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In Pakistan, the Azadi March demands an end to Prime Minister Khan's administration

Screenshot of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F) chief Maulana Fazl ur Rehman speaking to the participants of the dharna (sit-in) in Islamabad on November 4, 2019. Via YouTube Channel of 24 News.

Just kilometres away from the Pakistani Prime Minister's House in the capital Islamabad, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazal) (JUI-F) Chief Maulana Fazl ur Rehman and some opposition parties with a few thousand supporters staged a ‘dharna’ or a non-violent sit-in protest on 1 November 2019 after a four-day walk to the city.

This ‘Azadi March’, or ‘freedom march’, is a protest demanding Prime Minister Imran Khan's resignation and dissolution of the assemblies. According to the protesters, the 2018 elections were not transparent and the administration was behind the ‘selection’ of the government. Despite three rounds of talks between the Government and JUI-F Shura members, a deadlock continues to persist at the time of this report.

JUI-F is a rightwing Sunni Deobandi politico-religious party in Pakistan. Just days before the protest started, the federal government banned Ansar-ul-Islam, an alleged militant wing of the JUI(F). Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Pakistan Peoples’ Party and some other stalwarts of the political opposition also took the opportunity to became part of the march to protest against the government.

Ironically in 2014, Imran Khan, the current Prime Minister led an Azadi March and sit-in lasting 126 days seeking ouster of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The protestors are provided with food and drinks by the organizers and during the sit-in, they offered prayers, recited verses of the Quran, and played games to pass time. There were a few Pakistani flags on show in the march and flags of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, i.e., the Afghan Taliban were also spotted in the crowd.

Anas Mallic, a journalist, tweeted pictures of the crowd:

In his address, Maulana Fazlur Rehman criticized the government and institutions (hinting at the army):

…the marchers don’t want a fight with the institutions, but we want to see them [institutions] as impartial. We are giving you two days to stop backing the government.

In response to this speech, the Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor released a statement:

JUI-F chief should tell which institutions he was referring to in his speech and should take up his reservations with the concerned institutions as Army is an ‘impartial’ institution.

According to an analysis by Pakistani-American columnist Mohammad Taqi, Maulana Fazlur Rehman is fighting a battle for his political survival with this Azadi March.

JUI-F Chief made all efforts to keep his audience engaged in the Azadi March, he even spewed hatred against Israel, India, and also the Qadiani or the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.

Twitter users also condemned opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for standing next to JUI-F Chief on stage when he spoke against the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The PPP, known for standing by minority groups and with Asia Bibi in the blasphemy case against her, was criticised for remaining silent during the march.

During the Azadi March, there were also partial internet shutdowns. According to Digital Rights Monitor, Mobile data services were suspended in parts of Islamabad, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to restrict live streaming of the ‘Azadi March’.

Senior Journalist Mutraza Solangi tweeted a screen-shot of the message he had received regarding the internet shut down:

Apart from internet shutdowns, members of the Ansar Ul Islam group also restricted journalists from covering the march at the venue.

Translation: Freedom of Speech is everyone's basic human right but in Azadi March people are not allowed to talk.

A few female journalists also faced resistance when they tried to march.

Renowned journalist Muhammad Malick tweeted:

Broadcast journalist Shiffa Z. Yousafzai mentioned:

According to the reasons given by the JUI-F party, women were not taking part in the dharna because they were at home fasting and praying for their male family member’s wellbeing.

Earlier JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman had informed the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) about the non-participation of women in the upcoming Islamabad sit-in as it was un-Islamic in their way of thinking for women to participate in such activities.

Stand-up comedian Shehzad Ghias Shaikh sums up the situation:

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