Revolutions & containers


Containers to block roadsBy S. M. Hali


The role of containers during protest rallies in Pakistan is not a fresh phenomenon but the latest twin marches and sit-ins 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 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 at Model Town, Lahore where fourteen deaths occurred due to the use of brutal force by the Punjab police on residents of the Minhaj-ul-Quran seminary, who were trying to remove the barricades, were perhaps the first victims of the latest drama. The carnage was used by the televangelist from Canada, Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri (TAQ), 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 TAQ and his supporters from Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), was diverted to Lahore, whose airport was cordoned off through strategic placement of containers lest TAQ’s supporters create a law and order situation. The episode will register Mian Nawaz Sharif (MNS) as being responsible for two hijackings as Pakistan’s Chief Executive. The previous occasion being on October 12, 1999 when he had refused landing permission to General Pervez Musharraf’s PIA flight returning from Colombo, while he sacked the Army Chief to replace him clandestinely, prompting General Musharraf’s compatriots to carry out a coup d’état displacing and forcing MNS into exile. The rest is current history but the nightmarish experience has perhaps not taught MNS any lessons.

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While an emotionally charged TAQ asked his followers to observe Martyrs’ Day on August 10, 2014 to pay homage to the Shaheeds of Model Town, both Lahore and Islamabad were sealed off to deter the PAT diehards. Meanwhile TAQ and Imran Khan both launched their respective Azadi (Freedom) and Inqalab(Revolution) 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 abdicate.

A clueless government used the only weapon it knew, 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 and deterring more of their number from joining them. Not only were the main arteries blocked, but major commercial centers, entertainment venues and route 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 discomfiture but the government also tried to palm off the excuse that the protesters were responsible for it so that people may 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, offices offering public service became inaccessible. Educational institutions at Islamabad failed to reopen on time after the summer break, causing further distress to the populace of Islamabad.

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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 with the containers. 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 and his inner coterie and TAQ. Monsoon rains at night and the heat and humidity during 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 as an effective barrier, because the protesters had equipped themselves with large cranes to remove the containers blocking their charge to the citadel of MNS. 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.