The capitulation of the Pakistan government days after banning Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) by agreeing to release Saad Hussain Rizvi, the TLP leader, and tabling a resolution in the National Assembly for ousting the French Ambassador from Pakistan highlights the increasing sway of the extremism prevailing in the Pakistani society. TLP’s latest threat was based on the French government’s actions and decisions after the brutal murder of Samual Paty, a middle school teacher in October 2020. The French President had then defended the “freedom of expression” leading to a proposed march by TLP to Islamabad in November 2020 demanding the expulsion of the French Ambassador from Pakistan. The PTI government had reached an agreement with the TLP demanding more time for discussion.
The latest series of rallies began after the address by Saad Rizvi to march to Islamabad if the French Ambassador was not expelled by 21 April. The Imran Khan government banned TLP under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 on 15 April which further spread the unrest leading to violence in Lahore and other parts of the country. Days later, the government had taken a U-turn and agreed to the TLP’s demands.
The Domino Effect
TLP came into being in 2015 by opposing Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws and fiery sermons by Khadim Hussain Rizvi drew a mass following. Its massive street presence was used by PTI in 2017 to undermine Nawaz Sharif’s party. TLP has held demonstrations against government decisions which it has perceived to be unjust and against the teachings of Islam. It has used its religious sway to gain political legitimacy. As it has been courted by ISI and PTI government, TLP’s resurgence and power sway at the national level has serious repercussions which need introspection:-
- French Connection for Pakistan Armed Forces. The Pakistan armed forces operate a wide array of French military equipment. Pakistan Navy’s submarine fleet operates Hashmat and Khalid class submarines which are based on French Agosta class submarines. The Air Force has a fleet of Mirage III and Margare 5 aircraft (150 aircraft[i]). Pakistan Army uses French LLR 81 and MO-120 RT heavy mortars as well as air defence guns. Spares and maintenance have been and will be further affected[ii] due to severed ties with both the air force and Navy bearing the brunt as almost 60 percent submarine fleet are of French origin.
- Armed Forces and Terror Link. The most visible effect of TLP’s protests was the open enticement and reports of army, rangers, and police personnel sympathising with TLP cadres and leaving their posts to join the protesters. Increasing radicalisation of the armed forces since the time of Zia-ul-Haq and further compounded by close links with Taliban has taken a toll on the armed forces personnel. With the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan the linkages will be ever strong. This will damage the professional cohesion of the armed forces and must be exploited in times to come.
- Increasing Radicalisation in the Society. TLP’s mass following is indicative of increasing radicalisation within the society. Its overwhelming presence in Punjab and Sindh has brought religiously guided radicalisation in Pakistan’s heartland which is going to adversely affect the societal fabric as no segment will oppose its support base and call against blasphemy laws.
- Weakening the Government Structure. Pakistan has over 247 religious organisations and parties working with hardline religious-inspired motives and ambitions. Successive governments have nurtured religious parties such as TLP for political gain like PTI’s support to TLP during Nawaz Sharif’s tenure. The government’s response to appeasement has led to TLP seeking the legitimacy of its actions and further cementing its position as guardians of the faith. Besides, challenging the legitimacy of the government in power, such actions weaken government structures adding to the sway of religious leaders.
- Denting the National Image. The call for the expulsion of the French Ambassador and boycott of French goods have further diminished Pakistan’s image abroad as a fundamentalist state controlled by religious elements. Pakistan has tried to project itself as the guardian of the Muslim faith by protests and rallies against any perceived insult to the religion. Pakistan imported goods worth $ 45 Billion in 2020[iii]. In case, every incident the world over is countered by protests and calls of boycott or expulsion of diplomatic staff, then besides France, other nations will also be wary of their business interests. Pakistan’s dubious position as a terror hub gets cemented with the overzealous religious sway of Islamist policies.
Pointers for India
Pakistan’s hardline approach in its domestic policies and deep-rooted radicalisation of its armed forces indicates that any peace overtures like ceasefire at LoC are only temporary steps either to shift focus or to gain a temporary reprieve. Even if the leadership denies peace, an unlikely event, its rank, and file will not implement the process. There have already been cases of ceasefire violation within two months. Also, the increasing radicalisation of Pakistani society can have a similar effect to incite a particular section of the community in India. France and India have developed a strong strategic partnership and it should be nurtured to slow down or totally stop modernisation of French military equipment in Pakistan’s armed forces. The time to bleed Pakistan by thousand cuts involves economic, diplomatic, and military measures which have to be continuously taken as part of a long-reaching comprehensive plan.
Pakistan cannot afford to antagonise France or any of its major trade partners due to its precarious financial state besides having an inverse effect on the maintenance of its military hardware. However, governments in power will continue to use religious parties either to undermine the opposition or to remain in power. The massive rallies have demonstrated that parties like TLP have skillfully exploited Islam for their own political gains and gained a mass following. The radicalisation of Pakistan’s society will lead to a turbulent internal security situation that can be exploited to destabilise the country.
[i]Pakistan Airforce Bases, Global Security.org. Available at https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/pakistan/airbase.htm. Accessed on April 25, 2021.
[ii]Gupta Shishir, France Turns Screws on Imran Khan-Declibes Upgardes for Aircraft, subs and more, November 20, 2020, Published at Hindustan Times. Available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/france-turns-the-screws-on-imran-khan-declines-upgrade-for-mirage-subs-and-more/story-QOPvQYDfvTfwGyJHQY80dN.html. Accessed on 21 April 2021
[iii]Pakistan Imports and Exports, 2020, TrendEconomy, Annual International Trade Statistics. Published on April 05, 2021. Available at https://trendeconomy.com/data/h2/Pakistan/TOTAL. Accessed on April 23, 2021.