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Revolutions and containers

02 September, 2014

By S M Hali


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The role of containers during protest rallies in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon but the latest twin marches and sit-ins have exposed the masses to an unprecedented use of containers. The troubled city of Karachi has witnessed extensive use of containers to barricade roads, insulate VIP residences and diplomatic enclaves. Being a port city, Karachi could afford to spare containers for the above named purpose but Lahore, Islamabad and the main highways connecting the metropolitans saw containers procured by the government in the thousands to achieve the desired purpose. These obnoxious looking giant metal cubes have become a symbol of annoyance for the residents of Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

The mid-June gory episode in Model Town, Lahore, where 14 deaths occurred due to the use of brutal force by the Punjab police on residents of the Minhajul Quran seminary while trying to remove barricades, was perhaps an example of the first victims of the latest drama. The carnage was used by the televangelist from Canada, Dr Tahirul Qadri, as a rallying point to whip up emotions and charge his followers to march towards Islamabad.

Containers were used to blockade Islamabad airport when the Emirates flight from UAE, carrying Tahirul Qadri and his supporters from the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), was diverted to Lahore, where the airport was cordoned off through the strategic placement of containers lest Qadri's supporters create a law and order situation. The episode will register Mian Nawaz Sharif as being responsible for two hijackings as Pakistan's chief executive. The previous occasion was on October 12, 1999 when he refused landing permission to General Pervez Musharraf's PIA flight returning from Colombo, while he sacked the army chief and replaced him, prompting General Musharraf's compatriots to carry out a coup d'état displacing and forcing Sharif into exile. The rest is current history but the nightmarish experience has perhaps not taught Nawaz Sharif any lessons.

While an emotionally charged Qadri asked his followers to observe Martyrs' Day on August 10, 2014 to pay homage to the shaheeds (martyrs) of Model Town, both Lahore and Islamabad were sealed off to deter the PAT diehards. Meanwhile, Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan both launched their respective inqilab (revolution) and azaadi (freedom) marches on Pakistan's Independence Day to set course from Lahore towards the capital city of Islamabad to force the government into meeting their respective demands or to abdicate.

A clueless government used the only weapon it had: placing more containers to block major arteries. More casualties occurred when a couple of motorists crashed into a container at night on the main highway from Lahore to Islamabad. The capital has been in a state of lockdown even before the marchers reached their destination for the final showdown. On reaching their designated space for the sit-in, the government tried to block logistics for the protesters, deterring more of their number from joining them. Not only were the main arteries blocked, major commercial centres, entertainment venues and routes to offices in the Red Zone and the diplomatic enclave were sealed off. The siege was random, causing the residents of the twin cities great discomfort.

The government also tried to palm off the excuse that the protesters were responsible for the havoc so that people would curse them instead. It has been a cataclysmic experience for the people of Islamabad since business has come to a standstill, essential services like hospitals, banks and offices offering public services became inaccessible. Educational institutions in Islamabad failed to reopen on time after the summer break, causing further distress to the populace of Islamabad.

Gradually, as the protesters moved closer to the parliament building, the shackles were tightened and more containers were brought in to replenish the walls erected. The gaps below the containers were filled with earth to stop adventurers from crawling under the containers. While we are on the subject of containers, another aspect merits mention: the use of luxurious containers by Imran Khan, his inner coterie and by Tahirul Qadri. Monsoon rains at night and the heat and humidity during the day aggravated by rotting garbage wreaked havoc on the hapless protesters exposed to the inclement weather while the leaders sheltered themselves in their cozy abodes in the containers. Credit must be given to the motivational capability of the protesting leaders that there was no mini-rebellion in their camps.

Unfortunately, the relatively soft attitude of the government emboldened the protesters to cross the red line towards the PM's residence. The containers failed to prove an effective barrier because the protesters had equipped themselves with large cranes to remove the containers blocking their charge towards the citadel of Nawaz Sharif. Acting belatedly, finally the advance of the protesters was stopped through a barrage of tear gas shelling, causing numerous casualties. When historians will record the current events, surely the role of the containers will merit mention.


The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst and a television show host

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