16th October 2020

Rehan Piracha, Ahmed Saeed and Asra Haque


LAHORE/GUJRANWALA

The pehelwans of Gujranwala step into the court, rallying behind one of their own Maryam Nawaz. Maryam descends from a line of great wrestlers from her mother Kusloom’s side, whose maternal grandfather was the undefeated Indian pehelwan the Great Gama.

Dressed in colourful garb and wielding massive gurz in their hands, the wrestlers gathered at the Jinnah Stadium where the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) rally is set to commence in a few hours on Friday, October 16. They are all set to give Maryam a traditional pehelwani welcome, and chant the PML-N slogan of “vote ko izzat do” (respect the vote).

Unchallenged by the containers blocking the routes to Jati Umra, Maryam’s convoy departed from Lahore and left for Shahdra en route for power show by PML-N in Gujranwala.

Prior to the rally, however, Punjab government did not shy from attempting to thwart the gathering, as posited by Vice-President of the PML-N, Khurram Dastgir Khan.

He alleges that the provincial government has set up containers around his house in Gujranwala and have arrested political workers a mere day before the protest was set to commence via the Punjab Infectious Diseases (Prevention and Control) Ordinance, 2020, using rising COVID-19 concerns as a cover-up. Moreover, the blockades were successful in severely delaying the PDM’s supply of masks and sanitizers.

Although the 400 or so workers were released on bail by the party leaders, the case is still ongoing in the Lahore High Court, where the PML-N has contested that the detentions prior to the protest was not only illegal but constituted as political harassment by the PTI government. Khurram Dastgir also stated that it was not only the police, but other agency personnel were also picking up PML-N workers.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also reached Gujranwala to monitor the human rights situation at the rally, amidst emerging reports of state-sanctioned harassment of political workers and blockades to the rally, which the Commission has termed a violation of the constitutional freedoms of speech, association and assembly.

“The HRCP has historically monitored all the various political rallies, with particular focus on whether or not constitutional rights such as freedom of movement, to protest, assemble and the like,” stated supreme court advocate and award-winning rights defender Hina Jilani. “We are focusing on whether citizens and political workers are freely allowed to exercise their civil liberties, or if the government abuses the laws to harass and clamp down on voices of political dissent.”

At least 3,000 security personnel issued by the Punjab government have been deployed around the venue, and are checking every participant at four points before allowing them to enter the venue proper. Sniffer dogs and metal detector walk through gates have been deployed to ensure top-notch security.

The venue, Jinnah Stadium, has a capacity of 35,000 people but as per COVID-19 SOPs agreed with the administration, 15,000 chairs have been placed at a distance of six feet. Containers have been placed at around a kilometer’s distance away from the venue, past which vehicles will not be allowed in – participants must walk the entire kilometer to reach the stadium.

The opposition parties have also deployed their own volunteers for security besides the 3,000 police personnel. The rally set out at 3PM sharp, while the main speeches are expected to be conducted at the Gujranwala stage after 8PM. Nawaz Sharif will hold his speech via video-link at the rally once it reaches Gujranwala.