It was April 1986. The venue was the Qasim Bagh Stadium, Multan. The event was Benazir Bhutto’s first-ever public rally in the city. She had arrived in Pakistan after spending a long time in exile. Earlier, she had made a historic return to Lahore, with an unprecedented reception awaiting her. Prime Minister Junejo was in the saddle, while the lurking shadows of Ziaul Haq’s authoritarian rule still chased the frail democratic system. After her heartwarming welcome in Lahore, BB never looked back and rode high on the crest of her new-found popularity.
Multan was now all set to accord her a tumultuous welcome. After all, it was the same city where the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) had contested and won a seat in the 1970 elections, although it later became the staging ground for stiff defiance against him during the 1977 PNA movement. As a young officer, I had been witness to the worst clashes between the protestors and the federal security force not very far from Qasim Bagh.
Now, a few years later, I was posted as deputy commissioner of the city. In April 1986, we came to know of Ms Bhutto’s plan of visiting Punjab and staging public rallies in various cities, including in Multan. It was a trying time for me as I had to tie up loose ends and oversee one of the largest public rallies ever by an opposition leader, with people like Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan and Meraj Muhammad Khan also accompanying Ms Bhutto. Her visit created a flurry in the ranks of the local administration. There were hiccups regarding the choice of venue: the organisers were adamant on holding the rally at Qasim Bagh in the open, while our view in the administration was that it should be held in the adjoining stadium, which was a far more suitable place from the security point of view. In a stadium, the crowd is caged and the proceedings are insulated from any outside mischief. We had also got a tip-off about threat to Ms Bhutto’s life. I, along with SSP Multan, were summoned by the chief secretary, who gave us a clear message that if anything untoward happened, both of us would be held responsible. After this warning, we huddled together with the PPP’s central leadership, which was headed by the late Rao Abdur Rashid, one-time special assistant to ZAB and an ardent party supporter, who suffered a long imprisonment during General Zia’s reign. We were able to convince him to change the venue of the rally. Being a former civil servant, it did not take him much time to gauge our intent and sincerity. Ms Bhutto’s security was so much on our minds that the rostrum she used at the stage for her fiery address was provided by the district police. During her stay in Multan, the SSP and I tailed her every movement for security reasons.
During the rally, instead of sitting in the control room, I moved and mingled within the crowd incognito, while a Punjabi poet on the microphone warmed the hearts of the spirited crowd with his verses: “Bhutto dae naaray wajan gae” (Bhutto’s slogans will reverberate). Ms Bhutto was at her best as she charged the Multani crowd while lashing out at Zia’s dictatorial rule.
Nearly three decades down the road, on October 10, as I watched the PTI’s rally on television, I could see that it was possibly the largest-ever staged at Qasim Bagh. Images of disorder and mismanagement on the stage were quite disturbing and indicated that something worse could happen. After the rally, as soon as visuals of the stampede popped up on the screen, it was enough to give me goosebumps as youngsters in their twenties died haplessly at the stadium’s gate.
The unfortunate incident has raised many questions that require answers from both the district administration and PTI stalwarts. I believe mistakes were committed on both sides. Let us discuss the selection of the venue. Basically, a sports stadium has a seating capacity of about 20,000 to 25,000 along the ramps. The gates of the stadium are, therefore, customised to allow for the entry and exit of this number and were not meant to cater for the brimming, cramped crowd that showed up. Everyone knew that Imran Khan’s rallies were pulling more than the expected number of people. Why, then, was this venue chosen, which was not customised to handle such a huge crowd? The PTI had earlier held rallies in stadiums in other cities, for instance, in Sialkot. However, while the Sialkot stadium catered to the local crowd only, Multan has a history of drawing crowds from catchments as far as Layyah, Taunsa and Rajanpur.
Also, one does not know whether arrangements for water carriers, maashkis, were made at the rally as has been the practice in the past. Many people collapsed just because of dehydration much before the actual stampede took place.
According to standard procedures in such rallies, temporary steel-frame buffers are erected between the crowd and the stage, and also within the ground for security reasons and to regulate movement. No such arrangement could be seen despite a stipulation to that effect in the agreement and permission order signed by the two parties. It seems that the organisers did not make provisions for the buffer, and if this was the case, then the district administration is also to blame as it failed to enforce the stipulation.
Political rallies have become mega corporate events, with tasks being outsourced without much oversight. These are now often arranged on a few days’ notice, which leaves so many details to chance. It is time that political parties started mulling over this before they are faced with more setbacks. There is a need to draft protocols for the conduct of these rallies. The government should take reasonable time to vet requests for permission to hold rallies. The PTI has drawn a battery of former civil servants to its fold. It is time now that its leadership gives them the task of helping evolve operating procedures when it comes to managing and staging rallies.
Imran Khan and Dr Tahirul Qadri have made a highly valid point when they ask our rulers to declare their assets and sources of income. It is time now that this argument is taken further: our political leaders should also be made accountable for the sources and amount of funds they get for these high-cost rallies and mobilisation at such a massive scale. I do not doubt at all that the sources of funds that parties get for their rallies are bona fide. The point I wish to make is that there is a need to document and make transactions transparent. Our legislators need to revisit the Political Parties Act and widen its scope. Just like expenses for an election campaign need to be documented, spending on off-season rallies should also be brought within the scope of law.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2014.