State-TLP polemics | By Huma Baqai
-November 5, 2021


THE government and the TLP finally reached a secret deal to end an impasse of three weeks. The chronology of events is interesting to say the least.

It took death, injury, provincial shut down, assault on the capital, a shameful challenge to the writ of the state, and a disastrous image meltdown of the country to declare TLP a militant outfit that too because the government could not meet the TLP’s demand for closing the French embassy.

All other demands stood accepted if they choose to recede. Overnight TLP from a political party became a militant organization that could not be tolerated.

We heard hard talking ministers, threatening the use of hard power if the TLP doesn’t step into line followed by the usual line ‘no one will be allowed to challenge the writ of the state.’

Role of India also gets factored in. And then once again overnight there is a change of wind followed by change of face and statements.

The new negotiating team along with Mufti Muneeb makes the much-awaited announcement, deal is inked, guarantors are there, some TLP representatives were also present in the presser, but choose to or were asked to maintain silence.

One wonders who the joke is on; the people of this country, the PTI government, its ministers, or the state of Pakistan.

The positive out of this is that the new strategy of accommodation, concession and reconciliation worked to end the immediate crises.

But more importantly Mufti Muneeb, the new face of mediation between the government and the proscribed group, categorically backed out of the demand of the French envoy’s expulsion and closure of the embassy.

A source of worry is that this could be a quid pro quo for something that may haunt Pakistan’s internal political dynamics in times to come.

This was also the most contentious demand that the government could not afford to concede to. The earlier mixed signals or miscommunication by the government to address the issue as an immediate strategy had only complicated the situation more.

Having said this, addressing the larger malaise should be the end objective, the state and the government must strategize to do the same and not act like a fire brigade.

This violent politics of the street where law enforcers have lost their lives and live ammunition was used by the protesters has happened for the sixth time since 2017.

TLP began as a faction demanding the release of Mumtaz Qadri, who was the bodyguard of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.

He had gunned him down in 2011 over his support for change in blasphemy law and support for the Christian woman Asia Bibi who was charged with blasphemy and was eventually released by the Supreme Court. Mumtaz Qadri was hanged in 2016.

The protest in his support was led by Khadim Rizvi, also the founder of TLP. The defiance of the country’s Supreme Court has also been TLP’s high point, where when the court quashed the blasphemy conviction of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, its followers once again took to the streets and called for the assassination of the court’s judges and a mutiny in the armed forces.

Over the years TLP has emerged as one of the most powerful pressure groups in the country, threatening and dictating successive governments, paralyzing the country through violent street protests and bringing the capital to a standstill more than once.

The TLP formed an official political party in 2015; it earned more than two million votes and two provincial seats in the 2018 elections.

They surfaced in public consciousness in 2017, when its supporters blocked the capital with violent protest for several weeks, over changes made to the oath taken by parliamentarians. The cost was seven deaths and the country’s Federal Law Minister had to resign.

TLP protestors were actually rewarded for bad behaviour in a military brokered agreement. Atif Mian’s removal as the country’s economic advisor, we so desperately needed, is a continuation of religious emotionality trumping all reason and logic.

Religious blackmailing is the final trump card in Pakistani politics, one can defy the law of the land, where violent mobs on the pretence of religion, chooses to challenge the State, and the chances are the State will not risk being perceived as irreligious and succumb to the pressure.

What is even more dangerous is that the extremist movements of the past belonged to the minority Deobandi sect, TLP’s roots stem from the country’s mainstream Barelvi stream traditionally thought to be moderate.

In fact, the Barelvi Islam was considered as an antidote to strict liberalist followers of the Deobandi sect.

The result is fast paced radicalization largely in Punjab but also in Sindh. It has successfully employed social media to gain traction and mobilize street power.

What led to Deobandi hardliners evolving into violent extremist groups in the first place? Unintentionally or rather intentionally the militant groups with trained terrorists were let loose on the region.

The state only abandoned and disowned them when it could no longer control them even if it wanted to. In the past it was easier to categorize Deobandis as extremist and Barelvis as moderate, but now the lines have blurred.

At one time the Deobandi groups had enjoyed power and prestige under state tutelage, similarly the Barelvi groups gravitated towards the state for survival and sustenance.

And when the state shunned the Deobandi groups because of international pressure and changing security dynamics of the region, the Barelvis emerged as an alternative to counterbalance Deobandi influence, and in the process acquired a strong position in the domain of religious politics.

As per a reliable source there are at least 247 religious groups and parties operating in the country that have similar motives and agendas, they have a striking similarity of origin.

They are rooted in either Khatim-e-Nabuwwat movements of the sixties and seventies or sectarianism of the early eighties, which religiously polarized the society and the state.

TLP is no different; it has also hedged the irrevocability of the finality and honour of the Last Prophet (PBUH) as the defining theme of its movement.

Pakistan faces the critical dilemma of projecting a soft image as a diplomatic instrument, for regional, economic and diplomatic leverage.

This cyclic surfacing of radical groups makes this both unachievable and complicated. The image of religious political parties of Pakistan continues to be extremist contributing to radicalization of the society.

They do nothing to soften it, making it extremely difficult to point fingers at Indian extremism and state terrorism by Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir. The timing of these protests is also damaging for Pakistan.

The last protest launched by TLP was at a time when Pakistan had initiated an international diplomatic campaign against Indian State-sponsored terrorism, it was seeking the support of the world especially the influential Western countries.

The demand of the religious groups was for curtailing of ties with a key member of the European Union.

Similarly, this time Pakistan is working hard to get off the FATF list. According to some sources, the government has assured the TLP leadership that it would unfreeze the accounts and assets of the proscribed outfit and take steps to lift the ban.

This is a contradiction in terms and may become very difficult for the government to defend eventually. Cultivating extremism is a slippery slope, it undermines national dignity and the country’s international image.

Redlines must be drawn and maintained. The strategic confusion and grasshopping done by the government in the recent handling of the crisis neither sits well internally nor externally.

It emboldens groups to use street violence, act as a pressure group and literally get away with murder. On the other hand, it tarnishes Pakistan’s global image as a moderate state.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

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