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Perched atop a container is Khadim Hussain Rizvi (centre) at his welcome rally in Karachi. The  procession spanned a good five hours or so | TLP photos
Perched atop a container is Khadim Hussain Rizvi (centre) at his welcome rally in Karachi. The procession spanned a good five hours or so | TLP photos

Alternate realties are the stuff of dreams. They often require an enemy, real or imagined, and the ideal world is one where the enemy has been vanquished. Powered by blind belief, legends are created and heroes are born. The case of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) is about a common alternate reality that is shared by many people — at least 2,234,265 of them according to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), making it the fifth largest political party in the country.

I am seated on a bed with TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The “allama” has just woken up from his afternoon nap and his hosts have already served water to him. Around us are about a dozen men and an air of being in the company of a man who is revered by many. Some young ones kneel to seek his blessings, other stand in respect their hands crossed below the waist. An ideologue of the tehreek [social movement] is introduced to Rizvi, who insists that the ideologue sits on a chair. The rest are to sit on the floor.

Before the interview starts, a senior leader regales “Hazrat Sahib” with a tale from Nawabshah.

“We were playing our anthem Deen Aaya, Deen Aaya [Religion is here, religion is here] when the Peoples Party camp started playing their songs,” he narrates. “We asked them to stop because there was mention of deen being made. But their in-charge refused. Imagine Allah’s wrath, that man passed away that very night. The next morning PPP guys switched over to our camp saying that these people of deen must have been right.”

In its debut electoral campaign, Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s party has caused many upsets but also emerged as the fifth largest party in terms of votes polled. Is he merely a spoiler vote or is there more to the sudden growth of his party?

A legend had been born.

The audience gasps and Hazrat Sahib explains that this was God’s will. The audience nods in unison. A prayer is said to ask for God’s forgiveness and his blessings. Rizvi finally turns to me, apologises for the delay, and asks me to begin.

This is Rizvi’s second trip to Karachi in electoral season, having first arrived in the city a few days ago, on July 2, before leaving for a whirlwind trip to other cities of Sindh and Balochistan. A rally across Karachi was organised on that first trip. Karachi was his stopover on the way back to Lahore but his party had also scheduled public appearances during his brief stay. That evening, he was to visit Lyari, the old city locality that was once the stronghold of the PPP.

“Wherever we went, nobody said that we aren’t with you or that we are on the wrong path,” says Rizvi. “Even those in opposing camps said that we have some constraints but we are with you and will vote for you.”

How was Balochistan, in particular?

“Balochistan was very surprising. People used to say that Baloch people are very angry, they kill Punjabis when they see their faces or identification. But nobody said anything to us, they welcomed us, cheered our slogans. I even spoke in Punjabi, I don’t even know if they understood or not, but they raised slogans in response.”

I reference the religious polarity found in Balochistan and Rizvi fires an Allama Iqbal couplet back to explain that those who were supposed to guide themselves embarked on the wrong path. With religion sidelined, he says, “the sardars remained sardars and the poor remained poor.”

He goes on to explain that those who continued to defend mosques in these times have joined. “Young ulema have now stood up for our cause, that’s change for you. Wherever someone has raised a voice for deen, deen has come to their aid, just like we are being aided.”

Till now, Rizvi has quoted Allama Iqbal umpteen times as arguments and that, too, in multiple languages. What did Iqbal mean to him? Was he fond of his poetry, his thoughts or was Iqbal a complete ideology in and of himself?

“The Quran has condemned poets and poetry. When this ayat was revealed, Kaab bin Maalik who was a poet of the Prophet’s (PBUH) court, rushed to ask what next. The Prophet replied that this ayat did not concern those who carried out jihad through their speech. I am influenced by Iqbal because of his love for the Prophet (PBUH).”

How long has he been a fan of Iqbal?

“For many years, ever since I was a student,” says Rizvi. “Even if I had no other book, I always had a copy of Iqbal.”

We turn to his family and he goes on to describe how his parents were both illiterate: “My father was a farmer and we had lots of land. My brother lives there now. I don’t even know if my name is on the land deeds. I just go there, stay in a room and return.”

It [TLP] is a wave,” argues Rizvi. “The seed was planted by Mumtaz [Qadri] seven years ago when he defended the sanctity of the finality of Prophethood (PBUH). Then it became a small plant and we are on our way to becoming a tree.”

His favourite food?

“Nothing,” he replies before adding that since the essence of the Prophet’s (PBUH) life is simplicity, these kinds of things hold no meaning for him.”

We soon begin talking about Karachi and the political space that the TLP had carved for itself. Rizvi claims that the religion will prove to be a binding force in a city that has found itself in the throes of ethnic division. The retort is that parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) have had an established presence in Karachi in the name of religious politics but haven’t been successful in translating that to votes. How does the TLP differ? Rizvi points to the purity of their cause, alluding to how those who haven’t been honest to the cause of the finality of Prophethood (PBUH) cannot possibly win popular support.

But this is the rhetoric.

Karachi might have been a far-off outpost for the TLP, which has greater roots in Punjab, but its presence in Karachi is bedded in organic factors. In theory, the political vacuum created by Altaf Hussain being put on mute was to be filled, in part, by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP). But neither of these two parties was able to do that, for one reason or another. The MQM-P attributes this to a decimated organisational structure while the PSP’s narrative of not being “Mohajir” did not go well with the Mohajir voter.

In the upheaval since August 22, 2016 — when Altaf delivered an incendiary speech at the Karachi Press Club — the greatest knock to the MQM came in the form of their mohalla [neighbourhood] network being dismantled. Party offices were shut down or razed altogether, activists were picked up by law enforcement and sometimes without cause or warrants, while their release was secured on the guarantee of not rejoining Altaf’s party.

But while the ordinary MQM neighbourhood office disappeared from sight, the neighbourhood mosque remained a point of propagating ideology. The TLP’s success in Karachi owes largely to using the pulpit of the mosque to spread a political message. In a sense, therefore, the mosque replaced the mohalla network in localities previously labelled hardcore MQM areas.

And it is from the pulpit of the mosque that the message of redemption was hammered in, in a manner and scale not seen since the call of jihad in 2001 to fight the American invasion of Afghanistan. The argument now was that since people had committed crime and violence for a mortal, redemption in the eyes of God was only possible if these people took up God’s cause. In other words, repentance for their crimes will take the form of volunteering their time and labour for the TLP.

This first time the success of this line became apparent was in the MQM-P’s rally in its Liaquatabad stronghold. Organised in retaliation to a rally conducted by PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in the same locality, the MQM-P pulled in impressive numbers but not as much as would be expected. One reason was the loyalty of many to Altaf but equally, the MQM-P was hit by former MQM activists and organisers now working for the TLP.

Similarly, while mainstream parties used the holy month of Ramazan for meet-and-greet gatherings, the TLP focussed its energies into organisating religious lectures around sehri, iftar, and taraweeh prayers. The most obvious of these gatherings took place in the Hakeem Saeed Ground, where about 6,000 cadres convened for sehri and to discuss political strategy. This was larger than any cadre-based gathering in the city during electoral season.

But what remained hidden from the public eye was the TLP’s work inside working class localities. The TLP largely targeted Urdu-speaking and Punjabi labour in the city’s industrial zones to find foot soldiers. They drummed up their political message around sehri, iftar, and taraweeh prayers — all of which was, as one senior TLP ideologue put it, to reverse the “brainwashing” (religious and political) that these people had been subjected to.

Ritual, perfomance and politics converge in MQM’s stronghold of Azizabad
Ritual, perfomance and politics converge in MQM’s stronghold of Azizabad

Central to this strategy is infusing politics with ritual and performance of the Barelvi belief system. Most TLP gatherings have gestures (raised hands) and slogans to indicate submission to Allah and Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). This tends to become a hypnotic and synchronised performance, with those participating convinced in their belief that the Prophet (PBUH) is cognisant of their loyalty and service, and that “victory” is just round the corner.

Together, these factors have exploited a very real faultline in Karachi politics of Barelvi politics that seemed to have been pushed down first by Altaf Hussain and, later, by the murder of the entire senior leadership of the Sunni Tehreek (ST) in a bomb blast back in 2006. The ST subsequently partnered with the MQM to ensure that its politics retained some space in the city. Today, the TLP in Karachi is constituted by Khadim Rizvi’s devotees but also of old MQM and ST workers.

I put this point of redemption, particularly in underprivileged localities, to Rizvi. The argument is that unlike the JI, which is largely a middle-class phenomenon in Karachi, the TLP is largely a working class phenomenon. And unlike the middle class’ politics of respectability, the working classes tend to accept causes they believe in and propagate it effectively, too.

“Where Islam impacted Hazrat Bilal (RA), it also impacted Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddique (RA),” responds Rizvi. “We have supporters from the upper class, the middle class as well, and of course the class that you are speaking about.”

And what of the system of governance?

“Democracy will be subservient to Islam, of course. What sort of an Islamic system is this where the Shariah court is subservient to the Supreme Court? To set it up that way was General Ziaul Haq’s biggest mistake.”

And how will this system of governance come about? Will it be change from the top, when power is first acquired and then reform instituted; or will it be a bottom-up approach, where people will first be reformed and then the government that will emerge will be formed by the pious.

“Power always comes from the top. You cannot make a clerk pious and ask him to hold someone senior to him accountable for theft. It doesn’t work that way.”

What is TLP? A sapling, a growing plant, or a tree? Or is it just a wave for the time being?

“It is a wave,” argues Rizvi. “The seed was planted by Mumtaz [Qadri] seven years ago when he defended the sanctity of the finality of Prophethood (PBUH). Then it became a small plant and we are on our way to becoming a tree.”

SPOILING THE PARTY

Throughout the election season, the mainstream Pakistani media described the TLP’s role as a spoiler — a party formed to draw votes away from the major parties and, therefore, spoiling their chance of winning an election. The post-electoral numbers released by the ECP tend to back that theory.

The TLP might have received over two million votes from across the country but the chunks of votes it chewed up served to dent the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) prospects in at least 13 constituencies [see table] and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) vote in at least six constituencies.

Consider the constituency of NA-13, Mansehra. The TLP bagged 4,731 votes — just enough to hand the PTI a win by 1,474 votes in a constituency where both major parties received over 100,000 votes. This trend is repeated in many other constituencies.

In fact, a Gallup Pakistan survey conducted in around 127 constituencies across the country and answered by 4,000 voters as they exited polling stations, makes the claim that, “46 percent of TLP voters stated that they had voted for PML-N in 2013, confirming that rise of TLP is majorly explained by voters leaving PML-N and joining TLP. Another way to look at the numbers is that between 2013 and 2018 General Election, PML-N lost around nine percent of its vote bank nationally. Of this nine percent, around three to four percent vote bank was lost not to PTI but to TLP.”

Another interesting way to look at the numbers is that, “those who actually did cast their vote in 2013 (leaving aside 17 percent who did not cast votes and 2 percent who did not respond), current TLP voters who voted for PML-N in 2013 crosses 50 percent.”

Then there were constituencies where the TLP emerged not just as a spoiler but as a legitimate player in its own right. Consider NA-118, Nankana Sahib. While the PTI (victors) and the PML-N both polled over 60,000 votes, the TLP bagged 49,345 votes. The margin of victory here (2,405) was just a fraction of what the TLP received. Similar is the case with constituencies in Karachi [see table].

Although the TLP can be considered a spoiler, these numbers suggest that they are more than just that. Compare and contrast with the ST’s performance in 2008 and 2013. Back in 2008, the ST was still reeling from a leadership crisis. It could bag only 1,501 votes from across the country even though their manifesto, too, spoke about protecting the sanctity of the finality of the Prophethood. This increased to 25,485 votes in 2013, registering as 0.06 percent of the total votes cast. In Punjab, where the TLP managed to bag the most number of votes from this time round, the ST in 2008 received only 392 votes. About a decade later, the ST still hasn’t been able to establish its presence.

But as goes the adage, if you torture numbers long enough, it’ll confess to anything. Dig a little deeper and there is more to the phenomenon: the TLP has emerged as a party of urban centres.

In Punjab, for example, it provided the stiffest challenge in Faisalabad, where it turned the game against the PML-N. Its electoral numbers in Karachi also belie its presence in neighbourhoods. Karachi’s NA-245, which was contested by MQM-P’s Farooq Sattar and PTI’s Aamir Liaquat, also include hardcore MQM localities such as Lines Area. This locality, in particular, is key to electoral dynamics because the number of voters who actually cast their votes is fairly high. The locality did not go with MQM-P this time round as much of the vote swung towards the TLP. Once again, the TLP’s narrative of redemption and repentance took root.

Extend the argument further, and it can be said that the TLP is a phenomenon tied with access to the internet. Hundreds of Khadim Hussain Rizvi lectures exist on social media, some of which are purely religious and others that present his political vision. This has allowed the TLP to penetrate into segments that are literate. Its breed of intellectuals and ideologues are not simply madressah-going men; in fact it is highly educated men with a handle on matters of theology. These men have managed to draw support in the markets — in Karachi, they were supported by middle-class Memon traders from across the city, for example. And while Rizvi deals with theological matters, this cadre deals with the nitty-gritty of governance matters.

But simultaneously, the world of intra-religious politics on social media also provides a window to the ideological opposition to Rizvi. His direct rivals are Maulana Tariq Jameel (Deobandi) and Tahirul Qadri, both of whom reject Rizvi’s absolutism and certainty in his belief system. They even allege that Rizvi misquotes history and scripture to make his point. And since he does so in a language foreign to many, he goes unchallenged.

RESISTANCE AND REFORM

Back in Karachi, I posit the theory to Rizvi about him cutting Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan to size with politics. He rejects this notion: “Till now, as of this moment, I can tell you that I have never thought about things this way.”

What he is uncomfortable with, however, is that those who had nothing to do with preserving the sanctity of the finality of Prophethood are now presenting themselves as the torchbearers of the “cause.”

“Where were they in the throes of struggle?” he argues. “Once the issue was solved, everyone now wants to jump on to the bandwagon.”

We turn the discussion towards the blasphemy laws and the reservations raised from various sides. I tell him that the big worry is that innocent people are victimised through the cynical (mis)use of the law. In such a situation, when tempers are raised and emotions are raw, who gets to enforce the law?

“When have we said that there shouldn’t be any investigations?” asserts Rizvi. “We didn’t sentence Aasia Masih to death, the session and high courts did. If there is no implementation of law, then people will gauge that there is some fraud being committed with the sanctity of the finality of Prophethood. The ummat might be divided in many ways, but on this issue, it is very sensitive.”

We return to the question of poor people being victimised through the blasphemy law by the rich and powerful.

“There is a procedure laid out in law and it needs to be followed. A lawyer showed the law to me and the punishment for whoever has levelled the wrong accusations is written next to the punishment for those who have committed blasphemy,” he argues. “Punish them according to this law. We haven’t stopped that from happening, we haven’t ever taken to the streets to protest this. The superintendent of police is supposed to investigate these cases and this is the safeguard built into the law against its misuse.”


On the night on July 25, as mainstream parties raised their voices against the delay in announcing results, the TLP, too, announced that its mandate was being snatched away. In one press conference, Rizvi says, “What is the use of us participating in the elections if this [rigging] is what you had to do? Why did you waste the country’s precious finances?”

TLP’s Karachi rallies drew in far greater numbers than the Muttahida Majlis Amal and the Pak Sarzameen Party
TLP’s Karachi rallies drew in far greater numbers than the Muttahida Majlis Amal and the Pak Sarzameen Party

In his Karachi interview, Rizvi had argued that there was no place for the military in politics and that it ought to do its job of protecting the borders. But on election night, the TLP announced that it will start a Faizabad-like protest in Islamabad if this mandate were not returned. In many constituencies, the TLP had gotten “waada forms” [deed to pledge vote] signed by its prospective voters — this was to tally the numbers who’d eventually show up and cast their vote in favour of the TLP. This plan didn’t quite work but the party remains adamant that its mandate has been stolen.

In a later press conference, Rizvi steps back from his threat. “If we have grievances, we will of course take them to our people, not to some foreign masters.” The TLP is now contesting eight National Assembly and 16 provincial assembly results from Karachi as their stolen mandate. A protest march has been scheduled in Karachi as well following the one in Lahore.

Meanwhile, the legend of how deen has managed to remove artificial boundaries such as ethnicity or community has been doing the rounds in TLP circles. There are heroes, too: the women and men roughed up during and after polling, for example. And there is the notion of an alternate reality inching closer to becoming a universal truth. Unlike past times, Barelvi politics might just have found its teeth.

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 5th, 2018