Long marches on Islamabad and the politics of protest

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By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

No other country has adopted the political terminology of ‘Long March’ as universally and across the political spectrum as the religious, sectarian, ethnic and the major political parties of Pakistan during the last 30 years. There cannot be a better tribute to the revolutionary and mass mobilization strategy of Mao Zedong anywhere in the world than in the endless ‘long marches’ to lay siege around the capital city, Islamabad against a sitting government, quite often to remove it from power, and sometimes to address a particular issue. 

The difference between the original, historic long march of Mao and Pakistani groups is monumental; Mao’s revolutionary struggle started in 1934 in South-East China in the form of a peasant guerrilla army that fought its way through 10,000 km culminating to a final victory against the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. 

On his way, he recruited volunteers from rural communities, trained them into soldiers and indoctrinated them as communists. We live in different times, and even the Chinese have gone back on what Mao had stood for— socialism. However, the symbolism and mythology of the ‘long march’ remains alive in Pakistan, China’s long-term strategic partner and neighbor. Every time a group gets frustrated with the government and has some social and political capacity to bring out tens of thousands of people, it can easily march toward Islamabad. 

While digging through the history of long marches in bits and pieces, I can count at least eleven in three decades, at the average of after every three years. The Shia community under the leadership of one of the most outspoken religious scholars, Mufti Jaafar Hussain, sieged the federal secretariat buildings— the seat of federal government— in July 1980, demanding a repeal of Zakat and Ushr Ordinance. The protesters paralyzed the functioning government and didn’t leave until the government agreed to exempt Shia Muslims from the Ordinance. It was unique in terms of limited, sectarian demands but had support of that specific religious community. Three other religious leaders— Allama Tahir ul-Qadri (Pakistan Awami Party), Maulana Khadim Husain Rizvi (Tehreek Labaik Pakistan) and Maulana Fazal ur-Rahman (Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam) have attempted five long marches. 

LAHORE: Maulana Fazlur Rehman, President, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) presiding meeting of the 11-party political alliance in Lahore to chalk out future plan.

Interestingly, religious parties with very little to no representation in the parliament have launched most of the marches. They lack public support, but have dedicated constituencies among their respective religious followers, and have built up street power to menace any government in power. Each time they highlighted a specific issue— corruption, finality of prophethood and rigging of elections– but mixed it with the larger manifesto of Islamizing the state and society. 

Among the major political parties’ leaders, late Benazir Bhutto was the first to bring her supporters to Islamabad on a ‘long march’ on November 16, 1992 against Mian Nawaz Sharif to protest his autocratic, ‘corrupt’ rule. She had the support of many prominent national political leaders who joined her on that occasion. It was a failed attempt to dislodge Sharif from power. Relentless as she was, she came back again with tens of thousands on July 16, 1993. She wanted to take revenge on Sharif for getting her out of power in 1990. 

The power struggle between a military-supported president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and Prime Minister Sharif provided her with an opening to attack Sharif. There is a strange coincidence that within two days, the military leadership brokered a deal resulting in the resignation of Khan and Sharif on July 18, 1993 and announced fresh elections. Quite remarkably, Bhutto won a plurality of seats and formed her second coalition government the same year. 
About sixteen years later, Nawaz Sharif organized a big and very successful ‘long march’ on March 15, 2009 against the Peoples Party government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in support of the restoration of Supreme Court judges that had been removed and put under house arrest by military ruler turned president, Pervez Musharraf in 2007. 

He had barely reached the next town over, when a telephone call from the then military chief told him to halt the march, promising that the government would restore the judges. The Zardari-Gilani duo, having resisted reinstatement of the judges for almost a year, gave up and the judges were back in the court in the next few days. 

Now, a group of eleven desperate opposition parties, including former rivals have formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) with the avowed purpose of dislodging Prime Minister Imran Khan from power, alleging that the 2018 elections were rigged in his favor. 

Khan says they are protesting because they want him to weaken and end the accountability process against top leaders. After organizing rallies, they are planning a ‘long march’ to Islamabad in January and announced resigning from assemblies to press for fresh elections. 

It is a long shot.  No democratic government has stepped down under a long march, and with Khan and the security establishment on the ‘same page,’ the march may fizzle out. 
*Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais