Thousands of anti-government protesters, encouraged by a last-minute court verdict allowing peaceful demonstrations, began their march today from Lahore to Islamabad as the fear of violence gripped Pakistan's capital which has been turned into a fortress.
On a day the country marks its Independence Day, the two groups, led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, plan to converge on Islamabad to press Sharif to call an early election little over a year after his landslide victory in the polls.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Khan initiated his 'Azadi March' from Zaman Park, Lahore, while Qadri launched his 'Inqelab March' (revolution march) from the Model Town area of the city. Both of them, though not officially allied, are calling for the ouster of the government that they condemn as corrupt.
Khan's protestors, including women and children, were first to leave from his residence as government removed roadblocks, allowing the demonstrators to hold a "peaceful march". "Join this march not for me but for sake of your children and if you want real independence in Pakistan," Khan said in his brief address at start of protest march. He is protesting the alleged rigging in last year's general election.
After some hesitation, the government also allowed the supporters of Qadri to leave Model Town area of Lahore.
Official sources said this was a major development as the government had initially refused to let Qadri lead the protest. "The Inqelab March is leaving Model Town for Islamabad. I want to wish the country a happy Independence Day. The revolution march will give the constitutional and democratic rights to the oppressed of this country," Qadri said while addressing a press conference.
He also unveiled the goals of his revolution march before leaving, saying the fundamental purpose of this march is to restore democracy and alleviate poverty. Qadri called for introducing electoral reforms describing them as one of the basic goals of his "revolution".
After some hectic backdoor negotiations, it is now expected the government will also let the protestors enter Islamabad which has been completely sealed off, sources said. "Both are bound by the verdict of Lahore High Court which said yesterday that only constitutional and peaceful protests were allowed under the law," a source said.
About 5,000 Islamabad capital territory police and thousands of paramilitary soldiers have been deployed in the capital, with the fear of violence gripping the city. Already the army has been called in Islamabad under a controversial order by invoking article 245 of the Constitution which authorises civilian government to summon armed forces in aid of the administration.
Both Khan and Qadri have given assurances that they will disperse peacefully and will not create any law and order situation. But still there are fears that any untoward incident may spiral into crisis, leaving space for powerful army to intervene.
The police had virtually besieged Qadri in his Model Town residence of Lahore by placing containers but they have now been withdrawn by the government. Pakistan's intelligence agencies have reported to the government that there are chances of bloodshed if Qadri and his supporters are stopped by force.
"Qadri may use women and children in his caravan as human shield to break in the police cordon," according to one such report.
"We are allowing Dr Qadri to hold his march after he gave guarantee that his supporters would remain peaceful," Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar told PTI by phone.
He said neither the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf nor the Pakistan Awami Tahreek (PAT) workers would be allowed to hold sit-in in Red Zone of Islamabad. "The government has showed big heart and allowed both parties to hold their protest and now they should not take law and order into their hands during their protests," the governor said.
Qazi Faiz, a spokesman for PAT, told PTI that the government allowed its workers to proceed for the protest march after knowing that it could not stop the followers of Qadri from reaching Islamabad. "We are peaceful people and the history of our party shows that we have never ever taken law into our hands," he said.
Before leaving for Islamabad, Khan also asked protesters at his residence to accompany him to Islamabad for a "new Pakistan". "To get freedom one has to fight. We will lay a new Pakistan's foundation after reaching Islamabad," he said, appealing to people to come out of their houses and join him for in the struggle for the "creation of new Pakistan".
Khan has already underlined his demands, saying Prime Minister Sharif should resign and a caretaker government should be formed for holding a fresh general election in the country.
Qadri on the other hand announced bringing about a revolution by overthrowing the Sharif-led government.