Equally, the episode shows how divisive our polity is, something which makes it that much harder for any government to tackle groups like the TLP.
Take for instance the tweet by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari: “Agreement wasn’t brought to NA, Govt took action on streets, then banned, people killed, over 500 policemen injured, closed internet, PM didn’t make a statement in NA, didn’t take NA into confidence at any stage. Now PTI wants to hide behind NA. It’s your mess PM, clean up or go home.”
There are two ways of reading this. One is to focus on the facts Zardari is presenting, i.e., the National Assembly wasn’t taken into confidence apropos of any agreement with the TLP and the government took executive action against the group which it bungled and say he is right. It is the government’s mess and the prime minister should clean after himself and if he can’t, he should go home.
This is of course the easy (and partisan) way of reading Zardari’s tweet. The problem here is not the ‘facts’ Zardari is pushing but his selection and presentation of them. In avoiding both the intention of the writer as well as of the text, supporters are being myopic. Let me explain.
This is not the first government to use executive powers; successive governments have done that. Khan has been rightly criticised for not attending Assembly sessions. Again, he is not the only PM to have treated the Assembly with disdain. Former PM Nawaz Sharif, for example, wasn’t big on attending NA sessions. (The PPP prime ministers had a better record.) Years ago, I had suggested that NA should have a Question Hour for the PM. That hasn’t happened, of course.
Zardari’s intention should be clear. He is trying to avoid embroiling his party in the TLP mess and he is hoping that the government will make the mess messier. But this is precisely where he is being short-sighted. TLP presents a threat not just to Khan and his party. It is a threat to the very system of which the PPP is a part. Telling Khan that this is his (Khan’s) mess and he should clean up is therefore not a very smart thing to do.
Interestingly, the PMLN understands this. This is one reason the party hasn’t come up with a clear official position on the current episode. However, sources suggest that Sharif has signalled the top leadership to not exploit this issue. The party has a history with TLP and Barelvi sentiment. Sharif knows that stabbing the government with a TLP dagger is a dangerous proposition. That said, the PMLN is also in a quandary for two reasons: it knows that the TLP was organised in its present form by elements in the Inter-Services Intelligence to erode the PMLN vote bank in Central Punjab, which it did. Two reports from the ground in PMLN constituencies indicate that there’s a sizable overlap between the N and TLP supporters on the issues being agitated by the latter.
This puts the PMLN in a dilemma. It needs to keep its vote bank intact and at the same time knows that taking any position that directly or even tacitly supports the TLP position will be injurious to the party’s long-term interest.
Let’s be clear. The issue is not condemnation of the Prophet’s (PBUH) caricatures. That was done when it first happened, and it was done again after French president Emmanuel Macron’s irresponsible and provocative statement. That statement was condemned and challenged by various governments in the Muslim-majority states, including by Pakistan. In fact, Khan was quite vociferous in his condemnation.
The problem is different and twofold: it is not just the agitation by the TLP and the methods used by it to coerce the government into taking a reckless foreign policy decision (i.e., severing diplomatic ties with France.) What makes the TLP a particularly potent threat is the fact that it is cynically banking on and exploiting the sentiments of people who hold the Prophet (PBUH) and his honour in the utmost esteem.
This point is important because notwithstanding ill-informed comments by certain sections, this is what distinguishes the TLP from Tehrik-e-Taliban and its affiliated terrorist groups. The TTP was easier to deal with once the state got public buy-in for military and counterterrorism operations. It was clearly seen as a terrorist entity attacking Pakistani people and subverting everyday life. Doing that with the TLP is far more difficult, given the issue they are agitating. The real challenge for the government as well as other political actors is to make the people understand that the TLP is using the issue of the Prophet’s (PBUH) honour primarily for political purposes, i.e., to increase its numbers and advance itself as a group that can coerce and threaten any government to do its bidding.
Keeping this in mind — dissembling by opponents notwithstanding — the government has been playing this round relatively smartly. TLP has been banned and while the group has the right of appeal, the government has done well to not delist it; ditto for not releasing Saad Rizvi, despite the talks. Yes, the government should have avoided getting into any agreement with the TLP in November last year and then in February this year. But better late than never
The agreement, as well as Khan’s speech made it clear that no group can be allowed to dictate foreign policy. That’s a position the government must maintain as non-negotiable. The NA resolution condemning France’s approach to blasphemous speech or sketches is fine and, as noted above, has been done before. Also, technically, NA resolutions are not binding on any government.
It is important that all talk of expelling the French ambassador should cease. It was a grave mistake by the government to allow this to become an agenda point.
This is a difficult situation, but not an impossible one. The government can calibrate and control the narrative by standing firm and reaching out to the political opposition. The opposition for its part should desist from exploiting the TLP card against the government. There are many other issues on which the opposition can and must haul the government over the coals. This is not one of them.
One other point, no less important, pertains to the police forces. This government has repeatedly undermined the confidence of the police. Khan did this when he was in opposition and he has done this when he is in power. While a political government can often find itself in situations which require making difficult decisions, it must never use the police unless it is prepared to back them.
Finally, the most important lesson though needs to be learnt by the selectors: let’s never birth and raise entities, especially religious groups, for political expediency and engineering. We have repeatedly seen the consequences of such tactics. It’s time to put a complete end to it.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider