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PDM’s Quetta show

The Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM’s) rally in Quetta was huge, indicating that its narrative has gripped not only its own ranks and cadre, but a wider audience amongst the masses. This development has burst the bounds of the electoral/political base of the parties in the PDM, as the Gujranwala, Karachi, and now Quetta rallies show. The opposition seems to be gaining momentum in its drive against the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government and its establishment backers. The government on the other hand, is still harping on the same tune, which is rapidly losing its efficacy.

Even before the stage had been set in Ayub Stadium, Quetta, or the first speeches delivered by the PDM leaders, the security establishment had warned of an imminent terrorist threat. The Balochistan government, an ally of the PTI, attempted to ‘persuade’ the PDM to call off its rally because of the danger to their rally’s safety, but the opposition put the shoe on the provincial and federal authorities’ foot by reminding them of their duty to preserve security and ensure law and order.

This exchange sank without a trace very rapidly as the PDM’s preparations for the rally on the ground proceeded calmly, while the opposition leaders began arriving in Quetta on October 24, 2020 in preparation for the next day’s event. As it turned out, the PDM show in Quetta was impressive, not only for the turnout (the stadium was full) but also for the discipline and decorum on display amongst the participants.

As expected, Nawaz Sharif addressed the rally from London, as he had done in Gujranwala, negating the government’s efforts to ascribe his ‘no show’ in Karachi to ‘cold feet’. The simpler, and probably truer explanation was that Nawaz Sharif was ill and therefore could not address the Karachi rally. In what has become his trademark hard-hitting style since Gujranwala, the former prime minister again pulled no punches at pointing accusatory fingers at the top brass of the military for its responsibility for the current situation in the country. Last time round too, Nawaz Sharif’s attack on military evoked cries of ‘Traitor!’ from the government, the oldest, and perhaps rather worn out tactic employed throughout our history at dissenters and critics. Unsurprisingly, this time too the government’s busy but increasingly ineffectual spokesmen reiterated the charge of playing the game of the country’s enemies, which were named as India and Israel. Given that the rally was in Quetta, the issues and problems of Balochistan found prominent space in his (and others’) speech. Amongst these, the long-standing and shameful practice of enforced disappearances, which first reared its ugly head when the fifth nationalist insurgency in Balochistan’s history since Independence erupted in 2002, found pride of place. Nawaz Sharif used the example of the treatment of Maryam Nawaz and her husband Captain Safdar (retd) in Karachi to reiterate his argument regarding the existence of a ‘state above (not within) the state’. He justified his naming of the military top brass as dictated by a desire to differentiate between the armed forces as an institution and individuals in command who had acted unconstitutionally and illegally by allegedly rigging the 2018 elections and imposing a ‘selected’ prime minister and government on the country, a government whose failures over the last two years since it was installed have proved an embarrassment to its establishment backers and, combined with the political momentum shifting towards the PDM, must have caused sleepless nights by now to the architects of our present dispensation.

Maryam Nawaz, as she has skilfully been doing since the PDM got off the ground, won more hearts in her appearance in Quetta. She stated the people of Balochistan were as dear to her as the people of her native Punjab. Earlier, Maryam Nawaz had given a practical demonstration of this sentiment by visiting in solidarity the protest camp of the Baloch students who had marched to Lahore from Multan on foot to demand their educational quota and scholarships in Punjab’s universities be maintained. During her speech, she recounted the case of three brothers of a Baloch girl who had been taken away from their home several years ago but whose whereabouts were still not known. The girl’s story brought tears to Maryam’s eyes to add to the flood of tears the families of thousands of the disappeared in Balochistan have shed for their dear ones. Maryam likened the experience of her hotel room door in Karachi being broken down to arrest her husband to the fate that overtook Dr Shazia in Sui in 2006. The doctor was reportedly raped by a military man whom then President Pervez Musharraf declared not guilty even without an investigation. This affront to the honour and dignity of the proud Baloch people triggered a rebellion of the tribes around Sui, amongst whom the Bugtis are the largest and most powerful. Maryam then reminded her audience of Musharraf’s threat to Sardar Akbar Bugti that he would be killed in a way that he wouldn’t even know what hit him. The military dictator carried out his threat and did not even allow Akbar Bugti’s family to conduct his last rites, sparking a wider nationalist insurgency in restive Balochistan that continues to this day. Needless to say, Musharraf has never been brought to justice in this matter, or, as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari reminded us, in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Our much vaunted justice system seems unembarrassed by the difference in treatment of Musharraf, who is cooling his heels in Dubai, and Nawaz Sharif, whom the courts and the government are insisting of late must return to face the music irrespective of his health.

Baloch leaders Akhtar Mengal and Dr Abdul Malik also reminded their audience of the sense of deprivation of rights and cruelty practised on the Baloch people since 1947. If only the establishment were to listen to the moderate Baloch voices to find a political solution to Balochistan’s problems instead of attempting, as usual, to drive Balochistan into ‘paradise’ at the point of a bayonet, perhaps the actual sentiment for independence for the province would not find an echo (be it light hearted) in Owais Noorani’s speech at the Quetta PDM rally.

What next? More rallies, perhaps (not necessarily in this order) in Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad. The government is talking tough in the face of the challenge but seems to have exercised (or been asked to exercise) restraint so far. However, if it chooses to trot out some ‘muscle’, the whole situation could turn explosive. For the ‘state above the state’, a poignant and worrying turn.

Rashed Rahman, "PDM’s Quetta show," Business Recorder. 2020-10-27.
Keywords: Political science , Balochistan government , Political momentum , Karachi rally , Gujranwala , Karachi , Quetta , Pakistan , PDM , PTI

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