The Punjab Home Department on Wednesday imposed Section 144 in provincial capital Lahore, banning gatherings of five or more people for a week, mere hours before the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was to convene a rally from Zaman Park to Data Darbar.
There were also concerns that the ban would impact the Aurat March, being held to mark International Women’s Day, but the demonstration was allowed to proceed at its designated route from Shimla Pahari to Faletti’s Hotel.
According to the notification issued by the Home Department, rallies and protests are being staged across Lahore daily, posing security threats, disrupting traffic, and causing inconvenience to the public. “There is also a history of terrorist activities in the rallies/protests, wherein a number of police officials and civilians embraced shahadat,” it said, adding that in this scenario it had become necessary to impose Section 144 on all forms of public gatherings to avert any untoward incident.
Noting that there were adequate grounds for proceeding under Section 144, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Shakeel Ahmed added the order was coming into force with “immediate effect.”
The notification followed the home department urging the PTI to take “extra precaution” for the rally, as holding a public gatherings in the face of persistent security threats was “not advisable.” Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, in a press conference, said the party had been advised to alter its route, as its current itinerary would result in multiple rallies converging at Mall Road, which could worsen the security situation. However, he regretted, they had refused to alter their route.
Following the imposition of Section 144, police in Lahore set up a water cannon near Zaman Park and started to disperse any crowds that had gathered at the site. According to local media, several people had been taken into custody, while some were also baton-charged, triggering swift backlash from the PTI.
Addressing a press conference, PTI leader Hammad Azhar maintained that the sole reason for imposing Section 144 was to prevent the party’s rally from proceeding. Claiming that a large number of people were to attend the demonstration, he questioned how public gatherings could be banned when elections were due in less than two months. “It is not right to violate human rights just ahead of the elections,” he added. Urging party workers to exercise restraint, he claimed they had not taken the law into their own hands, nor would they do so.
“The rally was supposed to begin in a while but the roads are being blocked now,” he said, lamenting that workers had also been arrested. Accusing the interior minister of wanting “bloodshed,” he said the party would not create any situation that would give the government any excuses.
According to the itinerary released by the PTI, its rally was supposed to be led by Imran Khan and would proceed from Zaman Park before concluding at Data Darbar. Khan was to address the rally at Data Darbar and announce his future line of action. However, he would likely have not received any coverage on TV channels, as a PEMRA ban on the broadcast of his speeches has yet to be vacated.