THE terms of surrender may not have been made public but the capitulation could not have been more humiliating. There was nothing surprising about the government succumbing to a lawless brigade. The writ of the state has yet again crumbled in the face of violent extremism. After two weeks of blowing hot and cold, the PTI government has apparently signed on the dotted line. It is the seventh time in the past five years that the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has brought the state to its knees. Each time it has returned more empowered.
The group that does not have any representation in the national parliament and has been proscribed as a terrorist outfit seeks to determine the country’s political and ideological course. The little-known Barelvi militant outfit saw its rise after its first siege of the capital in 2017. It was the civil-military divide, and not its popular mass support, that turned it into a force to be reckoned with.
A few thousand zealots led by a foul-mouthed cleric virtually paralysed Islamabad for more than three weeks. A troubled civilian administration was rendered helpless because of the alleged support of the intelligence agencies for the mob. Justice Qazi Isa’s damning ruling in the 2017 sit-in case sheds some light on the role of the intelligence agencies and some political leaders in encouraging the mob in order to weaken the then federal government. An oversight in a bill passed by parliament was used to whip up religious sentiments.
A besieged PML-N government was forced to accept the demands of the protesters that also included the resignation of the then federal law minister. The engineered anti-government protest empowered the radical Barelvi clerics. The siege of Islamabad also saw the rise of the TLP as a major religio-political force. It galvanised Barelvi militancy.
The oft-repeated mantra of ‘establishing the writ of the state’ has become a joke.
Curiously, the sectarian outfit that preached violence in the name of faith was allowed to participate in the 2018 elections. Although it didn’t win any National Assembly seat it emerged as the fourth largest bloc in Punjab in terms of the share of votes. Political machinations legitimised a militant sectarian group that hailed Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salmaan Taseer who was the governor of Punjab.
The TLP’s main support comes from the urban and rural lower-middle classes and traders. It has also made inroads into the support base of other established Islamic parties which have been virtually wiped out in Punjab. The frequent agitations are seen as a way of keeping the TLP politically alive and maintaining its financial lifeline.
It would shake the government into submission each time it marched into Islamabad, further emboldening its supporters. The 2020 agreement signed by the PTI government was perhaps the most shameful. But it didn’t stop the group from launching another protest march a few months later. In panic, the PTI government declared the TLP a terrorist outfit early this year and arrested its leaders under the anti-terrorism laws. But days later, it started backing down, stalling the process required under the Constitution to provide a legal cover to the ban. The group continued its activities with impunity. The administration seems to have deliberately kept its proscription decision ambiguous. It has continued with its appeasement approach despite the TLP’s violent activities.
Many in the PTI, including the prime minister, would assure the group that there was no difference between their and the TLP’s allegiance to the faith. The PTI’s increasing emphasis on religiosity, however, doesn’t seem to have appeased the radical clerics. What happened over the last two weeks was predictable. The banned outfit was once again out on the streets choking GT Road and threatening to storm Islamabad.
The TLP has once again made the country hostage, attacking the civilian law-enforcement agencies. The confusion was manifested in the contradictory statements emanating from federal ministers. The widening gap between the civil and military leadership may have also been a reason for the policy disarray. The administration appeared completely helpless against a few thousand zealots blocking the highways.
The oft-repeated mantra of ‘establishing the writ of the state’ became a joke with the zealots paralysing the administration. While the federal government was bending over backwards pleading with the banned terrorist group for negotiations the violence continued unabated, leaving several policemen dead. The writ of the state was nowhere to be seen.
One must appreciate the opposition parties for not jumping into the fray and exploiting the situation in order to put the government under more pressure by siding with the TLP. This sane approach was markedly different from the PTI’s opportunistic politics during the 2017 siege of Islamabad. How can one forget Imran Khan’s speeches at that time whipping up religious sentiments?
There was hardly any difference between the TLP’s and PTI’s position on the demand for the law minister’s resignation. Now the PTI government faces the same extremist challenge which it seems incapable of dealing with. Its capitulation was very much predictable. Its latest agreement with the TLP has worsened the internal security situation arising from increasing faith-based extremism.
Apparently, the government has agreed not to pursue criminal cases against TLP activists allegedly involved in the killing of policemen and destroying state and public properties. It also appears that the government will not pursue the legal process in its decision to proscribe the group. The deal came through after the prime minister’s meeting with a group of clerics most of whom are considered ideologically close to the TLP.
On their insistence, the prime minister also changed the government’s negotiating team and included those ministers who are believed to have strong conservative views and considered sympathetic to the TLP’s retrogressive sectarian ideology. While the government claims that the crisis is over, the TLP has yet to call off the agitation saying it would wait for the government to implement the agreement.
The deal has legitimised a banned terrorist group. The crisis is far from over. Emboldened by their latest triumph, the radical clerics will soon be back with new demands. The country remains hostage to a terrorist band threatening to tear apart national security.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2021