The reaching of an agreement between the government of Pakistan and the political-turned-militant outfit, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), may have eased tensions for the administration of Prime Minister Imran Khan but the consequences of the yet to be disclosed truce would be quite grave for the state and society.
The agreement between the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government and the TLP had been announced on November 1, however, the militant group’s negotiating team member, Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rahman, said that specific terms of the pact would be revealed at an appropriate time.
The agreement between the government and the TLP came after more than two weeks of bloody clashes between members of the group and the police which left seven police personnel killed and dozens of injured. The TLP has been protesting for the release of their captive head, Saad Rizvi, and the expulsion of the French ambassador in Pakistan. The reason for demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador in Pakistan was support by Paris to the persons involved in producing blasphemous contents in the media about Prophet Muhammad (SAW). As the government did not pay heed to both demands, the TLP started protests in mid-October and launched a grand march on federal capital, Islamabad, from Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province. It is quite ironic that both sides have not disclosed the terms of the agreement. This obviously raises eyebrows among national and international observers and the public at large.
Whatever might be the compulsion of the PTI governments in the Punjab and in Islamabad to be so benign to the TLP, the reaching of an agreement between the two sides is really disturbing. The foremost and fundamental reason is that the TLP has been behaving like a militant organisation, killing police personnel at will. This is the second time that the group has resorted to terrorism and the government has simply given up in front of the armed protesters. This has not sent any good signal to Pakistanis and the world and smacks of the softness of the state of Pakistan, particularly when it come to dealing with militants and terrorists using the great name of Islam and the Prophet (SAW). While explaining the truce, TLP negotiators’ head, Mufti Muneeb, in the presence of the government negotiations team comprising, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser and Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan, said: “I want to urge the entire nation that this is not the victory of any individual, but it is the victory of Islam, patriotism and protection of human lives.” One is aghast at the choice of the words of Mufti Muneeb. Whether killing fellow Muslims, who were deployed to protect the lives of citizens of Pakistan and ensure security and stability in the country, could be termed the victory of Islam and patriotism? Then who had put the lives of humans in danger? Obviously, the TLP; had it not resorted to violence there would have been no threat to human lives.
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP or literally the movement “we are here to serve God”) is the political wing of radical Barelvi sect group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasul Allah, which was formed a couple of years back to support Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for the latter’s alleged support to a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, an alleged blasphemer. Qadri was hanged in 2016, as he could not be rescued legally and physically by the group but it received extensive support from Barelvi Muslims for fighting his case. As a strategy to influence the public opinion and legislation and to stage countrywide protests, specifically in the shape of mass sit-ins, the TLP was formed. It rose to prominence when in late 2017, it held a weeks-long sit-in in Islamabad to prevent a change by the then Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in the oath of public representative eliminating words in the oath, which requires a public representative to have firm faith in the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (SAW). The protest by the TLP had crippled Islamabad for weeks and the PML-N government was forced to concede the change in oath as a mistake for which the then Law Minister, Zahid Hamid, as demanded by the TLP, had to resign.
It seems that the PTI government has failed to deal sternly and firmly with the TLP as promised by PM Imran Khan last year while making an extremely bold address to the nation on October 31, 2020, after violent protests and threats by the group after the acquittal of Asia Bibi by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Later, PM Imran Khan had revealed, without further explaining, that had his government taken a strong action against the TLP protestors his government could have ended. Obviously, such a doomsday scenario must have been presented to him. But this is a really dangerous situation for his government but PM Imran Khan’s inaction against TLP militants and activists would further strengthen the base of the group and make it a more potentially destabilizing factor for the country.
The rise of the TLP and its adoption of violent and radical modus operandi is not a big security threat at the moment but if the group continues to exist and the state remains soft on it, it could become a big threat to the internal stability of Pakistan. There are several reasons due to which the group could pose a huge threat to the stability of the Pakistan government and society. Barelvis, who represent the Indian-Pakistani version of Sufi (traditionally non-violent) Islam, constitute the largest Muslim sect of Pakistan. They are part of the Sunni sect, one of the two main sects of Muslims across the world. Although there is no official sectarian count, different estimates reveal that Barelvis are around 60 percent of Muslims in Pakistan. Thus, they outnumber Deobandis, another large denomination of the Sunni sect in Pakistan. The TLP represents the majority of staunch Barelvis and this is evident from it getting around 2.2 million votes in the July 25, 2018 national elections. Obviously, many common Barelvis voted for the mainstream parties but getting four percent of the popular vote shows that the TLP is the choicest organisation of practicing and staunch Barelvi Muslims of Pakistan. An increasing number of Barelvis in Pakistan would join the TLP ranks because the group has been taking firm stance on the issue of Namoos-e-Risalat (Respect of Prophet Muhammad (SAW)), which is the core and dominating belief of adherents of the sect. This trend would continue both in the case of the state and the government adopting a policy of appeasement towards the TLP or a crackdown on its rank and file. If the state goes on appeasing the TLP, more Barelvis would be convinced of the stance of the group and it would increase its membership and really entrench it. On the other hand, if the government sternly deals with the TLP, it would get more and more sympathisers as the perception would strengthen that the group is getting a “bad” treatment from the government, by taking cues from the West, on which it is economically dependent.