There was a chill in the air. Thankfully the windows of the room were closed as men huddled together to resolve a crisis that they had been trying to resolve for the last few years. As the conversation wore on, and flexibility was in short supply, one of the men — a powerful one — he took a decision that would trigger the flow of numerous undercurrents in the coming hours and days.
“Call Mufti sahib over to Islamabad,” he ordered his aide. Many hours later, Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, the 76-year-old former chairman of the Ruet-i-Hilal committee and a prominent Sunni cleric, was sitting on a stage in the Press Information Department on Zero Point in the federal capital along with the foreign minister of Pakistan, and holding forth as the key mediator in the nerve-wracking dispute between the government of Pakistan and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan. The Karachi-based mufti who hails from Mansehra was well-aware that he was, once again, the centre of the nation’s attention. Not that he was a stranger to such intense interest by his fellow citizens. When you have held the nation rapt at least once each year for 22 long years and relished the suspense of the Eid moon-sighting, you tend to develop a certain chemical attachment to lights, cameras and yes, plenty of action.
Mufti sahib was itching for action. Having been dethroned from the moon-sighting committee by the-then science and technology minister Fawad Chaudhry, he had been nursing his grievance and not making a particularly valiant effort to hide how cut-up he felt. But that was the past, and past is another country, right?
Not always, it seems.
The evidence came a few days later. But before that, and before the PID press conference, and before the final negotiations that produced the agreement between the government and the TLP — before all of this was the unsaid matter of the politics surrounding the crisis, and revolving around the TLP. Mufti Muneeb, as it turned out, was bang in the middle of it.
But, hush. No one will speak of it. And none dare acknowledge it. When the religiosity of an outfit fuels the intensity of its politics, and when the recklessness of the government’s response powers its policy, there is little room for nuance. But this particular brand of politics — channeled as it was by its own undercurrents — was all about nuance. The TLP had muscled its way into national focus and reached out to hold the government by the throat. But something was amiss. In this politically savage contest, the contestants had names only from one side. First it was Sheikh Rashid versus the TLP; then it was Fawad Chaudhry versus the TLP; and later it was Shah Mahmood versus the TLP. Where were the TLP names? In jail, it so happens.
Read more: The cost of surrendering to the TLP
If TLP has produced a brand, it is Maulana Khadim Rizvi. The firebrand cleric used his incendiary rhetoric, laced with the choicest of words in Punjabi, to sear his movement in the nation’s psyche. His funeral, stretching over miles and miles, reflected the extent of his success in mobilising a constituency of people that was, for all these decades, dormant and apolitical. There was a brief and quiet power struggle for the party’s leadership but in the end the South Asian tradition of dynastic transfer of power won the day. His son Saad Rizvi, a young man in his twenties, was crowned as the undisputed leader of his father’s organisation.
The leader was jailed earlier this year, but was brought to Islamabad by powerful people for negotiations that were taking place that chilly night in rooms whose windows were shut tight. But the leader was neither heard nor seen in public. Those are of course the age-old rules of incarcerations. The TLP force numbering in the thousands had fought its way from Lahore to Wazirabad and relished in everything that charged and fully mobilised crowds do — aggression, determination and zeal — but it missed one very crucial ingredient: a visible, recognisable and undisputed leadership.
There were leaders present, of course. But the one that everyone knew, and accepted and enjoyed brand recognition, was in jail. The media vacuum was hard to miss.
Enter Mufti Muneeb-ur Rehman.
And with a flourish, too. The timing matched the moment. As did the credentials. A nationally-known, high-profile Sunni Barelvi mufti was just what the doctor ordered, or in this case, the TLP could have ordered. Known as the “mufti-i-azam” in Barelvi circles, Mufti Muneeb commands respect due to his seniority and age as well as his stature built around and over the vast madrassah network. His two decades as chairman of the Ruet-i-Hilal committee now appear to be a sound investment that may accrue a political dividend.
A whiff of this was evident at the announcement of the agreement. Mufti Muneeb had been invited by powerful people because they have a good working relationship with him. He has worked in the system, with the system, and often for the system. He knows how the game is played. Which is why he was chosen as the mediator, and which is why he was the central figure in the press conference, overshadowing even the foreign minister of Pakistan.
After the presser he travelled to the site where the TLP marchers were camped, and delivered a speech that was laced with incisive political undercurrents. The TLP marchers responded to him enthusiastically and even agreed to move from that site to another one at his suggestion. He seemed comfortable with the crowd, and the crowd with him. Could it be the beginning of a beautiful relationship?
The answer may present itself before long. The craven surrender of the PTI government in front of the TLP, negotiated of course by Mufti Muneeb and others, is in fact an acknowledgement of the power that the TLP is wielding, and will wield to a much greater degree, in the coming months and years. Every time the TLP has brought the state to its knees — and it’s clearly making a habit of it — the party has grown in stature and influence. Many people who monitor and study religious parties in Pakistan have started to predict that in a short period of time, TLP will become the largest and most popular party representing the Barelvis in the country. Some even go so far as to suggest that it may in fact become the largest religious party in electoral terms. That is, by all standards, saying a lot.
Read more: TLP allowed to contest elections under deal
Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman is not the only one who can, in all probability, read the writing on the wall. The state may have spawned the TLP for its own narrow agendas, but the party is now growing bigger than its conceivers could have ever imagined — and it is muscling up in the heartland of Punjab. TLP could become a determining factor for so many equations in the next general elections. At this stage if you cannot beat it down, or contain it, or dictate to it, or even restrict it, what do you do? Leverage it?
Which is why the mufti chose well. And perhaps those who chose the mufti chose well too.
Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2021