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Pakistan’s Ignoble Capitulation: ‘Mainstreaming’ TLP (Part 1) – OpEd

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“Bizarre that the [Pakistani] government is negotiating and accepting the demands of “India-sponsored and India-directed” organisations.”  -Hasan Zaidi , Pakistani journalist and filmmaker 

In November 2017, protesters belonging to several Sunni religious groups from the Barelvi school of Islam led by Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) Pakistan chief, Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, congregated at Islamabad and Rawalpindi to demand removal of Law Minister Zahid Hamid. Reason? The agitators believed that he was responsible for controversial changes in the “Khatm-i-Nabuwwat” [the finality of the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad] oath clause in the Elections Amendment Bill 2017. Luckily, these three week-long protests that brought normal life in Islamabad to a virtual standstill ended with the Government of Pakistan [GoP] and the protesters reached an agreement. 

There’s nothing unusual or odd about agreements between governments and protesters. However, there were two serious issues of concern in the instance case. One, the agreement was brokered by Pakistan army, even though it is not constitutionally mandated to undertake such activities. Two, even though federal ministers signed on behalf of GoP, it was the Director General [DG] of Pakistan army’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] who endorsed his signatures as the “guarantor” of this agreement which makes no sense as in a democracy, the armed forces are subordinate to the legislator. So, how can the army underwrite an agreement made by the government- unless ofcourse, the quip- “Pakistan is not a country with an army, but an army with a country,” is true!

But things didn’t end here. Instead of conforming to military ethics and maintaining an apolitical stance while dealing with protesters, DG of Pakistan Rangers [Punjab] Maj Gen Azhar Naveed did just the opposite. In what was an unmistakeably a brazen act of mollification through cash incentives, Maj Gen Naveed was caught on camera distributing envelopes containing money to protesters and saying “This is a gift from us to you.” He can even be heard telling protesters, “Aren’t we with you too?” While politicians do indulge in appeasement and posturing, but for the military to do so is something that doesn’t auger well for any democracy.

By distributing cash to protesters, DG Punjab Rangers blatantly mocked the four policemen killed and 263 others injured by TLP activists.  However, the most embarrassing thing is that a two-star General of Pakistan army publicly expressed solidarity with TLP, which was proscribed under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 just four months later!

In August, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting [IB] Fawad Chaudhry added an ‘Indian-link’ to support the TLP ban by alleging that “When the TLP started tweeting under a campaign, they got 400,000 tweets in 15 hours with a huge chunk of it [originating] from India and its Ahmedabad city.” Two months later, the Government of Pakistan’s Punjab submitted intelligence reports to the country’s apex court which contained details of foreign remittances that purportedly “… indicates the Indian nexus with the proscribed TLP to destabilise Pakistan.”

So, no one was surprised when on October 27, Pakistan’s IB Minister again made it clear that “… a clear policy decision was taken in a meeting, which was held under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Imran Khan and attended by the top leadership of Pakistan Army, intelligence agencies heads and all the authorities concerned, that the proscribed TLP will be treated as a militant group.” Therefore, when Pakistani media reported that while Prime Minister [PM] Imran Khan authorised use of force against TLP, but the Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa advised him against this, the obvious question that comes to mind is- why is Pakistan army so wary of taking firm action against what Islamabad considered to be a “militant group” allegedly working at the behest of India?

Though Khan is famous for making ‘U-turns’, his decision to lift the ban on TLP just 13 days after the broad-based high-level meeting chaired by him had unanimously concurred that the “TLP will be treated as a militant group,” is intriguing.So, while Khan may have revoked the TLP ban for political expediency, when the “top leadership of Pakistan Army,” had determined that TLP should be treated as a militant group, why did Rawalpindi choose to maintain a stoic silence on Islamabad’s brazen attempt to ‘mainstream’ a militant organisation with links to India?

That Pakistan army has been treating TLP with kid gloves is apparent right from the beginning. Be it brokering and underwriting the agreement to end the protest, openly distributing money to protesters and expressing solidarity with them, Pakistan army has a lot to answer for its non-professional conduct. That the Pakistan army had adopted a patently non-professional approach while dealing with TTP isn’t an off-the-cuff deduction or exaggeration. Even the Supreme Court of Pakistan has observed the army’s unbecoming behaviour. 

In its Nov 2018 judgment, a two-member bench of the apex court hearing the 2017 TLP sit-in at Faizabad Interchange case noted that “The Constitution emphatically prohibits members of the Armed Forces from engaging in any kind of political activity, which includes supporting a political party, faction or individual.” It ordered that “The Government of Pakistan through the Ministry of Defence and the respective Chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are directed to initiate action against the personnel under their command who are found to have violated their oath.” That Rawalpindi hasn’t taken any action whatsoever on this directive given by Pakistan’s supreme court, once again endorses the jibe of ‘Pakistan being an army with a nation’!

It’s difficult to comprehend why Rawalpindi is letting this fundamentalist group with a proven proclivity for violence, gain legitimacy. Unless, of course TLP is the latest ‘Frankenstein’ that the Pakistan army has created to ‘democratically’ orchestrate the downfall of those governments that refuse to toe Rawalpindi’s line!  

[To be continued… Part II- The TTP ‘Reconciliation Process’]

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Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

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