D. Suba Chandran
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore
It all started during the first week of November. A group of supporters belonging to the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) occupied the Faizabad interchange – a strategic location linking Islamabad with Rawalpindi. In the next two weeks, thanks to the government’s inaction and TLY’s adventurous, but carefully calculated strategy, this has become a national crisis today. The government finally on 25th November, almost 20 days after the occupation, decided to employ force to disperse the group.
Unfortunately, the government had to withdraw the police the same day, as the operation failed. On 25 November, the government has called out the Army to support the civilian administration to clear the protesters.
1. Who are the Protesters? And who is Khadim Rizvi?
The protesters primarily belong to the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), and few other Sunni groups. The TLY became popular during the last two years, with their support for the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan. They catapulted into the political scene with their support for Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer, the then Governor of Punjab. The TLY used the Qadri trial and his subsequent hanging as a political slogan.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi is a Barelvi cleric, spearheading the TLY. Known for his fiery sermons, Rizvi has been exploiting Qadri’s hanging and calling for strict adherence to the blasphemy law, which Salman Taseer and many moderates within Pakistan oppose.
2. What do the Protesters want? Is there a broader Endgame for the Islamabad Protests?
The protester's immediate demand was already met. The TLY’s initial demand was to restore the original clause and sentence of the Khatm-i-Naboowat declaration in the Election Act 2017.
In October 2017, the Election Bill passed by the National Assembly made a minor change on a paragraph relating to one’s belief on the finality of the prophethood. The Bill replaced the phrase “I solemnly swear” with “I believe.” Subsequently, the government called it as a “clerical error” and has restored the original phrase.
However, this was not sufficient for the protesters. Though they started their protest demanding the restoration of the original clause in the oath, now it is expanded to the sacking of the minister of law.
The above demands, their occupation of Faizabad and the ongoing protests, perhaps has a more substantial Endgame, aimed at the forthcoming elections in 2018. The TLY has already lunged into politics; its supporters contested two recent National Assembly elections in Lahore and Peshawar. Though they had lost both the elections, their performance has been the talk of the nation during the last months. In Lahore, the Labaik candidates have polled more than that of the PPP’s, and in Peshawar more than that of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s.
It is evident, that the TLY is using the protest as a political strategy to garner larger support in Punjab, and other provinces as well. The primary challenge in Punjab for the TLY is the PML-N, which is already having a crisis of its own, thanks to the Panama Papers and the judicial verdict disqualifying Nawaz Sharif.
The TLY perhaps want to project the PML-N government as impotent and garner the Barelvi votes.
3. Why did the protesters choose the Faizabad Interchange? Why not Lahore or Karachi?
Faizabad interchange connects the twin cities Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Also the national capital and the largest province of Pakistan. The Murree Road and the Islamabad Expressway runs through the Faizabad interchange.
These are not just two arteries; almost the lifeline for the twin cities. Government officials, students, teachers, health workers, businesspeople and labourers use the exchange to move across.
Blocking the capital also means publicity and access to national and international media based in twin cities. All leading national and international media houses in Pakistan are concentrated here, than the other two metropolis of the country.
The fact that the PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) has blocked news feeds relating to the police operation on 25 November would underline the strategic location of Faizabad.
4. Why did the government delay action against the protestors?
It’s politics stupid. And the elections next year.
The PML-N led provincial government (in Punjab), and the national government (in Islamabad) did not want to take any action against the protestors from the beginning. Even the action on Saturday - was forced the judiciary it on the government. Had it not been for the judicial pressure, the government would have allowed the protestors to continue, and in the process let the ordinary men suffer.
The government’s strategy was aimed at avoiding any physical clashes and casualty, which the protestors wanted. The latter since day one has been wanting to provoke the State to retaliate. Facing elections next year, the PML-N perhaps wanted to play safe and do not provide any political edge to the opponents. Also, perhaps, the PML-N did not want to take a police action, that would upset its vote bank; it is widely believed, that the “soft right wing” in Punjab votes for the PML-N.
Perhaps, the government expected that the public frustration would turn against the protestors, instead of any proactive strategy leading to bloodshed and violence.
Second, during the recent years, this has become a recurring trend – protestors occupying central locations for a longer period, and the government tiring them out. Imran Khan led tented protests using containers in the heart of Islamabad. Earlier, Tahirul Qadri promised a revolution during Zardari’s regime, using same tactics. PPP government then, and the PML-N government later tried the same technique – sit tight, do nothing and tire the protestors. Perhaps, the present government wanted to follow the same strategy.
Third, “dialogue” and “negotiation” have become the new mantra in Pakistan in dealing with extremists and the militants. For long, the political establishment, cutting across all the parties wanted to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban. From Imran Khan (earning him the nickname Taliban Khan) to Nawaz Sharif – across the board, every political party would have wanted to negotiate with the militants. Had it not been for the shocking attack on an Army Public School in Peshawar during December 2014 killing close to 150, mostly children, the political parties would have still preferred to negotiate with the militants.
Even in the present context, everyone in the government wanted to negotiate with Khadim Rizvi. Multiple deadlines were given to the protestors.
5. Why did the police operations fail on 25 November 2017?
Finally, the government deployed an 8500 strong elite police force along with para-military to disperse the protesters on 25 November 2017. The force used tear gas against the protestors, burnt down the tents made by them, and arrested few hundreds of them. However, by evening, the police force retracted. It was surprising, that the police contingent could not disperse few thousand protestors armed with sticks and throwing stones to resist the operation.
Why did the police retract? Perhaps, they were asked to retract. Perhaps, the government does not want to pursue a military action.
It appears like a failure of the strategy, than the strength of the protestors. Perhaps, that was a deliberate plan to withdraw and request the military to step in. Any subsequent casualty would now be the responsibility of the khakis and not the political leadership. A convoluted thinking, nevertheless, it appears so.
True, there were protests in other parts of Pakistan, especially in the cities, for example Karachi. That cannot be the reason for the withdrawal of police action. Supporters of the TLY did occupy busy junctions in Karachi; but the local government and the police seem to be effective than what had happened in Faizabad. Perhaps, there was a political will.
6. Is the Establishment on the same page?
This is a tough question to answer in the current situation. The political circumstance and the Establishment’s role in “political engineering” have been the focus of numerous discussions and writings in the recent weeks. Developments in Karachi (relating to the merger and the immediate fallout between two Mohajir parties), alleged role of the Deep State against Nawaz Sharif and the debate on “PML-N minus Nawaz Sharif” do provide enough hints on a larger development behind the scene.
The spokesperson of the ISPR a few days ago did comment on fulfilling any constitutional responsibility of the military. However, news papers also have quoted the Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa “advising” the Prime Minister to handle the situation “peacefully”.
The Interior ministry has made a formal request on 25 November, “to authorize deployment of sufficient number of troops of Pakistan Army to be determined by the Commander 111 Brigade, in aid of civil power, to control law and order situation in Islamabad Capital Territory with effect from November 25 till further orders.”
One has to wait and see the military’s response in handling the situation on the ground. Now, the ball is in Establishment’s court, what “peaceful” measures would it adapt to handle the situation?
Surely, the Deep State would have its own reach into the TLY leadership. It could persuade them to withdraw in the name of national interest. The Deep State can also try to find a face-saver – pressurizing the PML-N to ask the Law Minister to resign. And use it as a leverage against the TLY, as the resignation is a bigger demand for the protestors.
Or, the Establishment could ruthlessly bring down the protestors. As Musharraf did with the Lal Masjid protestors. But for Musharraf to do so, there was pressure from Beijing.
More likely, there will be another round of negotiations, this time led by the Establishment negotiators.
Do we ever learn?
7. So, what next? Who are the Victors and Losers?
There are a few losers. The first is the PML-N. Irrespective of the final outcome, the PML-N would be seen as an impotent which was trying to postpone the inevitable. True, the civil society in Islamabad and Rawalpindi may be frustrated with the protestors; so would they be against the PML-N.
The second loser is the process of governance and the writ of the State. Whatever happens at the end, dilly-dallying by the government is likely to encourage more such protests. And look at the protest location; it is not taking place in the deserts of Balochistan or the tribal agencies of the FATA. If the State cannot protect its capital from a bunch of stone-wielding protestors, what does it talk about the political will? Zardari and Sharif have set a bad precedent.
Third, the police force, that was deployed to disperse the protestors. Every province should have an adequate special police force, with sufficient arms, training and experience to meet similar situations. Calling for the military to evict a group of protestors occupying a busy road should impinge on their morale as well. To be fair to them, had they been asked in the first few days, they could have cleared them. The political leaders should take the blame for letting the situation out of hand., and for not giving the right orders to evict at the right time.
Fourth, the biggest loser would be that moderate section fighting against the mis-use of blasphemy laws and the radical groups such as the TLY. Now, the TLY and other radical right groups would march further, bulldozing the voice of reason in Pakistan.
On the other side, whether there is a military operation next or not, the TLY is the greatest victor. Khadim Rizvi should be smiling inside; nigh, laughing at the PML-N stupidity. He could not have asked for more. Certainly, the TLY’s political fortune has increased.
Perhaps, a silent victor is the Deep State. Especially for the section that wanted to checkmate the PML-N and has been working on the political engineering. Whether they were behind the Islamabad protests or not, they should be smiling as well to see the PML-N bungling.
The language that the interior ministry’s note asking for the military deployment is almost a surrender. It leaves the number of troops to be “determined by the Commander” from 25 November “till further orders.” Does this say something?