Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan's (TLP) march from Lahore to Islamabad — which started on Wednesday as a form of protest against Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders' announcement to hold a competition of blasphemous caricatures — has reached Jhelum.
The party is demanding that the government expel the Netherlands' ambassador to Pakistan from the country in protest against the competition.
Comprising hundreds of supporters of the religiopolitical party, the rally reached Jhelum on Thursday on its way to the capital via G.T. Road. Commuters are experiencing heavy traffic jams on routes leading to Islamabad because of the march.
The capital administration has started bringing in containers to secure the red zone before the protesters reach there.
The religiopolitical party had attained notoriety after it effectively disrupted daily life in Islamabad for 20 days in November 2017. The PML-N government at the time had initiated several rounds of negotiations with the protesters, but failed each time. Under pressure, it had finally launched an operation to disperse the protesters, leaving at least six people killed and scores others injured.
TLP activists had kicked off the march on Wednesday afternoon after initially gathering at Lahore's Data Darbar. Reciting na`at and chanting religious slogans, the group crossed Kala Shah Kaku on the G.T. Road by midnight.
Upon its arrival in Kamoke — some 25km from Gujranwala — the Khadim Hussain Rizvi-led rally was given a welcome by its supporters.
The TLP workers spent the night in Gujrat and are expected to reach Islamabad capital Thursday night or Friday morning, Dawn reported.
TLP spokesman Peer Zubair Ahmad told Dawn that over 100 buses, “countless” cars and pickup vans joined the march. "The protesters, who are now in thousands, would grow in numbers on the way to destination as many workers and smaller rallies were waiting on the Grand Trunk Road to join the main march throughout the 200-kilometre long journey."
Not revealing the whole plan, Ahmad said, “Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi is leading the march. The entire central executive body is also in the march and so are all leading names of the TLP. They will jointly announce the next plan once we hit the federal capital.”
PM forms committee to resolve matter
Following the rally's departure for Islamabad, Prime Minister Imran Khan formed a four-member committee to resolve the matter.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq, the Punjab Law Minister Raja and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry comprise the committee, which is scheduled to meet the TLP leaders tomorrow.
"The committee will brief the TLP leaders on measures against blasphemous caricatures," said Qadri.
"The emotions of all Muslims against blasphemous caricatures are the same," Chaudhry, the information minister added. "A joint front is imperative against blasphemy."
He added: "We are trying to devise a joint strategy so that this issue can be dealt with effectively. We desire a peaceful resolution of this matter by the way of negotiations."
The religiopolitical party, meanwhile, has announced that its workers would "stay on the streets until either the publication of blasphemous cartoons in the Netherlands is stopped or the govt immediately ends diplomatic ties with the Dutch".
The blasphemous cartoon contest, scheduled for November, is being organised in the Netherlands by Wilders — a right-wing anti-Islam lawmaker who has been widely criticised for his activities.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has distanced his government from the controversial contest, clarifying that: "Wilders is not a member of the [Dutch] government. The competition is not a government initiative."
FM Qureshi discusses issue of 'blasphemous caricatures' with Dutch counterpart
In a tweet on Wednesday, Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal said that FM Qureshi spoke with his Dutch counterpart to discuss the issue of "blasphemous caricatures".
"The FM expressed concern on the announcement of [the] abominable and sacrilegious competition by Geert Wilders," read the tweet, adding that the Dutch FM made it clear that his government was neither associated nor supporting the event
First round of negotiations with TLP
The demand for the envoy's expulsion was made during the first round of talks between TLP's top leadership and the government in Lahore.
Qadri and Basharat had represented the government in the meeting, while Muhammad Afzal Qadri, Allama Waheed Noor and Dr Amini from the TLP were also present.
Earlier, the religiopolitical party had urged the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government to not only "discontinue diplomatic and commercial relations with the Netherlands" but also "demand from other Islamic countries to do the same".
The TLP had also demanded that since the said competition's judge is an American national, "therefore, strict measures should also be taken against the US".
TLP's Faizabad stint
The religiopolitical party had attained notoriety after it effectively disrupted daily life in Islamabad for 20 days in November 2017.
Protesters had occupied the Faizabad Interchange which connects Rawalpindi and Islamabad through the Islamabad Expressway and Murree Road, both of which are the busiest roads in the twin cities.
The agitators had believed that during the passage of Elections Act 2017, the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat oath was deliberately modified as part of a larger conspiracy. The amendment to the oath had been deemed a 'clerical error' by the government and was subsequently rectified through an Act of Parliament.
Nonetheless, TLP had demanded the resignation of key government figures for their role in the 'conspiracy'.
The PML-N government at the time had initiated several rounds of negotiations with the protesters, but failed each time. Under pressure, it had finally launched an operation to disperse the protesters, leaving at least six people killed and scores others injured.
After the botched operation, the government had decided to call in the army for help. However, the army had refused to take action, and the government had turned to negotiations with the protesters and then capitulated by conceding to a number of their demands in return for an end to the protest.