Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) : Manifestation of a Weak State

 By Maj Gen Yashpal Singh Mor SM (Retd)

Over the last few months Tehreek e Labbaik (TLP) Pakistan has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. This organization has almost brought the state of Pakistan to its knees over the last one month. Finally, when the water was going over the head the Pakistani state chose to bite the bullet and ban the organization under the category of a terrorist organization. TLP gained popularity as it chose to take up the cause of blasphemy, which lies at the heart of the Sunni Barelvi theocracy of Pakistan. Surprisingly it chose to target France after the incidents of Oct-Nov last year, when Samuel Paty, a school teacher was beheaded by a Chechen refugee in a suburb of Paris as revenge for a perceived act of blasphemy. The TLP hailed the killing and commended the murderer. The statements by French President Emmanuel Macron later was used as a rallying point to call for banning all French products and sending back their ambassador to Pakistan.

TLP: A brief History

In a long line up of socio-political and religious tehreeks, TLP is relatively new. It was founded on 1 August 2015 by Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, an Islamic scholar. The party took on the clarion call to oppose the changes to the blasphemy laws in 2017. It brought to halt the country and in spite of the Police action and death of six protesters and over 200 people injured, did not budge till the time their main demand was met and the Law Minister resigned. This emboldened the organisation and they became more aggressive on the issue of blasphemy. The organisation is mainly supported by the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam. They are openly against the Ahmadiyya sect and want to impose very strict sharia law in the entire state of Pakistan.

It again came to the forefront in 2018, after the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman charged for blasphemy. The TLP called for the killing of the three judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, who heard her case. It also forced the Imran Khan government to ensure she is not able to fly abroad as also challenged her acquittal. This was the second time the Pakistan state was brought to its knees by this far right-wing organisation. The capitulation of the state in this manner even after acquittal following due process of law was very adversely commented upon by the civil society and the free press in Pakistan.

The TLP was jolted when its founder and ‘blasphemy activist’ Khadim Hussain Rizvi died on 19 Nov 2020 at the relatively young age of 54 due to suspected COVID in Lahore. By this time, he had got the government to bend again to heed to his demands as part of the negotiations and signed an agreement with the government of Pakistan. The main demand was the commitment on sending back the French ambassador. His son, Saad Hussain Rizvi at 26 years, took over the reins of the party soon after the demise of his father.

The Current Imbroglio   

The current situation has driven the authorities against the wall and they seems to have exhausted all resources of the government of Pakistan. The deadline given by TLP to the Imran Khan regime for stopping all French imports and expelling the ambassador expired after the three-month period in Feb 21. The government sought some more time but by early April, TLP was in a belligerent mood as it announced nationwide agitations. The TLP true to its promise blocked almost all highways and most towns and cities of Pakistan saws huge crowds of protesters. At places, even hospitals were not spared, in spite of the spike in covid cases. The standoff between the TLP protesters and the government forces resulted in killing of at least four policemen and five TLP cadre in Karachi. Three days of incessant protests brought the country to a standstill.

After months of pondering to their unjust and unlawful demands, the PTI government of Imran Khan decide to act. Initially, the government kept encouraging the TLP even though the demands were unfair and unlawful. What made the administration change its mind? Probably sensing a nationwide lawlessness and deterioration in the internal security. On 12 April the young TLP chief was arrested and charged with sedition and terrorism. The Police and the rangers removed all the barricades and arrested large number of TLP cadres.  At many places pitched battles were fought but the writ of the state was imposed. On 14 April the TLP was banned as a terror organisation.

The Pakistani Rangers have been deployed in strength all across the country in view of the month of Ramzaan and the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. For the moment the government seems to have the upper hand but the history of Pakistan is replete with examples of such organisations coming back with a vengeance.

Prognosis: Can Pakistan Shut the Jihad Factory?

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive topic in Pakistan. Since 1990 a total of 78 people have been brutally murdered by activists as per tally recorded by news portal Al Jazeera. The account of Hussain Qadri, the security guard who killed the Punjab Governor in cold blood for supporting Asia Bibi accused for blasphemy is chilling.  The manner in which he was felicitated and showered with roses by the lawyer community is simply unheard in any civilised state. The judge who finally sentenced him to death had to fly abroad to escape certain death in Pakistan. Cases of Shias and other minorities being killed or charged for blasphemy have been rampant all across the state.

The vanguard position in the national narrative of Pakistan has been taken over by radical right-wing in last three decades. It started with the jehad waged against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Once the success of this experiment was fully realised, many such organisations were now turned against India in Kashmir. The Pakistan Army was fully involved all along in this radicalisation, in fact, earned the reputation of training largest number of terrorists of all hues, most famous being the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Toiba. The role of Gen Zia-ul Haq and later Musharraf in sponsoring this terror factory will always remain when ever radicalisation of the Pakistani state is analysed.

During this journey of feeding the radical right-wing monster, little did the Pakistani state or civil society realise that this might turn back and engulf the entire country. The proliferation of social media and propaganda has created a ‘pop culture’ among the Pakistani youth.  With no jobs, a bulging young population and extreme poverty staring at the face, religion found many takers. The growth of Wahabi Salafi Sunni strand of Islam also gained upper hand due to influence from Saudi Arabia.

At no stage did Pakistan fathom that it may be a victim of its own jihad as a consequence of the ‘profane alliance’ between the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan armed forces and self-styled religious scholars. This historic alliance has resulted in colossal rise of radical Islam being a factor in the country’s penchant towards Islamic fundamentalism. Groups like the TLP are manifestation of this ideology. To some extent, state-sponsored policy to bleed India and check foreign influence in its backyard of Afghanistan is also responsible for breeding this kind of radical mindset.

Like many other such organisations TLP is not going to go down without a fight. It has a huge following as it touches the raw nerve of blasphemy. It will emerge stronger, and sooner or later maybe emerge in a different name but with same agenda. Any event anywhere in the world specially Europe is again going to be used to fan this hatred and call for blood in the name of blasphemy. For now, Imran Khan and his government may have won a short-lived reprieve. The chances of taking very severe and hard measures against the jehad factory are simply out of question as the government neither has the desire nor the inclination to de-radicalise a population base of this magnitude. In foreseeable future there appears no substitute for Islam in the social and political landscape of Pakistan. All the far-right religious parties are not only well-financed but also well-armed to take on the state whenever a situation warrants.