Pakistan Turmoil Clouds Independence Day Parade in NYC

Pakistan Day Parade organizers ride a float down the Madison Avenue on August 24. (Photo by Mohsin Zaheer)

Pakistan Day Parade organizers ride a float down Madison Avenue on August 24. (Photo by Mohsin Zaheer for Voices of NY)

The 30th Pakistan Day Parade was held in Midtown Manhattan on Sunday, August 24. At least 13 floats, followed by flag-waving community leaders and members, rolled down Madison Avenue from 38th to 23rd streets, where organizers had set up more than a dozen food stalls and a stage from which artists visiting from Pakistan performed.

Except for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Fernando P. Tirado, a candidate for State Assembly from District 78 in the Bronx, none of the notable city politicians were present. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who attended the Brooklyn Mela (festival) on August 17 on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, did not show up.

“We had invited the mayor but because of a scheduling conflict he was unable to join,” said Ahmad Jan, a Bronx-based businessman and the parade organizing committee chairman. He said the city gave permission for the parade very late, leaving them with little time for outreach to political leadership to join the festivities that mark Pakistan’s independence from the United Kingdom on Aug. 14, 1947.

The mood was festive around the stage and the adjacent Madison Square Park where many Pakistani families had settled on benches and open spaces to enjoy the day. Youths in the charged crowd danced to the tunes of popular songs by Pakistani artists. The singers – Rahim Shah and Jawad Ahmad – enthralled the crowd with their popular numbers.

But in the middle of blaring speakers and dancing youth was Shabbir Gul, a tall stocky businessman from the Bronx who felt deeply concerned about the evolving political crisis in his country of origin. He was not alone. Many of the parade participants Voices of NY spoke with were worried about instability in Pakistan.

“Pakistanis here in the U.S. are worried,” he said referring to the unfolding political drama in the country’s capital city of Islamabad. Thousands of supporters of former cricket star and opposition leader Imran Khan and Canada-based firebrand cleric Tahirul Qadri have been encamped in front of Pakistan’s parliament since August 20, demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s resignation and sweeping electoral reforms.

Both Khan and Qadri allege that Sharif won the 2013 elections through massive electoral fraud. The two sides are in a political deadlock as the Sharif government has expressed willingness to accept all but one demand regarding the prime minister’s resignation.

“We have our families in Pakistan and are worried about their wellbeing,” he said. Gul is a contractor and also runs a dental instruments business in the Bronx. His family is in the surgical instruments business in Pakistan’s northeastern city of Sialkot.

Most of the participants came along with their families to celebrate Pakistan's 68th Independence Day. (Photo by Mohsin Zaheer)

Most of the participants came along with their families to celebrate Pakistan’s 68th Independence Day. (Photo by Mohsin Zaheer for Voices of NY)

Gul blames Khan and Qadri for the turmoil. “We live in a democratic society in the U.S. and know very well that Imran Khan has adopted an undemocratic way to press for his demand,” he said. “You have paralyzed the life in every city in Pakistan, putting people in great difficulties,” he added while referring to the blockade of Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue where the country’s key seats of power – the parliament house, prime minister’s secretariat, the presidency, foreign office and several government offices – are located.

The so-far peaceful protests have paralyzed the government as most of the offices are closed due to protests. Pakistan’s finance minister Ishaq Dar told journalists on August 17 that economic losses due to the protests had surpassed 450 billion rupees (about $4.5 billion).

But another parade participant didn’t agree with Gul and blames Prime Minister Sharif’s “misgovernance” for the crisis. “People are crazy about Imran who enjoys immense support because of his reform-oriented agenda,” said Ejaz Ahmad Shahid, who runs La Canela, a Mexican halal restaurant, in Astoria, Queens.

Like the protesters staging a noisy sit-in in Islamabad, Shahid wants Sharif to resign. “The more he delays his resignation the more the government will be in trouble.”

Shahid claims that he knows many New York-based Pakistani businessmen who have stopped sending capital to their country of origin to protest Sharif’s refusal to resign. Remittances account for the largest chunk of foreign currency inflow into Pakistan’s economy. Millions of overseas Pakistanis send close to $15 billion home each year.

Like the majority of the parade marchers, neither Gul nor Shahid were sure about the outcome of the turmoil. “No one knows what will happen,” Gul said before joining the cheering crowd in front of the stage. “But we are here to celebrate Pakistan and not to wail over our differences,” added Shahid.

The turnout was higher than last year’s parade but still lower than the expectations of many in the community. Ahmad Jan put the attendance at 20,000 but agreed that it was less than half the turnout of some years past.  “More than 60,000 people used to show up at the parade before 9/11,” he recalled. However, some of the participants thought even fewer than 20,000 attended.

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