Pakistan Reader# 240, 27 October 2021
In April 2021, had proscribed the TLP for engaging in terrorism, acting in a prejudicial manner to the peace and security of Pakistan. Why would it then accept most of its demands in October 2021?D. Suba Chandran
A few days earlier in this column, Abigail Miriam Fernandez wrote on the return of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik-Pakistan (TLP), with another round of protests. Last Friday (22 October 2021), the protests became deadly, when the TLP activists clashed with the police; three police men were killed in the clash. The TLP claimed several of its members were also killed during that clash. Following the event, the Chief Minister of Punjab, according to Dawn claimed to ensure rule of law at all costs, and no one would be allowed to take law into their hands. Dawn also reported the Chief Minister forming a committee to negotiate with the TLP.
The Proscription in April 2021
In April 2021, the government of Pakistan proscribed the TLP. According to the notification published in Dawn, the federal government “has reasonable grounds to believe that Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan is engaged in terrorism, acted in a manner prejudicial to the peace and security of the country, involved in creating anarchy in the country by intimidating the public, caused grievous bodily harm, hurt and death to the personnel of Law Enforcement Agencies and innocent by-standers, attacked civilians and officials, created wide-scale hurdles, threatened, abused and promoted hatred, vandalised and ransacked public and government properties including vehicles and caused arson, blocked essential health supplies to hospitals, and has used, threatened, coerced, intimidated, and overawed the government [and] the public and created sense of fear and insecurity in the society and the public at large...Therefore, in exercise of the powers conferred by Section 11B(1) of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, the Federal Government is pleased to list Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan in the First Schedule to the said Act as a proscribed organisation for the purposes of the said Act.”
Return of the TLP: The primary question
When the TLP hits the streets in mid-October, it was a proscribed organization. The State should have treated the leaders and the activists, who went into protests on the streets and engaged in clashes with the police, leading to the killing of three officers. Instead, the State decided to engage with the TLP in a dialogue, and worse agree to all demands.
Why would the State, after proscribing the TLP as a terror group want to engage with it in negotiations? Why would it want to accede to them?
On 25 October, all the brave statements of the government against the TLP vanished. It yielded to their demands. On 25 October, Dawn wrote the following: “In what appears to be another total surrender before the violent protesters marching towards the capital via G.T. Road, the federal government on Sunday released more than 350 activists of the banned Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), besides announcing that the cases against others would be withdrawn by Wednesday (Oct 27).”
Four reasons, why the PTI caved in to the TLP demands
On 26 October, the interior minister of Pakistan in a press conference stated that the government has no reservations over in accepting the TLP demands, except one. According to initial reports published by Dawn and The News, the government could not accept the TLP’s demand to expel the Ambassador of France to Pakistan, or shut the French embassy in the country. The above statement was made after a high profile meeting between the political and the military leaders at the highest level including the Prime Minister, and the chiefs of military and the ISI. The fact that a decision has to be made to deal with demands of a proscribed group underlines, how big the TLP has grown in the recent years. The political growth of the TLP is the first reason for the State to yield to the former’s demands.
Second, this is not the first time that this government is yielding to the TLP. It did earlier, before proscribing the TLP in April 2021. In November 2020, the TLP started the latest round of protests, in which France became the primary focus point. Earlier, following the beheading of a school teacher (Samuel Paty) in France, President Macron made a statement that was criticised across the Muslim World. In Pakistan, the foreign office made a statement protesting against the statement. According to Dawn, it read: “deep concerns over the recent systematic resurgence of blasphemous acts of republication of caricatures of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and desecration of the Holy Quran by certain irresponsible elements.” The TLP took one step ahead; it wanted Pakistan to suspend all ties with France, and expel the French Ambassador from the country.
In early November 2020, the TLP started protesting, demanding the above. It started in Karachi; later, the TLP wanted to moved from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, and block the twin cities. During mid-November, the government strengthened its security forces to prevent the TLP protesting and blocking the twin cities. On 15 November, there was an initial clash; following day, the PTI government announced accepting all demands from the TLP. It asked for three-months time, so that the Parliament could take a decision. According to Dawn, the government agreed to the following: “expulsion of the French ambassador within three months; not appoint its ambassador to France; release all the arrested workers of the TLP; and not register any case against the TLP leaders or workers even after it calls off the sit-in.”
For the TLP, its founder leader Khadim Rizvi died later in November 2021. His son – Hafiz Saad Rizvi became the TLP’s new leader. Under its new leader, the TLP came back to the protest mode in February 2021, asking the PTI government to honour its commitment of November 2020 – to expel the French Ambassador, and cut-off ties with France. Dawn quoted the new leader’s warning to the government in early February: “If you have forgotten the promise, see our history…You’ve got time until Feb 17 to expel the French ambassador.” When the TLP announced protests in February 2021, the government caved in again. A new agreement was signed between the government and the TLP.
Following the threat of protests announced by the TLP, the government entered into negotiations again, and reached a compromise. According to the agreement, quoted by Dawn: “Negotiations have been going on between the Government of Pakistan and TLP on this problem for a month during which the government has reaffirmed its resolve. Terms of the [previous] agreement will be presented in parliament by April 20, 2021, and decisions will be taken with the approval of the parliament.” Subsequently, the PTI government did make an announcement proscribing the TLP in April 2021, but caved in, when the latter took the streets last month.
Third, it is not only the PTI government, even the earlier government led by the PML-N caved in to the TLP’s protests. It all started in October 2017, when the TLP raised its political pitch using a religious slogan, and found an effective strategy in blocking the main arteries/intersections between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. In October 2017, the TLP blocked the busy Faizabad intersection linking the twin cities, thereby paralysing the PML-N government. The TLP used a minor change in the language of a new bill that the PML-N government introduced earlier, as a reason to come to the streets. The issue was important; but the strategy was – blocking the busy intersection with thousands of protesters, forcing the government to inaction. Instead of clearing the protestors, the PML-N government dragged its feet, giving the first success to the TLP.
Fourth, role of the Establishment. The PML-N gave the space then; the PTI government continues that now. Addressing a political protest is the job of the government; involving the military and the ISI leadership highlights the weakness of the decision-making process. In the process, it also gave a legitimacy to the TLP, by bringing the powerbrokers of Islamabad in.
The PTI government made a bold decision in April 2021, by proscribing the TLP. It should have continued, what it started, instead of caving in. This will come back and haunt the PTI. And the future governments as well.