Supporters of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan at a protest in Lahore on October 22 | AP
Supporters of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan at a protest in Lahore on October 22 | AP

Recently, a foreign diplomat asked me about the threat posed by the agglomerated Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). My response was that the manner and haste with which the government had gone into talks with the group was a greater threat than any capacity the TTP had to generate violence and which the state could and must counter.

He then asked me about Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). My response was that TLP was, and remained, a much bigger threat.

The reason is simple. When the state had to confront the TTP phenomenon, it showed little initial understanding and even less capacity to deal with the group’s terror tactics and attacks. Over some years, and after much punishment, the state has developed a much greater capacity to pre-empt such attacks or react to those that go through.

This capacity is not just a function of how the state can employ a combination of intelligence and kinetic operations, though that combination is a vital component of the state’s capacity. The other aspect — in some ways equally, if not more, important — is the ability of the state to isolate such groups. That is a function of public buy-in.

The horrific Sialkot incident is not just a law and order problem and has implications that are far graver than the threat posed by the TTP. But the state’s lack of capacity in confronting the TLP as a mindset prevents a strategic response

These are the two prerequisites — isolating a group and getting public buy-in — that help the state not just to use force against the TTP (or the Baloch terrorist conglomerate) but translate it into utility of force.

Neither prerequisite obtains in TLP’s case. Unlike the TTP or the Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS) alliance, TLP’s ideology — which uses the Prophet’s (PBUH) honour as its central tenet — is grounded in the society and cuts across other denominational differences. Also, as Umair Javed, a sociologist, noted in his November 1, 2021 Dawn article, the TLP “is a movement that is more rooted in urban and peri-urban Punjab than any previous religio-political one.”

This means two things. One, that the TLP makes demands using markers that have societal acceptance and brands the state’s response as heavy-handed to justify its own violence, presenting it as reactive and not proactive. Second, the state, for all its rhetoric, cannot use force against the group and its supporters because the TLP uses its democratic right to protest.

Let me put it another way. When Prime Minister Imran Khan says the state will not allow the TLP to march on the capital, he is skating on thin ice. His party, when in opposition, marched on the capital and indulged in hooliganism and vandalism on more than one occasion. Similarly, when the TLP marched on the capital the first time, Khan and other PTI leaders cheered on the group as it humiliated the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government. The issue of ideology becomes more complicated, because the state itself has nurtured this ideology over decades and, more recently, helped convex its violent expression through the TLP, albeit for reasons of political machinations.

If one were to use a national security lens, not just in terms of hard security but employing a broader definition of it, the TLP proffers a bigger and more complex threat than does the TTP and other such groups. Consider.

People now have a reference to a group they have seen perpetrate violence and get away with it...

It was no coincidence that some perpetrators of the ghastly incident in Sialkot not only openly justified their barbarism before television cameras, but raised the TLP slogan. They may or may not be members of the group, but that does not matter. What is of grave concern is the fact that people now have a reference to a group they have seen perpetrate violence and get away with it, because the state cannot develop a response to democratic violence. The Sialkot incident nearly created a diplomatic crisis between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, two countries that enjoy cooperative relations across a broad spectrum of interests, including defence.

The Rajco Industries, one of the top exporters of sports apparel to the European Union, brings in foreign exchange. It is one of the beneficiaries of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences-Plus (GSP+) granted by the EU to Pakistan.

Despite two resolutions in the EU parliament earlier this year demanding the withdrawal of the GSP+ for Pakistan, the EU Commission has extended the facility until 2022. But, as reports suggest, among the various conventions signed by Pakistan to sustain the status, the issues of human rights and freedom of expression, including religious freedoms, continue to draw criticism from the EU. The withdrawal of GSP+ facility could be a blow to Pakistan’s exports and, by extension, its economy. It could also lead to other restrictive measures (including on travel) with negative consequences for Pakistan across a broad range of sectors.

The issue of religious sentimentalism is a fault-line that has been, and can be, exploited by hostile external actors. It is a force-multiplier because it has a cascading effect. The TLP’s violent marches and demand that Pakistan sever diplomatic relations with France have already created a situation. The spontaneous mob that killed Priyantha Kumara, the Sri Lankan general manager of Rajco Industries, is another incident with external dimensions.

It also gives hostile elements an opportunity to orchestrate more such incidents against foreign nationals working in Pakistan. Put another way, this is not just a law and order problem wedded to other socio-economic and religious factors, but has to be approached from a strategic perspective.

The state’s responses, as noted above, are complicated by the socio-religious nature of the problem. The problem is further complicated by a host of laws (the blasphemy laws, for instance) that have not only helped create the present mindset, but which allow mobs to rely on them. Note the reference by PM Khan to vigilantism. That’s a poor reference to what lynch mobs are doing. They aren’t taking the law into their hands, they are flouting the law and acting as common criminals. Yet, in a deeply ironic way, the term vigilantism does describe what’s happening on the ground.

The police in Sialkot acted with alacrity. District Police Officer Omer Saeed, a fine professional, had to act fast not only to track, trace and arrest the main culprits and others in the mob, he had to approach a number of religious groups and civic bodies to ensure that none made a statement supportive of the lynching. This is important, because we saw what happened after Mumtaz Qadri was arrested.

While in this case the TLP distanced itself from the act because of a wave of horror and condemnation that followed Kumara’s lynching and desecration of the body, it could have swung the other way.

In the case of the TTP, given the state’s capacity, the external world considers Pakistan’s countermeasures as necessary and supports them. With TLP — using the term not just to denote a group but a mindset — the state’s lack of capacity becomes an issue with not just internal but external dimensions.

As I wrote elsewhere, referring to Jim Crow laws in the southern states of the United States and the consequent lynch mobs, a problem that gets grounded in a society — whether racial superiority or, in this case, an ever-widening definition of blasphemy — is a hard nut to crack. It demands immediate attention to long-term approaches.

The first needs to be top-down: ruthless crackdown on those who hold such views and participate in acts of violence and hate propaganda; the second, bottom-up: a mass movement of the victims and their allies that succeeds in dismantling the social and legal legitimacy of the violence directed against them.

Right now, it doesn’t appear that either is forthcoming.

The writer is a journalist with interest in foreign and security policies. He tweets @ejazhaider

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 19th, 2021

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