Million-marches and capital-lockdowns | Pakistan Today

Million-marches and capital-lockdowns

  • A brief history

Maulana Fazlur Rehman is firm in his resolve to lockdown the federal capital. He had warned Imran Khan to resign by August 31 or face the consequences. Khan hasn’t budged, so he has only himself to blame. Rehman has made it clear that even a war won’t deter him now, for in that case he has a mind to mobilise his marchers against India – a classic example of multiple-objective planning.

With only a few days left before October when the action is promised, it sounds like a good idea to review the history of lockdowns, dharnas and million-marches in the country. But first a disclaimer: this is not a chronological account of agitational politics; interested parties can easily look up the relevant archives to know what happened when. This is, instead, a view of the history of such campaigns.

There have been several such marches, and all have aimed at some noble goal: the implementation of Nizam-e-Mustafa, the restoration-of-judiciary, even a revolution. The ‘Azadi March’, as this latest one has aptly been christened, aims at ridding the country of an illegitimate government (according to the Maulana). The goal of most lockdowns is to somehow get the government officials to flee the capital so that the marchers can occupy it. Some protesters allegedly have new locks handy so that they can replace the city’s existing ones with them, in case the officials decide to storm back into the capital. To date, no government has abandoned the capital though.

The biggest challenge for the marchers is that the government, fearing the potential lockdown of the capital, locks it down before the protesters can. Chaudhry Nisar did exactly this in 2016. His reasoning was impeccable: just as nobody can kill a man already dead, nobody can lock down a city already under lockdown. Though the famous battle at the Haroonabad Bridge between tear-gas firing policemen and marchers led by the redoubtable Pervez Khattak became part of folklore, the PTI’s larger campaign failed. In such campaigns, even if the protesters can somehow enter the capital and lay siege to a part of it, there are other challenges that aren’t easily surmounted. While feeding the crowd has rarely been a problem (thanks to ready availability of philanthropists), the same can’t be said about providing satisfactory toilet and washing facilities to such numbers.

Some protesters allegedly have new locks handy so that they can replace the city’s existing ones with them, in case the officials decide to storm back into the capital. To date, no government has abandoned the capital though

The success rate of lockdowns and marches has traditionally been on the lower side. In fact, the only instance which could be termed an unqualified success was the restoration-of-judiciary march, which succeeded before it reached Gujranwala. True, Khadim Rizvi did prove to be a nuisance for the government in 2017; but even though he was able to occupy the key Faizabad interchange, he had to eventually announce victory and leave. Tahir-ul-Qadri, who succeeded in getting a face-saving ‘agreement’ in 2013, essentially had no choice in the 2014 dharna but to vanish one night into thin air. Shrewd observers conclude that like love, if something worthwhile is going to happen at all, it will happen in the first few hours. If nothing happens in those hours, then there’s very little point extending it. For the longer it goes on, the harder it is to get a face-saving option to go home (as everybody must, eventually). Even if something drastic happens after a prolonged movement (as famously happened in 1977), it’s some third party that gets to be the principal beneficiary.

The art of lockdown demands from both sides a continual evolution in terms of skill set and equipment. As far as equipment is concerned, the container has pride of place. For the marchers, the container serves as the cabin to lead the march from, hold negotiations in, deliver speeches from, and house the on-road entertainment services. The law enforcement agencies, for their part, have been using the container to block roads in order to halt the protesters’ progress. In the earlier campaigns it was found out by the authorities, much to their chagrin, that the containers could easily be pushed aside by the protesters. They then started filling, and surrounding, the containers with mud to foil that. Very soon, it became the standard operating procedure for the marchers to move with cranes to remove any obstacles.

However, just as the success of modern military operations relies increasingly on agility instead of solidity (with airplanes and drones having replaced battleships and the like), the future of agitational politics probably depends on the motorcycle. In PTI’s 2014 dharna, the motorcycle was supposed to revolutionise the art of agitational politics, when around 100,000 bikers were expected to show up. Sadly, only 200-odd turned up – even this figure is disputed because many of those riders later claimed they were out to get their stubbles trimmed. It’s true that during the 2016 lockdown, senior PTI leader Ejaz Chaudhary managed to hoodwink the authorities and reach Islamabad, riding pillion on a motorbike as road barriers had rendered travel by other means impossible. Sheikh Rasheed also famously utilised the motorcycle to elude the Pindi police in the same campaign. However, use of the motorbike as a mainstream weapon against the status quo, an immensely promising area, is still largely a subject for researchers.

Over time, governments have realised that the war on the perception front is crucial. So, where policemen used to rough the odd woman protester up with impunity, they now call up their female colleagues to do the honours. The protestors, for their part, have learned that civil disobedience doesn’t quite work. Like the PTI found out during its 2014 campaign that burning utility bills was useless because fresh copies could easily be downloaded; and the country was too hot to live without electricity any way.

There’s this time-honoured tradition that irrespective of how many participate in a march, it’s always referred to as a ‘million-march’. It was therefore quite proper when the Maulana referred to his recent practice-march in Quetta as a million-march, although it consisted of two-thousand men, give or take, along with one or two kittens. There’s obviously no point arguing over something as trivial as 998,000 men.

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at