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Is TLP here to stay?

Updated November 06, 2018

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

WE are reeling from another ‘surrender’ of the state. The hyperbole surrounding the ‘surrender’ was as extreme as was the praise that followed the prime minister’s speech earlier. From the withdrawal of a tweet to these recent two dharnas, ‘surrenders’ come thick and fast in Pakistan. And none of them are of the ordinary kind; each is a ‘surrender’ worthy of a comparison to 1971.

It’s a wonder we have any territory left.

Take a look: Another surrender

But the last two ‘surrenders’ — to the TLP — by the PML-N and the PTI have once again highlighted the state’s relationship with religio-political parties, which since the start of the Afghan war has always focused on the Deobandi groups. However, the rise of Khadim Rizvi and the TLP may change this.

Until recently, our angst was reserved for the state’s flirtation with and nurturing of Deobandi groups. From the Afghan war to the Kashmir issue in the ’90s, these groups were used in the neighbourhood as a cost-effective measure to further policy goals. And if in the process we had to pay a price domestically — sectarian violence being a case in point — it was deemed not too high.

Until recently, our angst was reserved for the state’s flirtation with Deobandi groups.

(There were a few unusual voices such as Vali Nasr who focused on electoral politics and how the state’s appropriation of Islam meant that Pakistan was one of the few Muslim countries where religio-political parties remained rather marginal in electoral politics. This was quite unlike most of the Muslim world where the opposition to the state inevitably took the shape of a religio-political party such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the clergy in Iran. But the more publicised argument always was about the adverse effects of the patronage of the militant groups.)

The post-9/11 world finally forced a change of thinking on the state. The change in policy was forced not by international considerations but by domestic compulsions. The spread of militancy from Fata to Swat to beyond and the spate of terrorist attacks in urban centres and the lives it cost forced the state to move against the use of violence.

The relationship status became ‘complicated’. Some groups were abandoned immediately, some over time, with some a love-hate relationship continued while with others, the flirtation continued but more secretly than before.

But for everyone, the Deobandis, the troublesome children, were the focus of attention. The Barelvis, on the other hand, were the peaceniks no one worried about. In fact, in the post 9/11 world, the latter were even given donor support in order to nurture the more ‘peaceful Islam’ as if the problem were of interpretation rather than politics.

But 2010 brought a change in this bifurcation.

The assassination of Salmaan Taseer and the chain of events it set off has culminated in the rise of the TLP which seems to combine a threat of violence with an electoral challenge.

However, the threat of violence — so far — seems to be of a different kind than the Deobandi groups present. If the latter were feared for violent militias and the challenge they posed to state authority by controlling pockets of territory (as the TTP did), Barelvi violence has rattled society by mob violence.

Since the assassination of Taseer, there have not been any more such high-profile killings by believers of this school of thought — whether this is because the former governor’s death put an abrupt end to the debate he provoked or for other reasons is unclear.

The rest of the violence around his death (from Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassination to Taseer’s son’s kidnapping) was linked to the TTP. There is a level of convergence between the Barelvis and Deobandis on the emotive issue of blasphemy, but generally the parties within the electoral system tend to stand up for the blasphemy law. This doesn’t appear to be an issue where the militant groups and TLP are standing together.

Other than that, the TLP has opted for electoral politics where some analysts argue that more than the vote bank of the PML-N, the party has eaten into the votes of the more mainstream religio-political parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and JUI-F.

But despite its more mainstream choice, its relationship with the state is not as simplistic as the one portrayed. Its street protests and the related violence seems to rattle the state enough to think that there is no option but negotiations.

During the previous dharna, it was assumed that the protesters were encouraged to some extent by the civil-military disconnect, but this time round, it’s hard for anyone other than conspiracy theorists to accept this argument wholly. And yet, the end of the protest differed only in how quickly it came.

Another way to look at it would be to consider the language Rizvi and others around him used for state institutions and for those heading them. Such abusive language would not be uttered by the leaders of Deobandi groups, especially not those who take part in electoral politics.

Take the case of the accusations against a senior military official which Rizvi and his cronies mentioned in his speeches. This accusation was first brought up by a Deobandi figure (who has also been part of parliament) and within days he recanted — undoubtedly because of the displeasure expressed by those in power. However, no one seems to be in a position to wield a similar influence over Rizvi.

Neither is the TLP mob violence or street protests as controllable as, say, the protests by the Difa-i-Pakistan Council, which has both Barelvi and Deobandi parties under its umbrella; however, the stronger ones are from the latter school of thought. DFC’s protests are turned on and off, with little fear of the situation spiralling out of control.

It is too soon to assess the impact the TLP will have on the country’s electoral scene (usually parties with a one-point agenda do not manage to last long in the election cycle) or the religio-political scene in general. However, its efficacy in mobilising people — for votes or protests — do not indicate a short political life or impact. But a more realistic evaluation will require time.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2018

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