For the past few years, autumn in Pakistan has been synonymous with protests challenging the writ of the Pakistani state.
This year isn’t any different – except that it took just a weekend of protests to coax the Imran Khan government to negotiate a deal with the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP).
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid said on Sunday that the government would initiate a parliamentary debate over the expulsion of the French ambassador, which followed comments by President Emmanuel Macron last year that many viewed as Islamophobic, and would release all jailed TLP activists. In return, the TLP has agreed to limit its protests to sit-ins, rather than marching toward Islamabad.
Ironically, the seeds of this style of protest were sown by the very target of last week’s demonstration: Prime Minister Imran Khan. Back in 2014, Khan, along with the expatriate religious leader Tahi ul Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), used the same strategy of sit-ins and marches in their attempt to topple the Nawaz Sharif government.
Some 18 months later, the Khadim Hussain Rizvi-led TLP launched a spring offensive against the Sharif government over the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the main accused in the murder of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, and demanded assurances that blasphemy laws would not be amended.
In 2016, a weakened Sharif government was perhaps Khan’s wish granted. Little did he know that the same force that weakened Sharif – the demonstrations that year marked the emergence of radical Barelvi politics in Pakistan – would become the bane of his existence.
An offshoot of 19th century Sufi traditions in the subcontinent, the Barelvi movement emphasizes the veneration of saints. Its devotional practices include shrine culture. In the wake of 9/11 and the global concerns over radical Islam, Barelvi Islam was hyperbolized as the “soft” face of Islam under military dictator Pervez Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation.”
Up until five years ago, it was considered an antidote to religious intolerance.
But the TLP has made blasphemy its principal plank. In doing so, it has positioned itself as the protector of Islam and of Prophet Mohammed. In effect, it has not only painted all opposition parties as enemies of Islam but also managed to win the support of otherwise feuding outfits like the Sunni extremist Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Shia right-wing Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen Pakistan.
The TLP’s political rise in Punjab will impact Pakistan’s political dynamics, given that Punjab accounts for the largest number of seats in the national parliament.
In 2017, the TLP held weeks-long violent protests on the question of blasphemy, over a change in clause in the oath taken by parliamentarians relating to the finality of prophethood. The then civilian government found itself isolated.
Then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi tried to call in the military to aid the government in quelling the protests. But army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa advised the government to “handle” the TLP’s sit-in in Islamabad “peacefully avoiding violence from both sides.” The government yielded and signed an army-brokered deal with the TLP, with Faiz Hameed, then director-general counterintelligence of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), agreeing to act as a guarantor to end the protests.
That deal impacted Abbasi’s successor. The next time the TLP besieged Islamabad with its protest march, it was Imran Khan who headed the government. In September 2018, Khan, who had been sworn in as prime minister just a month earlier, bowed down to the TLP by removing renowned economist Atif R Mian from the economic advisory council. Mian is an Ahmadi.
Khan’s troubles had only just begun. TLP activists were back on the streets less than two months later to protest against the Supreme Court’s acquittal of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, in a blasphemy case. Once again, the government conceded the TLP’s demands. But days later, the state struck back by placing Khadim Rizvi under house arrest.
Although 2019 was relatively protest-free, the TLP remained in the news when the apex court questioned Hameed’s involvement in brokering the 2017 deal. In April 2019, Hameed was recalled to the army’s General Headquarters as adjutant general but transferred back to lead the ISI two months later.
Last year the government averted a collision with the TLP by agreeing to all the religious party’s demands regarding expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan and the severing of ties with Paris over President Macron’s allegedly Islamophobic comments. But the Khan government did not implement the demands, prompting the TLP to launch a protest in the spring.
The government bought time by seeking an extension of the deadline for implementation of the terms of the deal till mid-April. However, days before the deadline expired, it banned the TLP and arrested its new leader, Saad Rizvi, the son of Khadim Rizvi
For the next few months, Pakistan was relatively calm.
Saad’s detention was declared illegal by the Lahore High Court. However, he remains imprisoned, with the provincial government challenging the high court order in the Supreme Court, which sparked this year’s autumn protests.
The current protests, which have already killed at least two people so far, may not be related to the TLP’s blasphemy cause. According to TLP sources, the political momentum that the group had carefully built across two governments may be dissipated by the victory of the Taliban – a predominantly Deobandi group – in neighboring Afghanistan. Apprehensions in the TLP have intensified with Khan announcing that his government is considering clemency for the Pakistani Taliban.
An official privy to the development told The Diplomat that the protest demanding Saad’s release may in fact be aimed at a show of strength, “because what happens in Afghanistan has effect on Pakistan.”
After Khadim Rizvi’s death, many believed the group may have lost its political might. But the mammoth crowd marching towards the federal capital indicates the TLP’s rising relevance in Pakistan’s political landscape.
Interestingly, the latest autumn offensive is being staged at a time when Faiz’s job at the ISI is making headlines.