Pakistan in extremism's growing grip: Mishandling of TLP could lead to radical consolidation

Having adopted hardcore Islam over the years, and using it to enact terrorism as a state policy, the Pakistan government can hardly afford all-out confrontation with the TLP, writes Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (retd.) for South Asia Monitor

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Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party

Adoption of hardcore Wahabbism, especially by the Zia ul-Haq regime (1978-88), accelerated the rise of extremist organizations in Pakistan. The book, The Quranic Concept of War, by Pakistan Army officer, Maj Gen S.K. Malik, published in 1979, became the ‘Bible’ of the Pakistan Army. The book opens with Zia ul-Haq focusing on the concept of jihad within Islam explaining that jihad is not the domain of the military alone but the responsibility of every Pakistani citizen. Most significantly, it justified terrorism. 

The fallout was that Shias and Ahmadiyyas were not considered Muslim anymore. Their persecution and killings began together with other non-Muslims, which continue to date. 

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi in August 2015, won three seats in the Sindh Assembly in 2018 after being allowed to contest elections despite being a banned outfit. Beginning as an Islamist social-political movement, the TLP has become a far-right Islamic extremist party vehemently opposed to any change in the blasphemy law of Pakistan and demanding Sharia rule in the country. 

Confrontation with TLP

On November 23, 2018, the police arrested Rizvi and some 50 TLP members in response to his call for a public rally in Rawalpindi. Rizvi and TLP leaders Pir Afzal Qadri, Inayat Haq Shah and Farooqul Hassan were booked on charges of sedition and terrorism. The arrests resulted in widespread protests. 

On April 12, 2021, Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s son Saad Hussain Rizvi was arrested in response to a TLP planned rally for demanding the deportation of the French ambassador from Pakistan due to cartoons of the Prophet in France. Protests followed and France asked its citizens to temporarily leave Pakistan. Following clashes with the police resulting in the death of two policemen and injuries to 340 persons, TLP was again banned on April 15 under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997. 

October 2021 witnessed a fresh round of protests by the TLP and clashes with the police demanding the release of TLP Emir Saad Hussain Rizvi. TLP challenged a notification by the Federal Review Board on October 2 extending his custody of Saad Hussain Rizvi by one month. On October 9, the Lahore High Court declared Rizvi’s detention null and void and ordered his immediate release. 

With the release not happening, the TLP decided to hold a sit-in protest on Multan Road in Lahore on October 20. The Pakistan government decided to resume talks, with Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad and Religious Affairs Minister Noor-ul-Haq Qadri sent to Lahore to pacify the demonstrators. 

However, with TLP activists marching from Lahore to Islamabad, Saad Rizvi and senior leaders of TLP in custody were brought to Islamabad and met by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Mohammad Khan and other senior ministers. 

The Barelvi clerics led by Religious Affairs Minister Noor-ul-Haq Qadri also met Prime Minister Imran Khan. Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, nominated head of All Pakistan Ulema Council, and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry were not present in this meeting since the TLP objected to their presence. 

Prisoner release and fallout

On November 2, some 860 TLP workers were released from prison after an agreement between the government and the TLP. According to the Punjab government, these individuals had no first information reports (FIRs) against them.  It said detainees who have FIRs against them will have to obtain bail from the courts. 

Details of the deal between the government and the TLP have not been made public. But the above developments at best are a temporary lull. One possibility could be that the government would gradually release the balance detainees after the charade of issuing bail orders are orchestrated. If the government does not do so, more protests and violence could be expected. 

Having adopted hardcore Islam over the years, and using it to enact terrorism as a state policy, the Imran Khan government can hardly afford all-out confrontation with the TLP. Significantly, in the 2018 general election, the TLP had secured over 2.2 million votes. The TLP was banned in 2018 but was permitted to contest elections. The same is the status today and the TLP will contest general election in 2023. 

The TLP contesting elections should not be the only dilemma the Pakistan government should be focused on. Till now the group has demanded Sharia rule in Pakistan through a legal and political process, which is different from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - commonly known as Pakistani Taliban - wanting immediate imposition of Sharia and for which it is viciously targeting the establishment. 

Now the TLP has tasted blood in clashes with the police. Should the TLP surmise that the Pakistani establishment has no intention of bringing in Sharia through the legal and political process, it may seek a formal alliance with the TTP. A TLP-TTP alliance, in addition to the ISIS-K and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), could give the Imran Khan government a run for its life.  

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal.)