Last night, Lahore waited uncomfortably for the night to pass. The morning would bring the third day of the Long March. Lawyers, students, party workers, activists and ordinary people have been moving towards Islamabad for a sit-in at the federal complex. Their goal is the restoration of the judiciary that was sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf on November 2, 2007. The party of the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, promised to restore the judiciary as part of its election campaign; once elected, Zardari turned away.
A government that cannot manage to bring law and order to the small northwestern district of Swat has mobilized police forces in all provinces to block the national highways, putting cargo containers on roads and deploying manpower at the toll plazas to stop the buses and caravans of the marchers from moving from province to province. The western border cannot be sealed from the Taleban, but by God the provincial border is well-defended against the people who want to exercise their right to protest.
On Friday, the march was not permitted to enter Sindh from Balochistan and rerouted itself, after great conflict, through the Punjab. In Sindh itself, at the Karachi toll plaza, police charged the marchers with batons, pulling men and women off buses and dragging them into police vans.
On Saturday, interview after television interview highlighted the standoff between the Pakistan People’s Party and what was fast becoming a united front in the rest of the country. First one then another advisor to the President resigned, protesting the increasing authoritarianism and brutality displayed by this democratically elected executive. Students joined lawyers, and civil society joined party workers, appalled that these democratic leaders were acting worse than the worst moments of General Musharraf’s dictatorship.
This morning at the Lahore High Court, things looked bleak. There were maybe two hundred people in the entire complex by 11 a.m. Getting to the High Court itself was like playing a game of PacMan – constant blocks, looming riot police, retracing of steps to get as close as possible to the complex. Inside, it seemed that this thing wasn’t going to take off. One rally was stuck in Model Town with Nawaz Sharif. A hundred people were stuck a block away from the court, getting beaten up by the police.
Then they started coming. Lawyers began filtering in from all across the barricaded city; followed by the first batch of protesters from around the block; then the Student Action Committee; the Concerned Citizens of Pakistan; the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, an Islamic political party; the Tehreek-e-Insaaf, Imran Khan’s party. By 12:30 pm, the premises were filling up and the square in front of the High Court gates was teeming with people shouting slogans and waving flags.
The next several hours were spent getting baton charged by the police and running from the tear gas; returning to the front lines to try and get on the road to Islamabad; and being baton charged and tear gassed again. It seemed futile after a while, as if the protesters were merely wearing a groove in the bricks between the main gate and the central courtyard, and the police were exercising their shelling arm.
But at about 3:30 pm we started to hear that Nawaz Sharif’s rally had left Model Town, breaking down the barricades by sheer force of numbers, and was on its way to the High Court. Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the Lawyers’ Movement and estranged loyalist of the ruling party, was in a car chase situation with the police. The forces that had been deployed at the High Court were redeployed to Nawaz Sharif’s thousands and so the High Court protestors could come outside and chant slogans without fear for their safety.
This morning, no one believed that anyone would get out of Lahore. Right now, at 10 pm Pakistan Standard Time, there are cars and buses on the Grand Trunk Road headed to Islamabad with a hastily assembled change of clothes and their spirits high. According to television news, the police is attempting to block this movement as well, by placing cargo containers that are better used to transport goods to and from the ports, in the path of the marchers. Islamabad itself is blockaded. The prime minister secretariat and in fact the entire federal complex is a fortress, surrounded by a continuous wall of cargo containers that is quite impenetrable.
I don’t know what will happen. But I know that this isn’t just the Lawyers’ Movement or the ire of the opposition party. This is now, more than it ever was, a people’s movement. Aitzaz Ahsan has said it well: “We [as lawyers] are humbled by the work of the people. Now this isn’t just black coats. The people lead and we follow.”
UPDATE: March 16th. Lahore local time: 10 p.m.
It happened! At 5:45 a.m. on March 16, 2009, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yusuf Raza Gillani, announced that all of the deposed judges, including the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, would be reinstated by the end of the week.
The people led. It was huge numbers that were on the road to Islamabad when, stopped at Gujranwala with Nawaz Sharif’s caravan by around 3:30 a.m., the ripple went through the caravans that the Chief would be restored. At home, we waited for the PM to address the nation and confirm what the anchors were unofficially saying. He did, and it was official.
The mood in the country is jubilant. People are calling each other and greating each other with “mubarak”, as if it were Eid. The people succeeded. With the parties, and the lawyers, and I’m sure not without American pressure towards the end. But if the numbers had not taken to the roads, this never would have happened.
What’s next? People are asking the question already and wondering, not unlike they wondered about Obama, whether the reality will live up to the promise. All I can say is that it’s a step, and an excellent one. When the Long March was announced, few thought it would lead to an actual restoration, and I was one of those. I’m elated that we were all so wrong. The people of Pakistan won today and I’ll wait till tomorrow to wonder what’s next. Or maybe the day after that.