Published November 11, 2018

In Islamic history, the Treaty of Hudaibiya is held up as a shining example of a tactical retreat that led to an eventual and grand victory. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) convinced his people to return home without performing Hajj that year; he argued that the next time round the Muslims would return to Makkah in larger numbers and without the clouds of insecurity and fear hanging over the travelling pilgrims. And they did so the next year, exactly as the Prophet had said they would.

The treaty inked between the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) isn’t quite the Treaty of Hudaibiya, at least not for Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s party. Neither of their two demands were met; the chief justice didn’t resign nor was Aasia Masih sent to the gallows.

This might well be a tactical retreat but, contrary to popular reading of the situation, the TLP isn’t considering the truce as a comprehensive victory. And while commentators have described the agreement as a capitulation of the government, debates in the rank and file as well as among the wider circle of supporters of the party are filled with more questions than answers. Many of these have to do with the party’s patron-in-chief, Pir Afzal Qadri.


In front of the press at the Lahore sit-in, Qadri called out to those working in the home of judges who had penned the Aasia verdict to attack and kill them.

He even made a clear call to soldiers to mutiny against generals. Both these statements, which could obviously attract sedition and terrorism charges against Qadri, were repeated and condemned by Prime Minister Imran Khan in his speech to the nation.

In the media, Qadri’s words were widely described as a fatwa. Since the proclamation was being handed down by a religious figure and that too in the presence of Rizvi, many assumed it to carry a certain legitimacy.

Many except those in the TLP’s rank and file.

“A fatwa is a research paper,” explains one leader. “There is a hypothesis and whoever is writing the fatwa needs to prove their argument. This involves quoting history and jurisprudence. It’s not simply a proclamation.”

As the TLP sit-in last year in Faizabad started making headlines, reports poured in about how the sit-in also enjoyed behind-the-scenes logistical support from various quarters. One channel deemed close to the security establishment, for example, was said to have been providing airtime as well as food supplies to participants of the sit-in.

But the damage had been done. Rizvi till now has always spoken of the military in glowing terms but, in an instant, Qadri left his party vulnerable to state retaliation. A moment’s loose talk ended up in the TLP being removed from media screens altogether.

For ordinary TLP activists, if the party now faces an operation at the hands of the state, it is because of Qadri.

This is in stark contrast to the veneration afforded to Rizvi. For a party formed to protect the sanctity of the finality of Prophethood, the rise of a figure in whose person both theology and politics rest is a delicate balancing act.

Devotion is a key tenet of Barelvi thought but when it crosses over into political territory, there runs a risk of cults forming. This is also a zero-sum game for a young party: if an organisation revolves around a single personality, then it is bound to collapse after that personality is no longer in the picture.

Some cadres have sought to acquit Rizvi of abetting Qadri. Others have argued that silence is also a position (of agreement), particularly since Rizvi was seated right besides Qadri when the offending words were uttered. But senior leaders point to the role that Rizvi played in rousing the crowd once the TLP were allegedly told they’d be “roasted” if they didn’t end their sit-ins.

“He turned it into Karbala,” explains one veteran leader. “After the threats to wipe out the TLP were made, he relayed the conversation to the crowd and asked those who wanted to leave the venue to leave. And he asked those who were staying behind to be prepared to embrace martyrdom. The mood of the gathering became even more defiant after this.”

In the aftermath of the sit-in, activists now claim that an operation has been launched against their party. Although many TLP supporters were arrested (on charges of vandalism) and later released, key organisers have started going missing. In WhatsApp messages circulated within TLP circles, those who are more active have been encouraged to go underground for a while. The fear within is that a small organisation is being pummelled to a smaller size.

This sparked Qadri into issuing a video statement on social media last week telling workers to stay prepared for an emergency call to return to the streets. A subsequent meeting with the Punjab government, however, cooled tempers down. But the larger question is that, if the state is indeed moving in on the TLP, can an organisation as young as the TLP sustain itself, let alone organise sit-ins?


Protesters paralysed the capital city, burning tyres and taking out rallies on the streets, blocking traffic in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
Protesters paralysed the capital city, burning tyres and taking out rallies on the streets, blocking traffic in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

“A night before the Aasia verdict was to be handed out, we were told from our headquarters to start organising,” relates a senior leader of the party from Sindh. “The verdict was to be delivered at 9am and we were instructed to reach our sit-in venues around 8am.”

But as he took stock of the cadres’ strength in numbers that night, the party organiser realised that he had less than 40 cadres.

“The sit-in was basically organised by these men,” he says, “and the rest were basically ordinary citizens. This trend was repeated in many districts.”

Indeed, the TLP neither has a student operation nor any influence in trade unions, peasant bodies or other mass organisations. The party leadership is largely divided into shuras (consultative bodies): the central shura in Lahore, comprised of senior ulema makes the final call about strategy and tactics. The younger cadre, including college students and graduates, has been engaged in a tier below. Apart from organising, their key jobs include propagating party messages on social media and within party circles. Plans for legislation and governance affairs are managed by specialised committees. As a matter of principle, however, theology dominates over organisational concerns.

During elections earlier this year, the TLP was able to draw on the religiosity inculcated in the holy month of Ramazan. After the elections, the TLP’s belief in their supporters — the so-called “true lovers” of the Prophet — was shown not to be misplaced as twice the party’s call found many takers on the street. But the core remains a committed group of young cadres.

“In many Barelvi families, politics is a bad thing,” says the senior leader of the Sindh shura. “We have been raised with the belief that we have nothing to do with these worldly interactions. It’s only now that we are finding an expression of our anxieties through Khadim Sahib.”

The “anxieties” Shah refers to are ultimately about the sanctity of Prophethood. They are about the perceived removal of that reverence from the actions and preferences of the state. And they are about a certain dislike, even disdain, for what they describe as the state and society’s turn towards “liberal” and secular values.

But emotions do not make a political party. Such is the political inexperience of the party cadre that the TLP has till now struggled to raise and consolidate a second-tier leadership. The central shura, too, does not boast a younger leadership. It is based on the principle of theological seniority. In many ways, theology and governance affairs have been kept separate, with politics made subservient to theology. Such configurations are in large part an outcome of the absolute reliance on Rizvi and his person.

What the party has been able to gather is experience. Through the Faizabad and Dutch cartoon protest and, finally, during these recent dharnas (sit-ins), young activists with no experience of street politics became battle-hardened in protest politics. TLP activists are loathe to call their protests mob justice; their belief is that the “widespread appeal” of their cause can be gauged by the seeming “terror” being felt by the ruling elite and the “liberals”.

And what the party has in abundance is discipline.

One tactical masterstroke captures this best: with a blackout of sit-ins, Rizvi announced that any decision about any facet of the protest would be communicated from the dias in Lahore. This message would then be transmitted along other channels — WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Nothing else was to be believed, and certainly, not a single word being uttered in the media.

In fact, WhatsApp has been the favoured channel of communication for TLP activists because of the ease of transmitting text and video content. Internal WhatsApp discussions after the sit-ins ended are rife with disagreements over how much the TLP won and how much it lost. Some argue that their hand has been strengthened as in the Hudaibiya Treaty; others say they have been put in a position of considerable vulnerability. And as the law enforcement operation against party activists begins, there is a certain fatalism about the party losing whatever gains it has made till now.

“Organisations are constructed through times of adversity,” says the Sindh shura leader. “It looks like we will get pummelled but we’ll emerge on the other side with more clarity about how we want to organise and what the form of our organisation needs to be.”


A protester in Lahore | M. Arif/White Star
A protester in Lahore | M. Arif/White Star

“I was shocked to hear discussions on national television about the TLP,” says one senior organiser who returned home after three days of protesting. “We had become worse than Deobandi militants raised by the establishment who had claimed countless lives in terrorism. Three days of protests were the same as decades of violence and even worse than the PTI’s months-long bid to paralyse the country.”

Till now, the TLP has struggled to assert its narrative over what its adversaries are saying. While TLP WhatsApp groups were sharing videos of activists cleaning up the road and disposing of trash at sit-in venues, many in the public were spreading videos and images of vandalism and loss of property allegedly at the hands of the TLP.

“By choosing to remove the TLP from the screens, they also removed our version of events,” says a central leader. “We lost lives during these sit-ins, not anybody else,” he says referring to the loss of two lives in Karachi.

The TLP narrative is that its activists were told to organise sit-ins but they were strictly to remain peaceful. The vandalism and violence was carried out either by the larger masses who joined in or by elements who wanted to spread mischief, according to the party cadre.

“The banana boy was actually driving his cart towards our camp so that those fruits could be distributed among people,” says the senior leader about the viral video in which a boy driving a cart of bananas was robbed of his produce by men twice his size. “He had been paid for them. And then, as is the norm here with free food, everyone wanted it. The ruckus was created because of that. But since an incomplete picture had gone viral, nobody knew what exactly had taken place and we were accused of beating that child up. The boy appeared later that night in the media to clarify the matter.”

Another leader argues that once the media had shut the TLP out, more fear and more insecurity began to spread.

“For argument’s sake, let’s say that TLP supporters were involved in vandalism,” he says. “For our activists, there is a WhatsApp group where orders to remain peaceful had already been communicated. For our supporters though, we could only have reached them through the media. We could have told them about Khadim Sahib’s orders not to be involved in any act of violence.”


But how did the TLP suddenly fall out of favour?

As the TLP sit-in last year in Faizabad started making headlines, reports poured in about how the sit-in also enjoyed behind-the-scenes logistical support from various quarters. One channel deemed close to the security establishment, for example, was said to have been providing airtime as well as food supplies to participants of the sit-in. The conclusion of the sit-in, where a senior army official was pictured distributing money to those who had participated, gave further credence to the perception that the TLP was being backed by the security establishment.

In June’s general elections, in which TLP participated and received some 2.2 million votes from around the country, the general feeling was that TLP had been propped up by the establishment to cut into the vote banks of other parties — particularly the PML-N, which had fallen out of its favour. In the latest sit-in, the fact that the army distanced itself from involvement in any action after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s strong speech was further taken as evidence of its soft corner towards the party.

TLP leaders rubbish all such claims.

“Khadim does not take dictation from anyone,” says a leader from the central shura. “He is clear about the role of the military being restricted to defending the borders.”

Another leader points to a speech in Narowal, where Rizvi told the audience that the establishment had asked for the TLP’s nomination for opposition leader before the elections. “Who are they to ask us? This is none of their concern,” Rizvi allegedly thundered at the gathering.

In the recently-held by-polls in Karachi, the TLP was unable to field a candidate because his papers were rejected “without reason.” The returning officer urged them to contest his decision, claiming that it would be overturned at a higher forum.

This begs the question: if the establishment hasn’t created the TLP, and the TLP isn’t willing to toe the line, why does a perception exist that depicts the party as a stooge of the establishment?

Conversations with leaders and cadres reveal that Rizvi is being held in the same regard as Shah Ahmed Noorani, the last leader of Barelvi politics. And like Noorani, Rizvi’s stance on issues of democratic importance is dubbed as pro-democracy.

“Pervez Musharraf was unable to have his Legal Framework Order passed till Maulana Noorani was alive,” says a young ideologue. “Things changed after his demise.”

Similarly, Rizvi is being built up — among his cadre — as a ‘principled’ democrat. Multiple leaders refer to conversations held with their party leader, in which Rizvi tells them that he has only met an army officer once, during Faizabad, when he was requested to call off the sit-in. And that’s the extent of his relationship with the military. Party activists buy this line without any doubt or reservations.

In a sense, therefore, the establishment has far less sway within the party than is generally perceived. The TLP’s own ambitions are far bigger than just a Nawaz Sharif or an Imran Khan. The latest rounds of TLP sit-ins, and particularly with the alleged threats to “roast” them, reveal that the establishment too is concerned about how to put the party on a leash.

Till now, the TLP’s appeal has been in terms of how religion and politics ought to be fused. This is captured by the TLP’s slogan “Deen ko takht par laana hai [we’ll bring religion into power].” But the national discussion in the aftermath of the nationwide sit-ins has been on how religion has been cynically used to further a particular kind of politics. Threats were made by Rizvi, for example, of encircling PTI leaders’ homes if security agencies made good on their threat to target them. Then there is the issue of vandalism and the issue of citizens being put under immense duress for three days, which painted a terrible image of Pakistan at a time when the government is desperate to attract more foreign investment.

Some of this posturing has not gone down well with Barelvi voters. And in a battle of narratives, the TLP is facing an uphill battle to push its response on to its constituents. In the organisation, however, the narrative of Hudaibiya still stands. It’s only a temporary retreat. The party’s eyes are on larger gains.

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 11th, 2018



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