar added that nobody could say why they damaged the buses. “Maybe they did not have any idea what the strike was all about.”
On the contrary, an eyewitness at Muree Road in Rawalpindi city suggested that students mostly affiliated with madressahs were instrumental in throwing stones at buildings.
“We walked to Committee Chowk in a group to burn the US flag there but soon a group of bearded boys turned up and started pelting buildings with stones,” said Sajid Chaudhry, a resident of Jhanda near the airport. His entire town attended the protest, children included.
Incidentally, hours after the Friday prayers when the focus of attention shifted to Serena and the Islamabad police abandoned all its posts, including the Faizabad checkpoint, a group of protesters entered a CNG station at Faizabad and ransacked its office, damaged the dispensers and vehicles parked there.
These protesters mainly belonged to the adjoining localities and the police officials insist that this incident was an outcome of media reports.
“The coverage encouraged certain people to act violently; perhaps they thought they too would appear on television,” said an officer at the New Town police station in Rawalpindi. One major reason for the violence, a number of experts as well as participants agreed, was the absence of leadership.
Hanif Abbasi, for instance, did address a small gathering at Committee Chowk in the afternoon but then he too left the spot, leaving the participants including his party supporters at the mercy of madressah students.
Further evidence to support this theory is the disciplined behaviour of two key religious groups, who remained peaceful.
The protests organised by Jamaat-i- Islami and Majlis Wahdat Muslimeen were led by their local and national level leaders, and remained peaceful.
“It is the responsibility of the parties to control their workers and abide by the law of land,” said the chief of JI’s Islamabad chapter, Mian Aslam, who led his party’s rally from China Chowk to D Chowk.
Similarly, the protest by MWM and ISO did not engage with the police. “We told the participants to remain peaceful,” said Allama Nasir Abbas, the secretary general of the MWM.
A PML-N worker, however, explained that his party leadership generally avoided leading religiously led rallies to avoid any misunderstanding.
“Maulvis are undirected missiles. They start accusing MNAs or MPAs of being American agents and such allegations in the middle of protests and rallies can pose a security threat,” said Abid Abassi. “The leadership stays away to avoid such situations.”