The government in Pakistan recently arrested the leadership of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a far-right religious group, which for the past two years, has been carrying protest campaigns to ensure the complete implementation of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. A month ago, the group in its latest protest drive against the Supreme Court’s decision to free a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, not only provoked protesters against the leadership of various civilian institutions, but also criticized law enforcement agencies for not helping with the implementation of the blasphemy law.
The arrests of the group’s top leadership from all across Pakistan has not only taken away its ability to mobilize the masses, but have also put a hold on its aggressive camp-outs to make gains at the expense of the state. A few days ago, the entire leadership of the TLP was charged with treason and terrorism offenses while more cases are being registered against the group’s workers.
The swift action against the group shows two things. First, the state has little appetite left for extremist groups or voices that aim to directly undermine its authority. Moreover, the way TLP has taken on the state, any delayed action would have only strengthened the notion that the state is unable to take action against radical groups that are based in Pakistan.
Two, the use of treason and terrorism charges against the leadership of the TLP is an indication that other far-right groups based in Pakistan, particularly Punjab, are likely to face the same treatment. TLP’s politics had increasingly become anti-state, as it directly challenged state institutions and refused to accept the country’s constitution directly and indirectly. For the past two years, the group has forced the state into making concessions by inflaming emotions countrywide in support of blasphemy laws in its narratives and agitation campaigns. The outgoing government and the current government in Pakistan have been criticized for their inaction against the group. However, so far, the state institutions didn’t have much leverage or public support when it came to taking action against the TLP or its narrative, which found large public support.
After the recent protests, which saw massive damage to private property, the group has lost public support for its narrative. The group has burnt the leverage it had built by talking about the issue of blasphemy by solely relying on mass protest campaigns, which are not popular among the public. Moreover, there has been a measured effort on the part of the state to pull the group away from its standard politics that revolves around religion and the incitement of violence by highlighting various institutional slip-ups regarding the implementation of Sharia law in Pakistan.
In this regard, the government during the last few weeks has been making efforts to undermine the group’s ability to mobilize masses by using the blasphemy laws as a political tool. A few weeks ago, the government organized an international conference to mark the birth of Prophet Muhammad, which was seen as an effort to neutralize the narrative of the TLP, which has targeted the government for its alleged policy of secularizing Pakistan. Furthermore, in the weeks leading up to the arrest of the TLP’s leadership, the government engaged religious scholars of various sects to widely denounce the practice of violent politics in the name of religion. A number of well-known clerics from the Deobandi and Barelvi sects were invited on dozens of TV channels to condemn religious groups that are using religious conservatism to undermine the state’s ‘legitimate’ authority.
The policy of dividing the group from within while weakening its narrative, which had gained popularity over the last two years, appears to have worked. While a number of leaders of the group have been arrested, several candidates that contested the previous general election of the party’s ticket have disassociated themselves from the group. After the registration of treason cases against the leadership of the TLP, it is expected that the party’s membership with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will also be canceled in the coming days and weeks.
From here onward, TLP is not going to find it easy to make gains at the state’s expense.