LAHORE/ISLAMBAD   -   Dialogue between government and protesters in Lahore failed yesterday, with TLP leadership announcing a countrywide wheel-jam strike today against the acquittal of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case.

To end prevailing unrest, a ministerial team held talks with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan leaders for over three hours until midnight but could not convince them to disperse peacefully.

However, as result of government efforts some other key religious parties have softened their stance, saying they could go for supporting a review of the Supreme Court’s Wednesday verdict in Aasia Bibi case - instead of resorting to violence.

Also on Thursday, both the major opposition parties – the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party – assured the government of their support in restoring normalcy and establishing state writ.

Speaking in the National Assembly in Islamabad, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari urged Prime Minister Imran Khan to stick to his principled position – assuring him of his party’s backing in denying space to violent elements.

PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif also expressed his party’s support to the PTI-led government but urged the authorities not to use force against the protesters and find some peaceful solution of the problem instead.

The country remained tense on the second day of protests on Thursday. Mobs, mostly led by TLP cadres, ruled the roost in parts of many cities and towns – blocking roads, forcing businesses to close down and creating an air of fear among the citizens.

Most of the schools also remained closed on Thursday over fear of violence, and authorities announced holiday on Friday [today] too.

Clashes between protesters and police were also reported in some areas on Thursday. In Lahore, the TLP workers held protest rallies at some 23 important points.

As part of efforts to avert further violence, a government committee held dialogue with TLP leaders at 90-The Mall.

The government team included Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri, Minister for Food Security Sahibzda Mehboob Sultan, Auqaf Minister Syed Saeedul Hassan and Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat.

But the dialogue bore no fruit and around midnight TLP leaders announced to continue agitation.

TLP Chairman Pir Afzal Qadri said they were ready to offer any sacrifice, as he asked their followers to stay firm at their sit-in points.

He said a countrywide strike will be observed on Friday [today] on appeal of TLP head Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who was sitting next to him during the announcement.

The charged workers responded his announcement by raising slogans against the government.

Addressing their supporters earlier, Rizvi said, “Our protest will continue until removal of SC judges and hanging of Aasia Bibi.”

Another faction of Tehreek-e-Labbaik led by Ashraf Asif Jalali also made the same demand as their own sit-in protest continued in front of Data Darbar yesterday.

People belonging to different walks of life accused TLP of using religion to advance their political agenda.

They condemned the hard line group for playing with the emotions of the simple minded people and intimidating citizens.

Earlier, Punjab Information Minister Fayazul Hasan Chohan claimed the protests might end anytime on Thursday night.

“The government is in contact with the leadership of the protesters to reach an amicable solution. It is my information that matters have almost been settled and the sit-in would end tonight,” he said.

The government had not shown any aggression against the protesters and tried to sort out issues through dialogue, he added.

On the other hand, the religious parties including the JUI-F, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa softened their stance on the issue on Thursday.

Earlier, following the announcement of SC verdict on Wednesday, the leaders of these parties had expressed intense anger and gave the call for countrywide protests.

The JuD had announced a protest rally on Thursday (today) and said it will hold protest across country on Friday. But the Hafiz Saeed’s group took back the protest call and said they will file a review petition against the decision.

The JuD organised a session inside its headquarters Jamia Qadsia. Addressing the gathering, JuD chief Hafiz Saeed also called for not politicising the sensitive religious issue. He advised party leaders to deliver lectures on life of Holy Prophet (PBUH) during Friday’s sermons.

JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, in a twitter message, termed the verdict regrettable, saying his party would develop a joint strategy on the issue by holding consultation with other religious organisations.

He, however, said the western lobbies were hatching conspiracies to deface the Islamic identity of the country and the decision was chain of the same sequence.

Sahibzada Hamid Raza, the head of Sunni Ittehad Council which represents more than dozen small religious outfits, denounced the protests, saying the Council was not backing any kind of violence in the name of religion. The Pakistan Awami Tehreek was also not backing the protest.

Milli Yakjehti Council, a conglomerate of different religious groups, had decided to hold demonstrations on Friday but the group said it would decide its future line of action at a meeting to be held at Jamia Qadsia (JuD head office) on November 3.

As many as 35 representatives from 15 religious parties attended an MYC meeting at Mansora. An insider said the participants decided not to cross limits and avoid violence in protests.

The meeting, however, termed the SC decision a clear violation of the Islamic provisions of the constitution and the Objectives’ Resolution.

  

NA

The opposition, strongly criticising the absence of Prime Minister Imran Khan from the National Assembly on Thursday, urged the government to tread cautiously and prefer dialogue to end the ongoing unrest.

Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi told the house that the negotiations were underway with protesters to amicably resolve the issue.

“Negotiations are underway and soon nation will hear good news,” he said.

Afiridi said that the government was not in favour of using force against the protesters but nobody will be allowed to establish ‘state within a state’.

He said the ‘new Pakistan’ will not accept the old trend of challenging the writ of the state in the garb of religion.

“It is responsibility of the state to protect Aasia Bibi and the judges,” he said and lauded the statement of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

“The government side will sit with the opposition to take them into confidence about the present situation,” said the minister, mentioning that there was no need to get a certificate from anyone about religious affiliation.

He said that it was the responsibility of the state to protect worship places of all its citizens including mosques, Gurwaraas and churches.

 

 

PML-N’s senior leader Saad Rafique said that the government should resolve the unrest in the country with dialogue.

“Prime Minister was aggressive and his body language was harsh,” said Rafique, advising that the government should deal the matter with patience and avoid ‘use of power’. “Prime Minister should take parliament into confidence,” he said.

PPP leader Khursheed Shah also criticised Prime Minister Imran Khan’s post-verdict speech, however his party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari come boldly to express his support to the government against the hate mongers and violence breeders.

Bilawal however urged the government to demonstrate more responsibly. “Country is burning and Prime Minister is missing,” said Bilawal, criticising the absence of prime minister in the house.

Bilawal said that they were expecting the briefing of Prime Minister Imran Khan and Minister of State for Interior in the house.

“What steps are being taken to maintain law and order? What steps are being taken to protect our judges? What steps are being taken to protect Asia Bibi?” he asked. “There is no one here to answer our questions.”

“My grandfather, my uncles, my mother, my governor Punjab, my federal minister for minorities were all assassinated,” he said. “I appeal to all political parties to show some responsibility. We cannot afford any more tragedies.”

“We need our prime minister, we need our interior minister, to do his job,” he added.

“I do not share some of our opposition party members’ criticisms of the prime minister’s speech. I expected him to deliver a speech today along the lines of what he said yesterday, and for me to be able to say: Qadam barhayen, Imran Khan, hum tumharay saath hain (Go on, Imran Khan, we are with you). We are with democracy, we are with justice, and we are with rule of law.”

Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood said that Prime Minister Imran Khan had addressed the nation in a brave manner.

“The government will not allow anyone to challenge the writ of state. Strong and clear stance was taken by a prime minister,” he said, as he asked the PML-N to come out of ‘government mode’ now.

He hailed PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari’s address in the national assembly the other day (Wednesday) wherein he assured to cooperate with the government.

“This is the time to stand with the government as it is in the larger national interest,” the minister said.

PML-N leader Rana Sanaullah, on his turn, said the matter regarding Aasia Bibi should have been resolved earlier to avoid unrest. He said Prime Minister Imran Khan had said many things in his address which were unnecessary to mention.

MMA lawmaker Abdul Shakoor said that there was a need to resolve the matter amicably. The government should evolve a strategy about review petition on this case.

Minister for Housing and Works Tariq Bashir Cheema, responding to the concerns raised by opposition, said that there was no move to make any amendment in the blasphemy law.

“Nobody can even dare think about it... It is mere a propaganda,” he said.

 

No breakthrough in talks with protesters

 

 

IFTIKHAR ALAM and JAVAID-UR-RAHMAN