Pakistan is hostage to a terrorist group that is threatening to tear apart its national security
The terms of surrender may not have been made public but the capitulation could not have been more humiliating. There was nothing surprising about Pakistan’s Imran Khan government succumbing to a lawless brigade. The writ of the state has yet again crumbled in the face of violent extremism.
After two weeks of blowing hot and cold, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government has apparently signed on the dotted line. It is the seventh time in the past five years that the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan has brought the state to its knees. Each time it has returned more empowered
The group that does not have any representation in Pakistan’s Parliament and has been proscribed as a terrorist outfit seeks to determine the country’s political and ideological course. The little-known Barelvi militant outfit saw its rise after its first siege of Islamabad in 2017. It was the civil-military divide, and not its popular mass support, that turned it into a force to be reckoned with.
A few thousand zealots led by a foul-mouthed cleric virtually paralysed Islamabad for more than three weeks. A troubled civilian administration was rendered helpless because of the alleged support of the intelligence agencies for the mob.
Justice Qazi Isa’s damning ruling in the 2017 sit-in case sheds some light on the role of the intelligence agencies and some political leaders in encouraging the mob in order to weaken the then federal government. An oversight in a bill passed by Parliament was used to whip up religious sentiments.
A besieged Pakistan Muslim League (N) government was forced to accept the demands of the protesters that also included the resignation of the then federal law minister. The engineered anti-government protest empowered the radical Barelvi clerics. The siege of Islamabad also saw the rise of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan as a major religiopolitical force. It galvanised Barelvi militancy
Curiously, the sectarian outfit that preached violence in the name of faith was allowed to participate in the 2018 elections. Although it did not win any Pakistan National Assembly seat it emerged as the fourth-largest bloc in the country’s Punjab province in terms of the share of votes. Political machinations legitimised a militant sectarian group that hailed Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salmaan Taseer who was the governor of Punjab province.
Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s main support comes from the urban and rural lower-middle classes and traders. It has also made inroads into the support base of other established Islamic parties that have been virtually wiped out in Punjab province. The frequent agitations are seen as a way of keeping the group politically alive and maintaining its financial lifeline.
It would shake the government into submission each time it marched into Islamabad, further emboldening its supporters. The 2020 agreement signed by the Imran Khan government was perhaps the most shameful. But it did not stop the group from launching another protest march a few months later.
In panic, the Pakistan government declared the group a terrorist outfit early this year and arrested its leaders under the anti-terrorism laws. But days later, it started backing down, stalling the process required under the Constitution to provide a legal cover to the ban. The group continued its activities with impunity. The administration seems to have deliberately kept its proscription decision ambiguous. It has continued with its appeasement approach despite the group’s violent activities
Many in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, including the country’s PM Imran Khan, would assure the group that there was no difference between their and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s allegiance to the faith.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s increasing emphasis on religiosity, however, does not seem to have appeased the radical clerics. What happened over the last two weeks was predictable. The banned outfit was once again out on the streets choking GT Road and threatening to storm Islamabad.
The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan has once again made the country hostage, attacking the civilian law-enforcement agencies. The confusion was manifested in the contradictory statements emanating from federal ministers. The widening gap between the civil and military leadership may have also been a reason for the policy disarray. The administration appeared completely helpless against a few thousand zealots blocking the highways.
The oft-repeated mantra of “establishing the writ of the state” became a joke with the zealots paralysing the administration. While the federal government was bending over backwards pleading with the banned terrorist group for negotiations the violence continued unabated, leaving several policemen dead. The writ of the state was nowhere to be seen
One must appreciate the opposition parties for not jumping into the fray and exploiting the situation in order to put the government under more pressure by siding with the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan. This sane approach was markedly different from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s opportunistic politics during the 2017 siege of Islamabad. How can one forget Imran Khan’s speeches at that time whipping up religious sentiments?
There was hardly any difference between Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s position on the demand for the law minister’s resignation. Now the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government faces the same extremist challenge which it seems incapable of dealing with. Its capitulation was very much predictable. Its latest agreement with the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan has worsened the internal security situation arising from increasing faith-based extremism.
Apparently, the government has agreed not to pursue criminal cases against Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan activists allegedly involved in the killing of policemen and destroying state and public properties. It also appears that the government will not pursue the legal process in its decision to proscribe the group. The deal came through after the prime minister’s meeting with a group of clerics, most of whom are considered ideologically close to the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan.
On their insistence, Imran Khan also changed the government’s negotiating team and included those ministers who are believed to have strong conservative views and considered sympathetic to the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s retrogressive sectarian ideology. While the Imran Khan government claims that the crisis is over, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan has yet to call off the agitation saying it would wait for the government to implement the agreement
The deal has legitimised a banned terrorist group. The crisis is far from over. Emboldened by their latest triumph, the radical clerics will soon be back with new demands. Pakistan remains hostage to a terrorist band threatening to tear apart national security.
This article first appeared in Dawn.