Pakistan’s capitulation to TLP marks its systemic failure to stem religious extremism
The silent patch up, closed door conversations with an organisation dubbed, declared and banned as terrorist organisation, clearly sums up the vivid portrayal of Naya Pakistan, projected and erected by its selected Prime Minister. Erstwhile banned outfit TLP (Tehreek-e-Labbaik), which has brought the country to its knees, has called off the stir after the government has acceded to its demand. Left with no choice, Pakistan kow-towed to an extremist Islamist radical organisation and pledged to introduce a legislation to expel the French Ambassador.
TLP which roughly translates into ‘Iam Present Pakistan’ is a far-right extremist organisation that seeks to upholds blasphemy laws, demands the establishment of Sharia law, was founded by members of Barelvi School of thought. The relatively obscure organisation shot into prominence with the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, who shot down Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 for criticizing country’s blasphemy laws. Founded in 2015 by Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi in 2015 as a political outfit for which even the Election commission had granted a symbol of Crane to contest elections.
Though it failed to win any seats, TLP emerged as the fifth largest party securing 2.2 million votes in 2018 election. Currently it has three representatives in Sindh Assembly and is the third largest party in Punjab. Khadim Hussain Rizvi stuck chord with the poor people challenging the Deobandi religious right of Pakistan and became extremely popular among the masses.
Advocating blasphemy, in November 2017, TLP held large sit-in protests at Faizabad interchange demanding the resignation of the then Law Minister for amending the language of election bill, in which word oath is changed to declaration. Popular as Khatm-e-Nabuwat controversy, the protests subsequently spread to other parts of the country. The three-week long protests ended with the resignation of the Minister. Protestors blocked all the roads leading to the capital. Back then, PML(N) was in power. The protests believed to be supported by the ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence) brought life in Rawalpindi and Faizabad to a halt. The military which was keen on destabilising PML(N)’s Abbasi’s regime refused to step in and evict the protestors asked the government to amicably resolve the issue. The army brokered six-point accord extracting a guarantee that the group wouldn’t issue a fatwa against the law minister. Government agreed to change the language, release all the detainees, drop all the charges and TLP agreed to end the protests1. Later, DG Rangers distributing cash envelopes to the protestors went viral.
In 2018, following the Supreme Court’s verdict overturning death case to Asia Bibi over alleged blasphemy, TLP resorted to sit-in-protests. This time, Imran Khan’s Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) entered into a five-point agreement where in government agreed to initiate a process to keep Asia on ECI (Exit Control List) and refrain from objecting to review of court judgement to stop the protests. Government was forced to release majority of the protestors and in return TLP only tendered a mere apology for the inconvenience caused due to three-day protests2.
In September 2018 TLP mounted pressure on the new PTI government to remove economist Atif R Mian, an Ahmadi from Khan’s Economic Advisory Council (EAC). Government soon retracked the nomination of Mian to council. Minister of Information Fawad Chaudhary even defended the decision in two tweets, “The government wants to move forward alongside scholars and all social groups, and it is inappropriate if a single nomination creates an impression to the contrary” and “Khatm-i-Nabuwwat (belief in the finality of the prophethood), is a part of our faith and the recent success achieved by the government in the matter of blasphemous sketches is reflective of the same connection”3.
The above instances are reflective of the fact that TLP has been leveraging massive popular support commanded by it hold country to ransom. Threatening a people’s uprising, the radical organisation under the ruse of peaceful protestors, TLP is mounting pressure on political dispensation.
In January 2020, following a huge uproar from TLP, Pakistan government deferred the release of movie, Zindagi Tamasha, that won Award at Busan International Film Festival over misuse of blasphemy law4.
The recently ended TLP’s protests in Pakistan which are again extension of its agenda of upholding the blasphemy is linked to yet another instance of deviation of a glory of Prophet (PBUH). In response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s unstinted support to Freedom of expression and right to publish Prophet’s cartoons, TLP organised anti-France huge rally in Islamabad at the behest of founder Khadim Rizvi to express their strong objection. After police tried to use tear gas to disperse the grounds, protestors resorted to rioting and blocked the roads in Islamabad.
Though some Muslim countries criticised Macron for publishing Prophet’s caricatures, massive protests stalling public life wasn’t witnessed. Amid unabated protests in Pakistan, in November the interior minister Ejaz Shah and Religion Minister issued a written assurance to expel French Ambassador within three months and not to station Pakistan Ambassador in France. Subsequently, Khadim Rizvi succumbed to COVID, his son Saad Hussain Rizvi was anointed as the leader.
In January, TLP reminded the government of the promise. Five days before the deadline government negotiated with TLP to introduce a legislation for expelling France ambassador in National Assembly by April 20th.
On April 10th as a pre-emptive measure, police took Saad Rizvi into custody. Soon protests broke out leading to rioting, clashes in Rawalpindi and Lahore resulting in killing of four policemen and 800 injured. With the violence threatening to engulf other parts, designating TLP as terrorist organisation banned it on April 15th.
Notwithstanding the ban, TLP cadres unleashed mayhem, stalled the nation for three days and abducted 11 police men. With situation slipping out of control, in a major volte-face, government entered into negotiations with out-lawed TLP to buy peace for the country. While this kind of pandering would be rebuked by the populace anywhere, it has been a norm in Pakistan. This traditional which is a closely guarded till decades ago has become a reality now. Protests by TLP protests paralysed the economic activity and brought to fore the deep entrenchment of radical Islam in the society.
Religious violence culminating in protests has exposed the dark side or the real fall out of state-sponsored patronage and Pakistan’s steady drift into an abyss of fanaticism. The killing of police personnel, abduction of police, their subsequent release after their demands were met has vividly portrayed the descent of the state into suicidal mode where religion has become the guiding and motivating force for the entire populace.
TLP has put forth four demands- expulsion of French Ambassador, release of Saad Rizvi and revocation of ban on the party and release of arrested activists. In the grand bargain during negotiations, government secured the release of abducted police personnel, released party chief and a PTI legislator has introduced a private bill in the Parliament and initiated the discussions.
As of now, there is no clarity regarding the ban on TLP. This is not first time that a political outfit is banned in Pakistan. In 1960 for the first time, Jamaat-i-Islam was banned but the decision was overturned by court as it tantamount to violation of right to freedom of association. Later in 1970 Zulfikar Bhutto declared National Awami Party as unlawful citing a threat to integrity and sovereignty. The party perished later on. Third such ban was imposed on TLP invoking Anti-Terrorism Act5.
Bans have lost its relevance in Pakistan and political dispensations have been using this quick-fix solution for temporary reprieve. Over decades, several religious, political and terrorist organisations with nefarious agenda were banned only to reappear in a different name. Slapping a ban has been a convenient political and diplomatic handle to convince the World that Pakistan is intent on getting rid of Islamist extremism. In its eagerness to exit the FATF grey list, Pakistan has liberally exercised this toothless option.
Absence of serious intent has always been evident. Speaking the language as TLP, in a televised address, Khan made no secret of his inexorable support to religious groups. After pledging to run a campaign against Islamophobia with the support of Muslim nations, he said, “I assure you that the purpose of the TLP for which they’re bringing people out, that is my purpose as well and that of my government” and he added, “only our methods are different”.
Notably, instead of denouncing religious violence and the mayhem unleashed, government has chosen to speak the words of TLP lending more credence to their intolerance. Hitting the streets, till TLP has won every time and forced the government to tow its line. On the pretext of making “defamation of religion” an internationally recognised crime6, Khan’s Naya Pakistan is inadvertently resisting any reformation and mainstreaming religious fanaticism.
Validation of blasphemy begets radicalism, under their cloak, unspeakable crimes and atrocities can be committed. By weaponizing blasphemy, TLP is seeking to legalise the orthodox interpretations of Sharia.
Political parties in Pakistan have always pandered to ultra-conservative groups to leverage their influence. Religious leaders create the narratives and play a larger role in influencing people. State institutions have been in cahoots with religious groups- regressive, intolerant, orthodox. Religion and politics are intertwined in Pakistan. The problem is complicated by the fact that religious institutions and initiatives are sponsored by the state. When the religious institutions tend to overgrown the state, the state uses all measures at its disposal to clip its wings.
But incumbent government’s failed to rein on the Barelvi militancy and succumbed to TLP under fear. On the contrary, regularly extracting concessions, TLP has amassed its popularity and influence. TLP is now dictating terms with respect to foreign policy and domestic legislation and posing a threat to politico-military establishment. Barelvi as opposed to Deobandi which is close to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism subsumed South Asian Sufi traditions are deemed to be peaceful. With its inconsiderate ideology and national wide blockades, TLP has dispelled the notion that Barelvi’s are inherently peaceful.
The radical TLP has brought Pakistan onto a precarious slope, wherein expulsion of French Ambassador is bound to derail its diplomatic ties with other western countries. Pandering to ultra-conservative groups, political parties have handed over the key to governance to the extremist groups. Religious extremism is rearing its ugly head in Pakistan.