Recently, reportedly following the military establishment’s advice, the Pakistani government signed an ‘agreement’ with the militant Barelvi Islamist outfit the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).

This is not the first time an agreement has been signed between a sitting government and the TLP, which emerged in 2015 and presents itself as being the foremost guardian of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. It has, on various occasions, demonstrated its ‘street power’ and the ability to dent the vote banks of the country’s major mainstream political parties.

Observers are viewing the latest agreement between the government and the TLP as a continuation of the state’s project of ‘mainstreaming’ militant groups. The project was largely launched after 2017, when the military defeated a violent Islamist insurgency led by the Pakistani Taliban. 

However, even then, attempts were made by the state to convince the Taliban to enter mainstream electoral politics. The idea failed because, to the Taliban, the whole parliamentary system in Pakistan is ‘secular’ and thus ‘unIslamic’.  

Nevertheless, the mainstreaming project has been somewhat successful in bringing certain militant sectarian and Islamist outfits to the ballot box. But why are there more critics of the project than supporters? The fact is, mainstreaming projects in this context are not simply about persuading militant groups to go ‘moderate’ by joining electoral politics.

According to the American political scientist Paul Santillan, writing in the 2015 issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution, states and governments employ four common strategies towards militant outfits: suppression, containment, collusion and integration. 

Mainstream political parties in Pakistan have frequently formed alliances with militant groups and used religion to further their political agendas. These short-sighted strategies have always caused harm in the long run

Suppression of a militant group sees a state/regime target the outfit through lethal means in hopes of breaking it. This strategy is often employed against groups that are outright anti-state or, in some cases, had been tacit allies of the state or a mainstream ruling party.

In 1998, the second Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) regime launched an operation against militant sectarian outfits. But till the 1997 elections, PML-N actually had an ‘electoral understanding’ with some of these groups.

Santillan states that a mainstream political party severs its ties with militant groups once it attains a majority in the parliament, because, by then, the party is not beholden to continue its alliance with the militant outfit and, instead, starts to view it as a threat. 

This is why the current Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government banned the TLP early this year. Before the 2018 elections, the TLP was nourished by the state and the PTI as a potential usurper of PML-N votes. The TLP did manage to cause enough electoral disruption to aid a PTI victory. But, by 2020, the TLP had begun to usurp PTI votes as well (during by-elections).

The PTI regime retaliated by trying to upstage the TLP by adopting Barelvi Islamist rhetoric. Prime Minister Imran Khan launched a tirade against the French government’s decision to not act against the publication of ‘blasphemous cartoons’ in France. Then, amidst a serious economic crisis, his regime spent millions on holding this year’s Eid Miladun Nabi celebrations. 

Dissonance between the government and the military establishment on how to handle the TLP’s latest protests eventually saw Khan backtrack. The military establishment advised the regime to find a more peaceful resolution. Critics are viewing this as a state/government ‘surrender’. The military establishment wanted the government to de-escalate its planned strategy of suppression against the TLP and adopt containment. 

According to Santillan, the strategy of containment is employed against militant groups whose activities do not rise above “the acceptable threshold of unrest established by the state.” This strategy looks to contain a group’s activities with occasional (as opposed to sustained) action. The military establishment clearly views the TLP as a group requiring containment. 

The strategy of containment often slips into the strategy of collusion when the state or government strikes a tacit alliance with a militant group. The military establishment and PTI, as an opposition party, did just that with the TLP before the 2018 elections. Mainstream political parties in Pakistan have frequently formed alliances with militant groups. Such groups are tolerated as long as they benefit the political interests of their patrons. 

One saw this during the Gen Zia dictatorship in the 1980s and then during the first Nawaz Sharif regime (1990-93). Radical Deobandi Islamist outfits wielded their militancy to aid the Zia and Sharif governments, until the latter did not need them and launched an offensive against them.

The Musharraf regime strengthened militant Barelvi groups to tackle the state’s erstwhile militant Deobandi ‘assets’. This experiment was then expanded to use Barelvi militancy against the third PML-N regime that had a falling out with the military establishment. 

The strategy of collusion can quickly go south when the government and the state are not on the same page. If the government decides that a group needs to be suppressed through the power of the state, the state may not comply because it disagrees with the government’s assessment. We saw the state quietly refuse to take action against the TLP at the behest of the PTI regime. 

Collusion can lead to a strategy of integration. This is when the state/regime convinces members of a militant outfit to lay down their arms and reintegrate into mainstream society. This strategy has worked on occasions in various countries. But how can it be applied to an outfit such as the TLP? 

The TLP is not a jihadist organisation. It is not involved in an armed insurgency against the state. It doesn’t have suicide bombers. Its members and supporters are already involved in various mainstream economic and social activities. The TLP’s militancy is limited to holding charged public rallies driven by religious emotionalism, instigating mob violence, and condoning public lynchings and assassinations of those they accuse of committing blasphemy. 

What strategy can work against such a group? Taking the strategy of suppression is tricky because the TLP is supposedly an unarmed group. But the containment and collusion strategies have only emboldened the group. And one can’t employ a strategy of integration for an already integrated entity.

I believe the answers in this context lie in the 1954 Justice Munir Report and within a February 2019 verdict authored by Justice Qazi Faez Isa. Both see growth of religious militancy of this nature as products of state/government collusion for cynical political purposes. And both suggest that this nature of militancy can be avoided if it is not allowed to grow by a combined effort by all the pillars of the state. 

Using religion as a political tool needs to be discouraged, even constitutionally, if possible — although this may mean altering certain sections of the 1973 Constitution and the Pakistan Penal Code that are often seen as actually encouraging the mixing of faith and politics. This has been the elephant in the room for almost all the pillars of the state, and one that cannot be ignored for much longer.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 14th, 2021

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