A fresh round of negotiations between the government and the right-wing Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan is underway as all major arteries connecting the country were blocked on Friday amid reports of vehicles being torched in between scattered reports of violence.
The TLP and other religious parties such as the JUI-F and Sunni Tehreek have reacted badly to the October 31 acquittal of Christian woman, Aasia Noreen, in an eight-year blasphemy case. The Supreme Court set her free on Wednesday. The protests have gathered steam since then. Schools and colleges have been closed and mobile phone services were suspended in certain cities as the law-enforcement authorities attempted to stem the escalating tide of sentiment.
On Friday morning, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry negated any signs of physical action being taken against the protesters. “These are rumours; we have not planned any operation,” the government spokesperson said in a statement. Claiming that the situation was under control, he stressed that the government was responsible for protecting the “freedom and life of the people”.
Revealing that talks with the TLP were still in progress, the information minister concluded that Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri would lead a delegation later in the day to take on the negotiations that had reached a deadlock late Thursday night.
Also on Friday morning, the army’s spokesperson, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, stressed that the armed forces had nothing to do with the Aasia Noreen case. Maddened conservatives had openly given speeches calling for the assassination of the country’s top judges and for mutiny against the army’s top tier.
Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi said that the government does not intend to use force against the protesters. He said that everyone has a right to express their point of view. We should be happy that the Supreme Court’s verdict says that no blasphemy was committed, he added.
Since Wednesday, cities across Pakistan were tense as protests were expected. They entered day 3 on Friday with law-enforcement bracing for a fall-out after the congregational prayers. All eyes were on the government negotiations. However, as television channels avoided showing the violence from spreading much of the country was in the dark about the situation unfolding on the streets.
On October 31, hours after the verdict, Prime Minister Imran Khan gave a speech that drew praise across much of social media, including from those formerly critical of the prime minister.
Read about PM Imran Khan’s speech here: Top court’s Aasia Bibi verdict was according to the Constitution: PM Khan
The Supreme Court’s decision has been met with strong reaction in Pakistan. On one hand, large sections of society praised it and on the other hand, protests broke out in what was seen as a case that has deeply polarised the country. The province of Balochistan went so far as to pass a resolution to ask for a review of the verdict.