PTI’s TLP Problem: Irony Smiles

The proscribed Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is on the march again. And the government has no idea how to deal with it, swinging from one extreme of genuflecting to the group’s demands to threatening to use force.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted on Thursday that Prime Minister Imran Khan would chair a meeting of the National Security Committee on Friday to draw up a strategy to tackle the TLP protestors who are marching on Islamabad. But it doesn’t appear that the government has many options.

To understand what’s going on, let’s quickly recap the trajectory of TLP protest marches since November 2020. It all began in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb of Paris. Samuel Paty, a French middle-school history teacher, showed blasphemous cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to his students. The cartoons had originally been published in a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in 2012.

Paty was beheaded by Abdoullakh Anzorov, a Russian Muslim teen of Chechen stock. Following Paty’s killing, French president Emmanuel Macron made comments that further inflamed the situation and drew sharp comments from several Muslim leaders, including Prime Minister Imran Khan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It also gave an opportunity to the TLP to use the incident to its political advantage.

Let’s segue here to understand the political avatar of this Barelvi group. There is a wide perception that the group was used by the internal wing of Inter-Services Intelligence to undermine the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government. The role of the ISI was also referred to in the February 2019 judgement of the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the 2017 Faizabad sit-in by the TLP. The SC had also noted that a uniformed two-star officer had distributed cash among the protestors. Evidence suggests that the TLP candidates in the 2018 national election were also used to erode the PML-N vote in several constituencies in the Punjab, as also in Karachi. It garnered 2.4 million votes overall according to the Election Commission of Pakistan. 

The downside: it helped the TLP to organise itself, use the benchmark of the Prophet’s (PBUH) namoos (honour) as the most potent weapon to press its advantage, and deploy the strategy of protests to undermine sitting governments. What goes around comes around. When the PML-N government was humiliated by the TLP, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf cheered from the sidelines and made statements in support of the TLP. The PML-N was ousted from power in the 2018 election. The TLP has become the PTI’s problem.

Come October 2020, with Paty’s killing and Macron’s statement, the TLP found just the excuse to mobilise its cadres and test the government. Only this time it was the PTI that had to deal with it. The TLP reached Islamabad and the government buckled under. The agreement signed by Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Qadri, former Interior Minister Ijaz Shah and the deputy commissioner of Islamabad accepted four TLP demands: the government will take the issue of expulsion of the French ambassador to Parliament within three months; Pakistan will not appoint an ambassador to France; the government will release all the arrested workers of the TLP and, finally, no cases will be registered against the TLP leaders or workers.

It was a classic case of kicking the can down the road. But precisely because the government made these commitments, it also handed over to the TLP the moral high ground. 

Meanwhile, the TLP leader Khadim Rizvi, a small-time mosque cleric in Lahore made big because of the political games played in this country, died of Coronavirus. His son, Saad Rizvi, was anointed as the new leader. In February this year, the new leader reminded the government that while the TLP was “bound to honour the agreement till February 17. A war for the honour of the Prophet (SAW) has been waged.” February 17 was the deadline. But before that, the TLP called off its intended protest when the government kicked the can down the road again. This time the agreement stated that the government would present the terms of the earlier agreement (November 2020) in parliament before April 20.

On April 12, however, the government detained Saad Rizvi, which led to violent protests that killed policemen as well as some TLP workers. By April 15, the government banned the TLP under the anti-terrorism law. At the time, I wrote in this space: “Notwithstanding the broad definition of ‘concerned in terrorism', it will be difficult for the government to argue that the TLP is a terrorist organisation, the party’s increased tendency to disrupt public life notwithstanding. The government’s recourse to the ATA instead seems driven by the desire to avoid Article 17 (2) of the Constitution which provides that ‘where the Federal Government declares that any political party has been formed or is operating in a manner prejudicial to the sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan,’ such declaration must be referred within fifteen days to the Supreme Court for adjudication.” (TLP: Government’s Pendulum Swings; April 16, 2021)

By April 20, things had cooled down. The issue was scheduled to be placed before parliament on April 22 but then the speaker called the session on April 20 which led to much political bickering. The speaker also said a special committee will be set up to discuss the matter of the expulsion of the French ambassador. That’s where matters have stood since then.

The current round between the TLP and the government is being played on two issues: implementation of previous agreements; release of Saad Rizvi and the review of the fourth schedule list containing the names of the TLP leaders and workers. The government had earlier asked the TLP cadres to stay in Muridke and had also released 350 arrested TLP workers. A member of the TLP Shura said they had agreed to the government’s proposal to stay at Muridke for two days because the government had assured them that it would release its arrested chief and other Shura members, and would review the Fourth Schedule.

That didn’t happen and the government now has a full-blown crisis on its hands.

The question is: how should the government deal with this group; should it negotiate or should it use force. The sticking point in all this — and the government’s original sin — is the demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador. By accepting that as a point of discussion, the government has got itself handcuffed. 

Negotiating with the group is a tricky affair. The trajectory of TLP protests indicates that the group is not prepared to budge on its demands; any effective use of force requires that the group must first be isolated. That’s what was done with the terrorist TTP. It was easy because the TTP was operating in the periphery and had killed thousands of innocent Pakistanis. Isolation and public buy-in helped the state deal with the TTP.

There’s no such obtaining environment in relation to the TLP. They are operating in the heart of the country; they are embedded in the population; they comprise average Joes; they have latched on to one of the most potent benchmarks, the Prophet’s (PBUH) honour. It is not easy to translate the use of force against them into utility of force, their abominable methods notwithstanding.

The TLP thus represents a bigger problem than the TTP or the IS-K. Look at it like this: the problem of guns in the United States. The statistics of mass killings and murders are there; as are the arguments against rationalising possession of weapons. And yet, no US president has succeeded in addressing the issue.

So, there’s a dilemma: if the government decides to kowtow to the TLP, it runs the risk of setting a precedent that would worsen Pakistan’s TLP problem; if it uses force and ends up killing people, that sets a terrible precedent of state-generated violence against the people.

The government will have to devise a strategy which employs force judiciously while keeping the option of talks open. Essentially, it means telling the TLP that it cannot decide Pakistan’s foreign policy. It’s important to make this point non-negotiable. Equally, in the short-term, the government could assure the TLP that it is sympathetic to those demands that can be met.

While dealing with the TLP, two other issues are crucial: one, no entity must use such groups to undermine governments or political opponents. That game has been played for a long time and it has never — I repeat, never — redounded to this country or this society’s advantage; two, politicians on all sides must clearly understand the danger of using the blasphemy and Namoos-e-Risalat card. Almost every party has people who have used this card against others. Remember: No one can play it better than the TLP. 

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.