Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman has announced his much anticipated “Freedom March”, which will commence on the 27th of this month and, after gathering crowds from all across the country, will culminate in Islamabad. For all intents and purposes, this is Maulana’s final push against a system that has excluded Maulana from the sphere of governance. In the words of Imran Khan, ‘this is the first time, in a while, that our Assembly is running without Diesel.’

At the very outset, it is important to point out that Maulana, and his supporters, have a constitutional right to assemble (Article 16), to make political association (Article 17) and come to Islamabad (Article 15). These right are qualified – in terms of issues such as ‘public order’ and ‘morality’ – but such qualification does not mean that Maulana and his supporters cannot come to Islamabad for their long march. In fact, political agitation and protest is a necessary part of every democratic society, and must be embraced as a constant check on the policies of the ruling government.

Be that as it may, what precisely rests at the heart of this march? Are there specific policy demands that are propelling Maulana’s march? Is it for Kashmir, and the government’s handling of the issue? Or is it about the economy? Or about events of police brutality? Or against the planned Madrassa reforms? Are there constitutional or legislative demands that Maulana wants to achieve? Would he pack up and go, if a particular legislation is passed, or action taken? Or is this march simply about opposing Imran Khan? What if Imran Khan resigns, but no policy shift takes place – as happened after disqualification of Nawaz Sharif or Yousaf Raza Gilani? Will Maulana be satisfied? Will anything change for the people of Pakistan, including Maulana’s supports, as a result?

Also, is Maulana a proxy to exert the pressures that PML(N) and PPP have been unable to do? Does he, implicitly, speak for Zardari and Nawaz Sharif? Will the other parties join Maulana, deepening his footprint in Islamabad? Will they provide him with material and financial resources? Or, is this march merely a pressure tactic to negotiate Maulana’s return to the corridors of power? If the government gave him some boondoggle assignment, along with a house in the Minister’s enclave, would Maulana pack-up and go home?

Let us get a few things out of the way: there are no specific policy or administrative demands that Maulana has. He has no proposal for revival of the economy, which the government is refusing to implement. He is not complaining about a lack of religious sensitivity in our governance narrative – he can’t, especially after Imran Khan’s speech in the UN. Maulana is also not complaining about the government’s Kashmir policy – he can’t, because of the abysmal performance during his ten years as Chairman of National Assembly’s Committee on Kashmir.

Perhaps he complaining about ‘rigged elections’? Which is fair enough. There are enough allegations concerning rigging in the 2018 elections to complain about. But what precisely is Maulana’s complaint about the elections? After 2013 elections, PTI’s allegations were specific in nature: 36 punctures of Najam Sethi; opening of 4 constituencies; precise allegation as to fake votes, in each constituency. But Maulana has no such claims; no specific allegations. And the electoral rigging allegation, without any substance around it, sounds more like a convenient slogan for galvanizing the opposition political forces.

So what is it then? What is bringing Maulana and his supporters to Islamabad? And what should the State attempt to negotiate with Maulana?

A dispassionate look at Maulana’s call for the march reveals that its impetus, primarily, emanates from two factors: 1) an unflinching hatred for Imran Khan; and 2) a desire to be included in the ‘system’, which seems to be working without any participation from Maulana.

The first of these issues – hatred for Imran Khan – is shared between Maulana and at least one other opposition leaders; namely: Maryam Nawaz. It is expected that if she is granted bail by the honorable Court, she will certainly be part of Maulana’s sit-in in Islamabad. The likes of Shehbaz Sharif, even Asif Zardari, have shown some inclination to work within the system, and put up with Imran Khan if they have to. But Maulana and Maryam have no such desire. It seems that nothing short of ousting and humiliating Imran Khan would be enough. Even if that entails strengthening the hand of regional forces that are inimical to our State. Even if it entails risking a derailment of our teetering democratic enterprise.

This kind of hatred (or bughz, as we call it) has no rational response. It cannot be assuaged through policy or legislative solutions. It has to run its course – and may never be extinguished.

The second issue – of Maulana’s exclusion of the ‘system’ – is somewhat understandable. Maulana is not used to watching our State function from a distance. He is not used to being too far away from the decision-making process. Over the past two decades, Maulana has always found some space in our ‘system’. The last time that he was left out of the National Assembly was the 1997 election. After the 2002 election, Maulana came within touching distance of becoming the Prime Minister. He ‘settled’ for being ‘Opposition Leader’.

In 2007, Maulana made a bid for becoming the Prime Minister again. In an article for the Guardian newspaper, Declan Walsh revealed (from WikiLeaks cables) that “in November 2007 Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the country’s most fiercely pro-Taliban religious party, hosted a jovial dinner for [Ambassador] Patterson at which he sought her backing to become prime minister and expressed a desire to visit America.” Candidly, Maulana’s closest aide, Senator Abdul Ghafoor Haideri is quoted saying, “all important parties in Pakistan had to get the approval” of the US, for forming a government. After the meeting, Patterson reported to her superiors that Maulana “has made it clear that … his still significant number of votes are up for sale.”

After 2008, for ten years under Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif’s government, Maulana continued to have access to the highest echelons of political power, as Chairman Kashmir Committee with a permanent status of Federal Minister.

All this changed after the 2018 elections. Not only did Maulana lose his seat in the Parliament, with it he also lost his permanent abode in the Minister’s Enclave and his constant nuisance within the decision-making paradigm of our democracy. Yes, his party members are in the Parliament. But he is not – and that is all that really matters. Much like that is what matter for Nawaz Sharif. The questions is not “humein kiyo’n nikala”. The only question is “mujhe” kiyo’n nikala? And this “mujhe” is the real motivation behind the long march. Just the way it will be behind Maryam’s participation in the said march, if she is released from jail in time.

So let us call this march what it is: it is Maulana’s last ditch effort to reclaim some measure of personal relevance in Pakistan’s polity. It is an extension of “mujhe kiyo’n nikala”. It is a move for personal aggrandizement and for individual survival. Evident from the fact that no policy or legislative agenda forms the basis or demand of this march.

Maulana and his supporters should come to Islamabad, peacefully. The government should not stop their path or provoke confrontation. Maybe in this way, once they are in Islamabad, we can finally find out what precisely Maulana is protesting for!

Saad Rasool

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: saad@post.harvard.edu, @SaadRasooll