Pakistan’s Political Divide on Display in NYC

Protestors against Nawaz Sharif near the UN on September 26. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak for Voices of NY)

Protestors against Nawaz Sharif near the U.N. on September 26. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak for Voices of NY)

Pakistan’s deep political divisions were on noisy display Friday September 26 as more than 3,000 supporters of the country’s opposition leader Imran Khan descended on New York City to protest the nation’s embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.  Sharif was addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations, as the protestors demanded his resignation and new elections.

Supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (which means ‘Pakistan Movement for Justice) crowded 47th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues, chanting “Go Nawaz Go.” A couple of hundred of Sharif’s supporters standing across the police barrier a few yards away responded with their own chants.

Khan and Allama Tahirul Qadri, the Canada-based religious firebrand cleric, have joined with their supporters in staging a largely peaceful sit-in in front of Pakistan’s parliament in Islamabad since August 19th. Khan accuses Sharif of winning the country’s 2013 general elections through massive electoral fraud and has been demanding an independent vote audit, sweeping electoral reforms and a more effective and transparent system of accountability.

Qadri, whose Pakistan Awami Tehrik (meaning Pakistan People’s Movement) has lost at least 17 of its supporters to Pakistani police shootings since June, wants extensive political reforms too.

Several rounds of talks between the government and opposition have failed. The government says political turmoil is hurting Pakistan’s already weak economy. The Asian Development Bank has also warned that political unrest, recent floods in central and southern Pakistan and precarious security situation pose a severe risk to the economy.

Supporters of Khan, who is a former cricket star, believe that electoral transparency and across-the-board accountability hold the key to facing the country’s complex economic and security challenges, and that only he can solve them. This belief was the driving force for the many attending Friday rally.  They flew from as far as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, and drove from as far as Ohio, New Hampshire, Boston, the tri-state area and Long Island.

Qari Zubair came from Elmont, Long Island, along with his wife and two daughters, carrying a handful of PTI flags and anti-Nawaz banners. Saleha, a dentist by profession, drove with her husband, a software engineer, from Cleveland, Ohio, along with their two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. She sounded optimistic that Khan’s campaign for reforms would succeed. “It doesn’t matter how many people show up at the anti-government protests. What matters is that the action tells the world that majority of Pakistanis are against political corruption in their country,” she said while holding the stroller of her two children.

Abdul Hameed and his wife Farrah Deeba, who drove to the protest from Toronto. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak for Voices of NY)

Abdul Hameed and his wife Farrah Deeba, who drove to the protest from Toronto. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak for Voices of NY)

A sizeable number of Khan’s supporters came from Canada as well. Abdul Hameed, 62, a businessman, drove from Toronto with his 54-year-old wife Farrah Deeba.

“As a Pakistani, it’s our duty to tell the world what’s happening in Pakistan,” he told Voices of NY, referring to Pakistan’s huge corruption problem.  He walked on Second Avenue holding a bag full of anti-Sharif posters, Khan party flags and Canadian flags.

Khan enjoys a huge and loyal following among Pakistanis living abroad, especially the youth. Some of the protesters at Friday rally proved that. Such was the enthusiasm that one of his supporters, Saad Umar Malizai, 23, quit his job in Lowell, New Hampshire, to join the protest.

“My boss wouldn’t let me go on a working day, so I had to resign my job where I was paid $1,000 dollars a week,” said Malizai. And he showed no regrets. “I came here to support my freedom,” he said. “You know there is so much corruption. I want no more looting, no more drama (in Pakistan),” he told Voices of NY.

But Sharif’s supporters also insist that he is bringing reforms and has put the country on path to economic revival. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, like most of Pakistani political parties, has a visible presence in New York. Almost all Pakistani political parties have registered themselves as nonprofits in the U.S., which they also use as a vehicles to transfer funds they raise here.

Nawaz Sharif supporters near the UN Setpember 26. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak for Voices of NY)

Nawaz Sharif supporters near the U.N. September 26. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak for Voices of NY)

Sharif’s supporters had hastily assembled to respond to the opposition’s political challenge on New York streets. “We received our permit only this past Tuesday,” Rohail Dar, the president of Muslim League’s U.S. branch, told Voices of NY. But he insisted that their rally was to welcome the Pakistani prime minister. “The decent people who believe in the rule of law are here to welcome the elected prime minister of Pakistan.”

“This protest shows that Pakistan has a divided opinion,” Dar said while pointing at the slogan-chanting opposition supporters. “They don’t represent just one political party. They represent at least six parties,” he said while referring to the large opposition supporters’ turnout.

Malik Khurram, another Sharif supporter who traveled from Yonkers, said Sharif is the elected prime minister and deserved the support and respect of people of Pakistan origin in the US. He said the opposition parties had a vested agenda, which would take Pakistan nowhere.

Saying that Pakistan’s parliament and not the streets of New York was the right forum to protest, Dar insisted that Sharif is the right leader to take the South Asian nation out of its economic and political mess.

But Abdul Hameed disagrees with him. To him most of Pakistan’s political leaders have had a tainted record. “Imran Khan is the only hope because he has a clean record.” When asked if such protests will bring any change, Hameed looks at his wife, who reluctantly responded: “The chance is 95%”. But Sheikh Elahi and Mehmood Awan, two founding members of the PTI who were in attendance at the protest, insist that the chances of Sharif’s resignation, sweeping electoral reforms and a transparent true democracy under Khan’s leadership are Pakistan’s destiny.

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