Email

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan, a radical Islamist party, celebrate after capturing a police vehicle during their protest march toward Islamabad, on a highway in the town of Sadhuke, in eastern Pakistan, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Violence at an anti-France Islamist rally in Sadhuke left at least one police officer and two demonstrators dead. ​They demanded the expulsion of France's envoy to Pakistan over publication of caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad in France. (AP Photo) — Copyright 2021 The Assoc

THE WAGES OF CAPITULATION

Protecting the protectors
Updated 21 Nov, 2021 01:03pm

The lifting of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan ban and the ‘secret agreement’ between the party and the government has disappointed many. Chief among them are police officers, who fought at the frontlines during the recent violent protests, with some paying the ultimate price. With the TLP apparently receiving a clean-chit, will these police officers ever get justice?


We seem to have come back full circle. The government recently announced its decision to lift a ban on the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which had been in place since April this year, following violent protests by the party. Last month, the then-proscribed group took to the streets once again, calling off its their most recent protests only after reaching a “secret agreement” with the government.

The decision invited the criticism of people from different segments of society. On top of the list were police officers, six of whose fellow policemen lost their lives during the protests and hundreds of whom have been injured. The police officers feel like they are being scapegoated and their personal sacrifices made in the line of duty are being ignored.

Just a few weeks ago, when the crowds thinned and smoke cleared on October 27 in Sadhoke, a small town around a 40-minute drive away from Gujranwala, the bloody clashes between the militant TLP and the police had left three policemen dead and several hundred wounded over the course of just one day.

The poorly-equipped police, deployed to keep the TLP protesters from marching on to Islamabad, knew well that they were no match for the zealous mob armed with AK-47s, SMGs (sub machine guns) and pistols. Soon enough, the rioters attacked the police to push their way through the blockade on the GT Road to the nation’s capital, ostensibly to get the top French diplomat expelled from the country and their leader Saad Rizvi released from a Lahore jail.


According to the Punjab police department, at least six police officials have been killed and another 520 injured during the October clashes with TLP protesters. Another four officials had lost their lives and around 741 wounded when the TLP took to the streets in April.


In their anti-riot gear, the policemen were permitted to carry only batons and teargas as weapons on them. They had orders to exercise extreme restraint in the use of force, if assaulted by the TLP crowd.

“We had intelligence reports that the TLP workers were carrying prohibited firearms, but we never imagined that they would use them,” says one police official who was present at the war-like scene at Sadhoke. “We were taken by complete surprise when they actually began shooting straight at our frontline jawaans when stopped from advancing forward towards Gujranwala,” he adds.

But surely not everyone on the police force would have been taken by surprise. After all, the TLP marchers had killed two policemen and wounded scores just a couple of days earlier, when they fought pitched battles with the law enforcers on the Lahore streets. And the jawaans remembered the killings of four of their own and the scenes of some policemen being taken hostage by the TLP rioters when they were on the roads back in April.

A file photo from the April 2021 marches shows a TLP supporter hurling stones towards the police | Reuters
A file photo from the April 2021 marches shows a TLP supporter hurling stones towards the police | Reuters

Outnumbered and no match for the TLP rioters, the first layer of police in Sadhoke was forced to retreat to save their lives, clearing the highway for the rioters to continue their march on the capital. The policemen’s stocks of teargas had run out and the promised reinforcement didn’t arrive to their aid.

A letter written by sub-inspector Khalid Nawaz, who is in charge of the CIA in Hafizabad and was leading the police contingent at Sadhoke on that morning, is a damning indictment of Punjab’s political and police leadership. Narrating the ordeal of his colleagues, he alleges that both the back-up police force and the Rangers, who were supposed to bring them teargas and come to their aid when needed, had already fled when they were required the most.

“The frontline force had not only resisted but also pushed back the rioters after engaging them for two hours,” the letter reads. “But, gradually, our teargas supply started to exhaust and, when we looked back for reinforcement, we discovered that the back-up force had already fled without firing a single shell of teargas.”


“Remember the Model Town case? Some 64 officials are still suspended and facing inquiries and court cases for an action ‘ordered from above’. Who would want to take such risks after that?” the police chief asks.


Once the police had evacuated Sadhoke, the TLP marchers never stopped until they reached Wazirabad, where the authorities had dug up trenches and parked around 100 containers, and deployed Rangers and police to block their movement across the Chenab.

The protesters didn’t have to cross the river. Even before they set up camps in Wazirabad, the government had already capitulated, accepting all the demands of the TLP.

The TLP has once again brought the state to its knees. The ban has been lifted and arrangements have been made to ‘mainstream’ it in the country’s politics. Most of its incarcerated hard-line workers have been given free jail passes. And the group’s ‘Emir’ is all set to return home from Kot Lakhpat prison any time.

The Imran Khan government struck a deal with the TLP through private mediators such as former Ruet-i-Hilal chief Mufti Muneebur Rehman and Karachi-based stock broker and builder Aqeel Karim Dhedhi (aka AKD), considered close to the TLP leadership, for a ‘peaceful resolution’ to the stand-off. In return, the TLP had apparently ‘renounced’ violence in future and withdrawn the demand for the closure of the French embassy (there is currently no French ambassador in Pakistan) from the country.

The arrangement came amid loud pronouncements by Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain — who had previously declared the TLP a militant organisation with Indian links — asserting that no one involved in attacks on the police would be released nor the cases withdrawn. “The state will never forget or forgive terrorists who attacked law enforcement agencies,” he was reported to have said days before the government announced having reached the agreement with the group.

The interesting part was that he, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri and adviser Maulana Tahir Ashrafi were kept out of negotiations, reportedly on the demand of Mufti Muneebur Rehman, since they had spoken harsh words against the TLP jatha [mob] or belonged to another sect.

Supporters of the TLP stand atop a vehicle while others walk on October 23, 2021, in Lahore | Reuters
Supporters of the TLP stand atop a vehicle while others walk on October 23, 2021, in Lahore | Reuters

Speaking to Dawn when talks between the TLP and the government were first underway, a deputy inspector had said that the government would have to stand with either the law enforcers or the TLP. “[The government’s] decision to release hundreds of TLP men under an immediate agreement has ignored the sacrifices policemen rendered and the lives they lost during violent agitation of the organisation,” he had said.

Many in the police force still see this as a matter of picking sides. They feel dejected seeing that the other side has apparently emerged victorious, even after some of their colleagues have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.

IN THE LINE OF DUTY

On November 2, some passers-by spotted a body in the fields close to Viroke village near Wazirabad. The police later identified the deceased as one of their own — constable Adnan Ehsan. Father of a six-year-old daughter, he was captured by the TLP activists on October 31, while he was passing by their camp in Wazirabad on his way home to his family for the night. Police investigators say he was brutally tortured by his kidnappers, who took off his uniform before dumping his body in the fields in plain clothes to hide their crime.

“The kidnappers had pulled out his nails and broken almost all his bones,” says a Wazirabad police official, describing the gruesome state in which Ehsan was found. “I have seen many cases of brutality in my police career, and such incidents are common in our society, but the level of savagery inflicted on Adnan is the worst I have ever seen,” the officer adds, requesting anonymity.

A resident of Wahdat Colony, a low-income neighbourhood in Gujranwala, Ehsan was one of the thousands of policemen assigned duty outside the TLP camp. His disappearance was not noticed by his colleagues until two days later, when the investigators identified his body.

His brother blames Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government for the death of Ehsan, who had joined the police force in 2015. “Those who claim to be working to establish the state of Madina in Pakistan are responsible for my brother’s martyrdom. The government took his weapon from him a month ago and put him in the line of fire,” he told a TV channel. “We want justice. Imran Khan must deliver Adnan, his wife and daughter justice.”


When AKD appeared on a television show and was asked if the agreement provided for action against those TLP men involved in the killings of and torture on policemen, he replied, “We must forget those killings. We need to move forward."


But, unfortunately, those who have lost their lives and limbs while performing their duty may not receive the justice they are looking for. The agreement with the TLP leadership precludes any investigations into violence, killings or torture by its workers against the police.

When AKD appeared on a television show and was asked if the agreement provided for action against those TLP men involved in the killings of and torture on policemen, he replied: “We must forget those killings. We need to move forward. We cannot afford to put the country’s future at risk because of these eight to 10 killings. Who can say who killed whom in a mob of 10,000 people? Maybe somebody had settled their old scores or maybe some elements that did not want resolution of the stand-off were involved [in the killings]. Who knows? But, yes, if someone can be identified…”

One wonders how anyone would be identified in the absence of an investigation. His words suggest that the government has agreed to not pursue criminal cases against TLP protesters involved in the killings of policemen, or in acts of vandalism against public and private property. This is only adding salt to the wounds of those who have lost their dear ones and those who returned from the clashes with deep physical injuries.

AFTER THE PROTESTS

Police fire teargas to disperse demonstrators | M Arif/White Star
Police fire teargas to disperse demonstrators | M Arif/White Star

Founded in 2015 by a Barelvi cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, as a manifestation of the growing Barelvi political power in Pakistan, the TLP’s politics revolve around the finality of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the protection of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Ever since its creation, the TLP has engaged in violent protests on multiple occasions and issues related to the blasphemy laws.

The latest round of agitation by the party, which represents the largest Muslim sect, was launched in November last year by its founder, weeks before his death, to protest the publication of blasphemous images by a French magazine and the French president’s support for those. The group had demanded that Pakistan end diplomatic ties with France as it laid a siege to Islamabad. The protesters vacated the capital only after an agreement with the government and ‘acceptance’ of its demands.

The TLP was back on the streets under its new chief, Saad Rizvi, in April, saying the government had not fulfilled its commitments with it. The government arrested the TLP chief and others under the anti-terrorism laws and placed a ban on the group after several days of bloody clashes of its workers with the police. The situation returned to normalcy only after the government promised to table a resolution in the parliament.


“Frankly, I don’t see a point in risking my life the next time the TLP or any other mob challenges the state’s writ,” says a sub-inspector. “What’s the use?”


The recent weeks of violent TLP protests have not only left in their wake a nation that is more deeply divided and a state that is much more vulnerable than ever before, but also a badly shaken and traumatised police force. It is only natural that the law enforcers feel let down and betrayed by the government for giving in to the TLP, in total disregard for the sacrifices of those killed, wounded, tortured and insulted by the rioters.

“The police rank and file is struggling to come to grips with a total lack of empathy from the political leadership for those who had taken bullets to their chests on their orders,” says a sub-inspector from Lahore, refusing to give his name. “It’s highly demoralising that the government is releasing rioters who had assaulted and killed policemen,” he adds.

The sub-inspector says that the police are not opposed to a resolution of the conflict through dialogue and recognises that this is the only way to resolve conflicts. “But how can they set murderers and torturers free?” he asks. “Frankly, I don’t see a point in risking my life the next time the TLP or any other mob challenges the state’s writ. What’s the use?”

A DIG-rank official, who also prefers anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the matter, regrets that the police command was kept out of the talks with the TLP and the agreement with the rioters lets “those who have our blood on their hands go scot-free.”

“We have lost face in front of our subordinates,” he tells Eos. “The government has no justification for letting the TLP get away with the murders of our loved ones. [The government] has set another dangerous precedent. It will not send the right message to the law enforcement personnel,” he complains.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

Traffic is blocked on a road near Muridke in Punjab due to the TLP’s long march | Arif Ali/White Star
Traffic is blocked on a road near Muridke in Punjab due to the TLP’s long march | Arif Ali/White Star

According to the Punjab police department, at least six police officials have been killed and another 520 injured during the October clashes with TLP protesters. Another four officials had lost their lives and around 741 wounded when the TLP took to the streets in April.

“We have been targets of violent protesters many times before,” the DIG says. “But it never was quite like this. Our jawaans showed extreme restraint, retaliating in self-defence with minimum force only when assaulted by the rioters. Now, those who have martyred and injured hundreds of policemen wouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. These are tragic times for the police,” he says.

He adds that cases were registered after the April mayhem and investigations were also launched. “Cases have again been registered for the October killings and assaults on the police. That is the standard procedure. But investigations are unlikely to get anywhere. The attackers and killers will not be punished for their crimes,” he says, with disappointment ringing high in his deep voice.

“Who will pursue these cases after the government’s deal with such violent elements? It, indeed, is demoralising for the force. I believe that the government-TLP agreement will further erode the confidence of the police force.”

Most officials insist that the country’s political leadership must realise that this kind of capitulation is not only damaging for police morale but it also weakens the state’s writ.


Policemen say they were told that the government would back them if need be. They risked their lives, taking comfort from the promise that this time the TLP would not get away unpunished.


“Organisations such as TLP use violence for achieving some objectives. When a group succeeds in using violence to attain its goals, others are encouraged to follow suit because it gives the violent mobs confidence that the state will not do anything, even if they kill people or damage public and private property. This is not good for anyone,” a provincial home department official says.

He adds that the removal of the TLP ban has set a precedent for other proscribed militant outfits to seek end of restrictions on them and their ‘mainstreaming’. “What moral authority will the government have to deny the same treatment to them?” he questions. Indeed, subsequent to the TLP unbanning, the sectarian Sipah-i-Sahaba have already demanded their proscription also be ended, failing which they will also launch protests.

Police represent the state power and, therefore, governments across the world apply restraint in the application of force. “Police are not expected to apply excessive force unless protesters get violent beyond a threshold or start to use firearms,” a former inspector general of Punjab police says. “But when organisations such as the TLP, which use violence as their main tool to bring the government down to its knees, are on the roads, it is the duty of the state to respond with full force to protect the citizens and their property, as well as to establish its writ. The guidelines for the use of force against an armed mob and a protest against price hike by a political party should be different. Mobs don’t deserve any leniency.

“Where the power of the state and the lives of law enforcers are valued, the police are expected to respond with full force when confronted with armed and violent mobs. They value their police and an assault on their officials is a punishable crime.”

The former police official is of the view that the state should rethink its strategy of dealing with armed jathas. “We should not only have different rules of engagement for violent mobs, but also a legal framework to protect those who execute the orders from the political leadership,” he says.

Most police officers agree with him but point out that there are also cultural, political and historic reasons why police are reluctant to use proportionate force even against violent groups.

“To begin with, people in general have very low trust in the police for right and wrong reasons,” says the police chief of a district. “If we had responded to the use of firearms by TLP rioters with the same force and killed one or two of them, the entire media would be portraying us as the real villains, and our officers and rank and file would be facing murder charges, inquiries and court cases.

Rally participants march on Karachi’s M A Jinnah Road | Shakil Adil/White Star
Rally participants march on Karachi’s M A Jinnah Road | Shakil Adil/White Star

“In such events, the political leadership immediately distances itself from [the law enforcers’] actions, leaving them on their own to deal with the consequences, pay their lawyers’ fees and fend for their families at a great personal and professional cost. They don’t get any support from the department either,” he adds.

“Remember the Model Town case? Some 64 officials are still suspended and facing inquiries and court cases for an action ‘ordered from above’. Who would want to take such risks after that?” the police chief asks.

Policemen say they were told that the government would back them if need be. They risked their lives, taking comfort from the promise that this time the TLP would not get away unpunished. “We thought those involved in the killings of our jawaans are going to face justice and be punished for their crimes. But no,” the police chief says.

“At the end of the day nothing has changed for us. If that is how the government is to behave, what’s the point in taking a beating for it?” he adds, asking a question that is on many police officers’ minds.


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

THE RISE OF THE TEHREEK-I-LABBAIK PAKISTAN

November 2010: A Sessions Court in Nankana Sahib sentences to death a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, on charges of committing blasphemy.

January 2011: Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who calls for changes in the blasphemy law to stop its misuse, is assassinated in Islamabad’s Kohsar Market by a member of his security detail, Mumtaz Qadri, a Barelvi Sunni Muslim and follower of the Dawat-i-Islami.

January 2011: Lawyers of a district court in Islamabad shower flowers on Qadri when he is produced in the court.

October 2011: Qadri is sentenced to death for murdering the governor.

2013: Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) appears on the scene for the first time, to secure the release of Qadri.

August 2015: Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi forms Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) as the political wing of TLYRA, representing the Barelvi faith.

February 2016: Qadri is hanged to death in Rawalpindi after his appeals against his sentence are rejected.

September 2017: TLP contests the NA 120 (Lahore) by-election, after Nawaz Sharif is disqualified from holding public office in a corruption case. The party scores the third position, following Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

October 2017: TLP emerges as the fifth largest party in the by-election for NA 4 (Peshawar).

November 2017: TLP, still a little-known group, marches towards Islamabad and sets up a camp at the Faizabad Interchange, paralysing life in the twin cities. Soon, the protests spread across the country with the protesters blocking highways to bring the country to a standstill. The Faizabad sit-in continues for 20 days and the protesters leave only after the government withdraws suggested changes in the proposed Election Bill 2017, which the TLP had taken issue with, and sacks its law minister Zahid Hamid, after days of nationwide clashes between TLP workers and police.

November 2017: The Supreme Court takes suo moto action on the TLP protest. The bench comprises Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Mushir Alam.

November 2017: A senior military officer is caught by cameras distributing cash among the TLP protesters.

February 2018: TLP contests the NA 154 (Lodhran) by-election.

April 2018: TLP blocks major thoroughfares in Punjab, insisting that the government fulfil all the demands from its 2017 Islamabad agreement. The 12-day protest ends after the government reaches another agreement with the group.

May 2018: TLP emerges as the third largest party in Punjab and fifth largest group at the national level, in so far as its share in the vote cast is concerned. It emerges as the single largest religio-political party with 2.2 million votes, and secures two provincial seats in Sindh in the general elections.

October 2018: The Supreme Court acquits Aasia Bibi and orders her release.

October-November 2018: TLP launches nationwide crippling protests against Aasia Bibi’s acquittal.

November 2018: TLP calls off its sit-in after striking a deal with the government on the future of Aasia Bibi. The government agrees to challenge the court decision and put her name on the no-fly list.

November 2018: Khadim Hussain Rizvi is taken into protective custody along with other leaders after the TLP threatens to hit the streets again if its demands regarding Asia Bibi are not fulfilled.

February 2019: The Supreme Court issues a detailed decision about the TLP’s sit-in at Faizabad suo moto case. In his observations, Justice Qazi Faez Isa says every citizen and political party has a right to assemble and protest, provided such assembly and protest is peaceful. He also says that protesters who obstruct people’s right to use roads and damage or destroy property must be proceeded against and held accountable. He refers to an ISI report that showed that Sheikh Rashid, Ejazul Haq and the PTI’s Ulema Wing had released audio/video messages supporting TLP. He also questions the role of ISI in the protest and points out that Pemra was under pressure not to take action against channels supportive of TLP.

November 2019: Khadim Hussain Rizvi dies in Lahore at the age of 54. Thousands gather to pay their respects and attend his funeral.

November 2020: TLP marches to Islamabad to protest blasphemous caricatures published in France. The government again enters into a written agreement with it and vows to expel the French ambassador to Pakistan and to boycott French goods. The government also promises to put the question of expelling the French ambassador to the parliament “within two to three months.”

January 2021: TLP warns of taking to the streets if the government does not fulfil its promise of expelling the French ambassador by February 17. The government then signs a new agreement promising to take the issue up in parliament.

April 2021: TLP calls for the implementation of its November agreement and insists on Pakistan ending ties with France. Protests erupt in several cities after Saad Rizvi, the new leader of TLP, is arrested in Lahore. The clashes leave four policemen dead and hundreds injured. TLP is banned.

October 2021: The group once again takes to the streets to get its leader released, the French ambassador expelled and the ban on TLP lifted. After violent clashes, a new agreement is announced by the government at a joint press conference, but details of the deal are kept secret.

November 2021: The ban on the TLP is lifted. Scores of hard-line TLP activists are released. The agreement is brokered by the security forces. Decision on Saad Rizvi’s release will be made after the Federal Review Board gives a date to hear the Punjab government’s case regarding his detention.— NJ

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 14th, 2021