Pakistan’s State Under Siege

Recent Features

Features | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan’s State Under Siege

The future of Islamists in Pakistani politics.

Pakistan’s State Under Siege

Supporters of the radical religious party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah shout slogans during a sit-in protest in Karachi, Pakistan, (Nov. 27, 2017).

Credit: AP Photo/Shakil

Since the disqualification of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif in July this year, his party has been under tremendous pressure on various fronts. But in the last couple of months, the leadership found itself in especially hot water.

First, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN)-led government capitulated to the demands of a small group of Islamists staging a sit-in in the capital. The federal law minister, Zahid Hamid was forced to resign and now there are demands for the resignation of the provincial law minister of Punjab, and long-time Sharif aide, Rana Sanaullah. Likewise, the pressure is building for Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of the former prime minister, to resign his post as chief minister of Punjab province.

Political-cum-religious leader Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri recently demanded that the chief minister and law minister of Punjab step down from their positions by December 31 due to the Model Town judicial commission report. The report questioned the actions of police during a 2014 “anti-encroachment operation,” which saw workers from a political party gunned down.

The various political parties of Pakistan have always used religion and sectarianism to attain their political goals, especially during elections, as these forces have a decisive number of votes in almost every constituency of the country. Heedless of any criticism, political organizations have not only continued their policy of appeasement toward such elements but sometimes encouraged the sectarian fault lines too.

However, the religious and sectarian players are now seeking their own political power, as revealed recently in two by-elections in Lahore and Peshawar.

“If they [the Islamist political parties] use political experience, as it seems to be in the case of encouraging Qadri, then these groups will be backed by one political party, will be used against the government in power and that means weakening the state,” explained Dr. Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). According to Rais, it would take “a general agreement among political parties … to counter these groups,” thereby “allowing legitimate authority to function.”

The present troubles facing Pakistan’s government started on October 2 with the Election Bill 2017. A clause in the bill relating to a candidate’s belief in the finality of the prophet-hood of Prophet Muhammad was replaced with the words “I believe” instead of “I solemnly swear.” Two days later, on October 4, the government conceded that the change was a “clerical mistake” and the next day the amendment was restored to its original form.

Despite this, in the first week of November, the religious group Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) Rizvi faction was not satisfied. The TLYR announced its supporters would march toward the federal capital to issues their six-point demands. On November 6, the rally reached Islamabad and blocked Faizabad Interchange, which connects the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The Punjab government was accused of facilitating the march to Islamabad, thus shifting the mess to the central government.

On November 24, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a show-cause notice for contempt of court to Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal while hearing an application by the residents of the area facing disturbances due to the sit-in. Taking refuge in an IHC order to clear the roads, the district administration issued a last warning to TLYR supporters to end their protest but it was ignored and an police operation was launched the next morning.

As the operation was underway, the military weighed in. A Pakistan Army spokesman issued a statement saying that Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa telephoned Prime Minister Shahid Khakhan Abbasi with a suggestion “to handle the Islamabad dharna (sit-in) peacefully and avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in national interest” [sic]. After a few hours the botched clearance operation was suspended; six people had been killed and hundreds were injured, including law enforcement.

On November 27, the 21-day long sit-in ended after the intervention of the Pakistan Army. An agreement was signed between the federal government and the TLYR; interestingly, the director general of counter-intelligence with Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Major General Faiz Hameed, was also a signatory of the accord. In fact, according to the draft, the Army chief was the arbitrator of the deal.

The decision of federal government to accept the demands of TLYR was widely criticized by various sections of society. Some analysts termed it a blow to a state, as the government had bowed its head to lawbreakers. Meanwhile, a video widely circulated on social media and later aired at different news channels showing the officer in charge of the aborted clearance operation, the director-general of the Punjab Rangers, distributing 1,000 rupees ($9) to protesters at the end of sit-in.

Also on November 27, the IHC voiced its displeasure with the government deal with TLYR. Justice Shoukat Siddiqui noted that the court “has serious reservations on the terms of the agreement and mannerism in which it arrived.” He explained:

Besides a number of serious objections on the terms of agreement, most alarming is that Major General Faiz Hameed put signature as one through whom the agreement was arrived at. It is also very strange that efforts of General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff, have been acknowledged… Prima facie, role assumed by the top leadership of army is besides the Constitution and law of land. Armed forces, being part of the executive of the country, cannot travel beyond its mandate bestowed upon it by the organic law of the country i.e. Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The dismissal of the sit-in gave some relief to the federal government but the provincial government of Punjab soon came under fire once again. On December 5, the Lahore High Court (LHC) ordered that an inquiry report into the Model Town incident be made public. In the June 17, 2014 incident at Model Town Lahore, 14 people were killed and scores injured during a police crackdown to remove barricades outside the headquarters of Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI). The one-member inquiry commission did not completely hold responsible anyone but observed, “The operation planned and designed under the chairmanship of the then Law Minister (Rana Sanaullah) resulted in gruesome killings that could have easily been avoided.”

Adding more problems to the provincial government, another religious group headed by former PMLN supporter, Pir Hameeduddin Sialvi, demanded the resignation of the provincial law minister on November. Sanaullah was accused of blasphemy for having allegedly made remarks in favor of the Ahmadi community. During the gathering on December 10, two members of the National Assembly (Lower House) and three members of the Provincial Assembly handed in their resignations.

Recently, Tahir-ul-Qadri, the head of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) and Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI), asked his followers to be ready for the mother of all sit-ins. Almost all the opposition political parties of the country showed their support for Qadri’s plan to make a significant move against the present regime. The former President of Pakistan and co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Asif Ali Zardari, met with the PAT chief, while the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Imran Khan, also pledged his support to PAT for the protest.

In light of the inquiry into the Model Town incident of 2014, Qadri is now demanding the resignation of Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab.

It is pertinent to mention that both the PAT and PTI previously marched against the PMLN government in August 2014 over claims of election rigging.

Commenting on the recent meetings between Qadri and the PTI and PPP leadership, the president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, explained, “Tahir-ul-Qadri has dedicated workers who can endure a rough street agitation for days and weeks. They may not be an electoral force but are an effective street force, which both PPP and PTI want to use for their ends and against PMLN.”

According to Rais, “These groups emerged because of religious sentimentality… and actually [the] government’s own weaknesses, by not handling them right on time and not allowing the police and local administration to take action against these leaders and their followers [but] rather strengthening them and empower them.”

“That’s why you see more sit-ins in the making because they think government is not going take action,” Rais added. “So, it is not their power — it is basically the weakness of the government.”

The sit-ins and demands by religious groups are only part of a trend seeing Islamists move directly into Pakistani politics. Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) was formed out of a conglomerate of three groups previously known as the Tehreek-i-Rehai Mumtaz Qadri (Movement for the Release of Mumtaz Qadri) since 2013. Qadri assassinated the governor of Punjab, Salaman Taseer, over blasphemy accusations. Qadri was hanged on February 29, 2016; after his death, the movement was renamed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah. The TLYR recently decided to step into electoral politics as Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLY) and registered itself with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on September 28, 2017.

Also this year, on August 7, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) openly entered into Pakistan’s mainstream politics with a political front, the Milli Muslim League (MML). Earlier this month, JuD chief Hafiz Saeed also announced he would participate in the next elections. The MML’s application to register with the ECP was dismissed by the election watchdog on October 11, as the JuD is on Pakistan’s terrorist watch list as well as being designated a terrorist front by the United Nations.

Muhammad Amir Rana, the director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), sees the emergence of new religious alliances in the upcoming general election of 2018.

One reason for the popularity of these religious groups is that their leaders are considered closer to their supporters than the traditional political parties. In Pakistan, political leaders are not seen as giving much thought to the common man. This leaves faith in the government on shaky ground.

According to PILDAT’s 2016 Assessment of the Quality of Democracy in Pakistan, the “quality of democracy in Pakistan” in 2016 was rated at 46 percent, 4 percentage points lower than its score of 50 percent in 2015. That continues a worrisome trend: “Instead of a steady transition towards improvement, democracy scores in Pakistan year after year since 2013 show a somewhat tumultuous trend,” dropping from a high of 54 percent in 2013.

The different yearly reports of PILDAT also highlight that the parliamentarian taking less time to attend the assembly proceedings. Perhaps the biggest problem with regards to especially the National Assembly is that it continues to be sidelined as a forum for debate, discussion, and resolution of pressing national issues. Consider the issue of the Panama Leaks, which largely played out in the streets and then in the Supreme Court, rather being addressed inside the Parliament.

According to Mehboob, the president of PILDAT, the parliamentarians and parties in general are not interested in attending assembly proceedings. They are more interested in serving the individual interests of their constituents, because voters do not give any credit for attendance in the house.

“Political parties in power are interested only to the extent of passing laws drafted by them, including the finance bill or budget. They are not interested in real debate and serious input by parliamentarians. Opposition parties are also interested only in point scoring and humiliating the ruling party,” Mehboob explained.

The religious parties that are not in the parliament, like the JuD and PAT, have good organizational structure but in the past, their agendas haven’t impressed the masses. Conversely, groups like TLYR have emotional and religious appeal and, despite their weak organizational infrastructure, they can change the results in a few constituencies.

“The increasing influence of radical groups is a serious concern for major segments of the society… it seems their mainstreaming will increase pressure on mainstream parties,” Rana explained.

Some experts believe that religious parties have no future in democratic politics and hold the government accountable for not taking stern measures against those groups’ propaganda and hate speech. Leaders on the state terror watch list are still allowed to travel freely and organize sit-ins, misusing the freedom of speech and loudspeakers.

For instance, on March 17, when addressing a Friday sermon, Dr. Muhammad Ashraf Asif Jalali Jalali of TLYR accused then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of committing blasphemy. He said called Sharif’s speech at a Holi gathering “a dangerous assault on religion.” However, no action was taken against him for this attack on the sitting prime minister. Today he is heading the TLYR faction and the state is fulfilling all his demands.

To return Pakistan’s democracy to stability, “Not only political parties but also the parliament, military, police, bureaucracy —  they will have to come on one page,” Rais said. The “rule of law has to be established, no matter who captures [the] streets.”

“If we will not do this … I don’t think then Pakistan will be governable,” Rais warned.

Syed Arfeen is an investigative journalist based in Pakistan. He tweets @arfeensyyed