'Long March' to Islamabad to reach Lahore tonight
The anti-government Azadi March caravan led by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Fazlur Rehman and joined by other opposition parties in Pakistan in a bid to topple Imran Khan's government will reach Lahore on Tuesday night, two days ahead of its planned culmination in the capital city.
The shipping containers placed by the authorities on the border between Sindh and Punjab provinces were removed by the marchers to enter Punjab. Thousands of people including seminary students marched in the protest, holding opposition party flags and chanting slogans against the government, reported Dunya News.
The march, spearheaded by Rehman, kickstarted from Karachi's Sohrab Goth area on October 27 amidst a massive show of strength by the party workers from other opposition parties including Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and Awami National Party (ANP).
The purported aim of the march is to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has been at the helm for just over a year. That Imran Khan is the Opposition's main target does not come as a surprise, since the 2018 general elections were engineered by the Military Establishment in his favour.
But what is noteworthy this time around is the fact that Fazlur Rehman, hitherto taken to be the establishment's man for pressure politics, continues to be adamant in disrupting the Army's latest political experiment by seeking to dislodge the PTI government.
Maulana's grievance with the establishment and Imran Khan stems from the fact that through political engineering he was robbed of the mandate from the party's historical stronghold of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in the last elections.
Even though PML-N and PPP were not initially keen to directly confront the PTI-led government, Imran's vindictiveness and bid to purge Pakistan's political landscape under the garb of anti-corruption has finally led them to close ranks against him.
The strongest support for Maulana's march has come from none other than the ailing Nawaz Sharif himself, who doggedly remains defiant and has directed his party to fully participate in the march to ensure that it is a success.
Interestingly, with the principal opposition leaders incarcerated, Maulana and his horde of mullahs and seminary students have emerged as the face of resistance.
Maulana appears to be ready to dig in his heels, having collected a war chest of around Rs 1.4 billion rupees for the March. He has also spurned the belated overtures by Imran Khan's negotiation team to persuade him to call off the march.
Meanwhile, Imran Khan has not helped his cause by accusing the Maulana of working on a foreign agenda, thereby underlining his wariness of the Maulana's potential.
The Maulana's insistence on seeing the back of Imran Khan as a pre-condition for any talks finally led the Army Chief General Bajwa to step in and read the riot act to him.
General Bajwa has reminded the Maulana to be a "responsible politician" and that it was the worst time to stage a protest considering Pakistan's economic situation and regional security environment.
He ruled out the possibility of Imran's resignation and warned that any destabilisation or casualties would result in action without hesitation against the protestors.
Following his warning and as a sign of things to come, JUI-F leaders and key aides of Fazlur Rehman, Mufti Kifaitullah and Hafiz Hamdullah have been forcibly removed on trumped-up charges of collecting "chanda" and rallying supporters for the march already sanctioned by the PTI-led government.
So, in a reversal of policy, the Maulana, who had on earlier occasions been goaded by the establishment, was now asked to step back, thus creating cracks in the patron-client relationship.
The drift between the two is visible. For despite General Bajwa's clear warning, Fazlur Rehman has gone ahead and launched the 'Azadi March' from Karachi on Sunday and is poised to enter Islamabad on October 31, along with supporters of all opposition parties.
As for Imran Khan, he looks increasingly insecure and helpless in the face of the challenge mounted by the Maulana.