By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On April 23, 2021, Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry declared that the agreement between the Government and the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) had been fully implemented. He tweeted, “The agreement between the government and the banned movement [TLP] has been fully implemented… the series of protests in the country has ended…”
He was referring to an agreement reached between the Government and the TLP on the following of the latter’s demands: “the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Pakistan Marc Barety, the release of TLP chief Saad Rizvi, the removal of the ban on the TLP, and the release of activists arrested as well as the FIRs [First Information Reports] against them to be revoked.”
Though the Minister has claimed that the agreement had been “fully implemented,” the fact is only one of the three demands had been fully met – the release of Saad Rizvi on April 20. A resolution for the expulsion of the French Ambassador was tabled by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) lawmaker Amjad Ali Khan on behalf of the Government on April 20, in a special session of the National Assembly. Meanwhile, as tension escalated between the Government and the Opposition over the issue on April 24, the Deputy Speaker adjourned the Session for an indefinite period. The ban on TLP continues, while several TLP cadres still remain in jail.
It is pertinent to recall here that, on November 8, 2020, TLP staged a big rally at Sharea Faisal in Karachi, Sindh, and demanded severance of diplomatic ties with Paris, expulsion of the French Ambassador to Pakistan Marc Barety, and a boycott of French products. TLP asked the Federal Government to take “practical steps,” otherwise it would be compelled to take “extreme action”. TLP also urged the Federal Government to “declare jihad” against France.
TLP was opposing the publication of ‘blasphemous’ caricatures in France. The opposition to France was also in reaction of French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement in which he said: “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country.” Macron made this statement following the beheading of a French teacher in Paris on October 16, 2020. The teacher had shown caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a class.
As pressure mounted, on November 16, 2020, the Government reached an agreement with TLP to decide on the matter by February 16, 2021. On November 17, 2020, TLP released a copy of the handwritten agreement which read,
take a decision from the Parliament regarding expulsion of the French ambassador within three months, not appoint Pakistan’s ambassador to France, release all the arrested workers of the TLP, not register any case against the TLP leaders or workers after it calls off the sit-in.
Soon after the agreement, on November 19, TLP founder and firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi died after an illness. His son, Saad Rizvi, took over as TLP chief.
Apprehensive of the Government’s inaction, Saad Rizvi warned on January 3, 2021,
We’re bound to honour the agreement till February 17. A war for (protecting) the honour of the Prophet has been waged. If someone has some misunderstanding, it must be removed as we pledge that there shall be no delay in taking a decision after February 17. If you have forgotten the promise, see our history… You’ve got time until February 17 to expel the French ambassador.
However, on February 11, 2021, TLP called off its protest after a new agreement was signed between the party leaders and the Government in which it was decided that the latter would present the terms of an agreement signed between them on November 16, 2020, in the Parliament before April 20.
Again, as the deadline approached and TLP felt that no efforts were being made by the Government to fulfil its demand, Saad Rizvi issued a video message on April 11, mobilising TLP workers to prepare for a protest march if the Government failed to meet the deadline. Later, on the same day, he was arrested from Lahore.
Expectedly, violent protests started immediately across Pakistan and gained steady momentum. The Government banned TLP on March 15. Violence escalated further. On April 18, TLP cadres attacked the Nawankot Police Station in Lahore, Punjab, and took 12 Policemen hostage. They were driven to their markaz (Centre) comprising a mosque and madrassa nearby. Abruptly, the Government bowed before TLP and opened channels for talks. 12 policemen were released on April 19, and later, on April 20 and an agreement was reached between the two sides. On the same day, Saad Rizvi was released. Hundreds of other TLP cadres arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order Act were also released.
According to official statistics, four policemen were killed and over 800 persons were injured in the violence between April 12 and April 19. Property worth PKR tens of millions was damaged. TLP claimed 10 of its cadres were killed.
In between, before opening the channel of talks, the Government’s appeasement of the radical elements within the country came to the fore, when Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted, on November 17,
Let me make clear to people here & abroad: Our govt [government] only took action against TLP under our anti-terrorist law when they challenged the writ of the state and used street violence & attacking the public & law enforcers. No one can be above the law and the Constitution. My message to extremists abroad who indulge in Islamophobia & racist slurs to hurt & cause pain to 1.3 bn Muslims across the globe: We Muslims have the greatest love & respect for our Prophet PBUH who lives in our hearts. We cannot tolerate any such disrespect & abuse. Those in the West, incl [including] extreme right politicians, who deliberately indulge in such abuse & hate under guise of freedom of speech clearly lack moral sense & courage to apologise to the 1.3 bn Muslims for causing this hurt. We demand an apology from these extremists. I also call on Western govts who have outlawed any negative comment on the holocaust to use the same standards to penalise those deliberately spreading their message of hate against Muslims by abusing our Prophet PBUH.
Further, on April 19, in a televised address to the nation, Imran Khan justified the ideological positioning of TLP saying,
I assure you that the purpose of the TLP for which they’re bringing people out, that is my purpose as well and that of my government. Only our methods are different.
He, nevertheless, conceded,
If we send the French ambassador back and end relations with them then this means we will break relations with the European Union. Half of Pakistan’s textile exports are to the EU, and if they are discontinued, it will result in unemployment and the closure of factories in the country. Because textile is the country’s primary export sector, it will also put pressure on the rupee and give rise to inflation and poverty. So, the loss will be ours, not of France.
Meanwhile, highlighting the Government’s inherent weakness, an editorial published by the Dawn on April 21, 2021, observed,
From the start of the TLP protests [in November 2020], the government has made one mistake after another. The initial agreement with the TLP, in which the government had agreed in writing to the main demand of the right-wing outfit, was a major blunder. No government commits itself in writing to such demands from a pressure group without having to suffer the consequences… By its bad decision-making and weak management, the government has allowed the TLP to garner more importance and heft than it deserves.
TLP, a far-right Islamist political party, is known for its countrywide street power and massive protests in opposition to any change to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The party was a product of the Bareilvi movement, and came into existence on August 1, 2015, subsequently rising to fame after the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, convicted for the assassination of Former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Taseer was killed by Qadri, one of his body guards, who had reportedly been incensed by the Governor’s efforts to secure marginal amendments to the Blasphemy Law, as also his advocacy of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death, purportedly for blasphemy.
These recent developments are likely to give more strength to TLP and it will be an enormous challenge for the infirm Imran Khan Government to impose any authority over the group. Such a situation can only give a further fillip to radicalisation among all extremist Islamist formations in Pakistan, and this, in turn, may help terrorist groupings to recruit new cadres.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management