Pakistan Reader# 238, 25 October 2021
Abigail Miriam Fernandez
On 20 October, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) resumed their sit-in on Multan Road near its headquarters at Masjid Rehmatul-lil-Aalemeen, calling for the release of its chief Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi and the expulsion of the French ambassador. On 21 October, three policemen were killed and several others injured in clashes with workers of the TLP in Lahore. Conversely, the TLP workers said that they had endured the "worst shelling in history" and were "attacked from all sides" claiming that at least 500 workers had been seriously wounded while several had died.
The TLP’s leadership council in a statement said, "The government has gone back on its word thrice. This time we will sit and wait," adding, "No one will go home until the entire TLP leadership, including chief Saad Hussain Rizvi, comes to the container and makes an announcement." Further, the statement read, "Even if a member of the council says go home without Saad Rizvi, you may shoot that leader too." The statement also quoted Mufti Wazir Rizvi saying, "If our demands are not met by Tuesday evening, we will leave for Islamabad from here."
Later on, 24 October, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid after holding negotiations with the group’s leadership said that the government’s dialogue was "successful." He said that the TLP workers would continue their sit-in till Monday or Tuesday "but will not head towards Islamabad, adding, "We will resolve their issues in a day or two. Further, he said, "Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri and I have signed agreements with the TLP. We will take the issue of the French ambassador's expulsion to the National Assembly and ask the speaker to form a committee," adding, "Several points have been decided over the arrests and other demands of the group, which will be finalized by Tuesday." Additionally, he revealed that the government will withdraw cases registered against the activists of TLP till 28 October.
TLP’s expanding demands
The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is a far-right Islamic political party in Pakistan founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi in August 2015 and its core ideology revolves around the "finality of Prophet Muhammad" and the protection of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. The party rose to prominence after emerging as the fifth largest party in the 2018 Pakistani general election. In November 2020, the TLP began protesting against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s decision to republish cartoons featuring Prophet Muhammad. Following this, the TLP put forth four demands: the expulsion of the French ambassador over President Emmanuel Macron’s backing of Prophet Muhammad caricatures last year; the release of party chief Saad Rizvi; removal of the ban on the party; and the release of party workers arrested as well as FIRs against them to be dropped.
Similarly, during the Nawaz Sharif government, the group demanded that the government identify and punish those persons responsible for the change of wording in the declaration of the prophethood of Muhammad in the election laws and the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid over accusations of removing the clause, among others. The list of demands was ultimately agreed on by the government.
Timing of the current protests
The protests staged by the TLP comes at a time when the country is witnessing several domestic and external challenges. On the domestic front, the country is witnessing several anti-government protests as a result of issues such as inflation. Conversely, the TLP’s protests come at a time when Pakistan’ case for renewal of its GSP Plus status is up for discussion as well as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) decision to keep Pakistan on the grey list.
State’s hesitant response
The TLP has succeeded in doing what it had done on the previous occasion which is shutting down the large cities. The incumbent PTI is again unable to deal with the group, highlighting that its measure to address the issue have not been successful. On 14 April, the Interior Minister announced that the government has decided to ban the TLP under Rule 11(b) of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997. Later on,
On 20 April, the National Assembly called to vote on the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan as the PTI lawmaker presented a resolution, but before a vote could take place, the speaker announced the formation of a special committee to discuss the matter and asked the government and the opposition to develop a consensus on the issue. However, no meeting of this special committee has been held since April.
The recurrence of the TLP’s protests highlights the fact that the state’s measures thus far have not been able to address the issue. But why has the state responded that way in which it has
First, being diplomatically secular. While in many instances the beliefs of the government and the TLP are similar, the former has decided to remain politically right. The same was stated by Prime Minister Imran Khan who said that both the TLP and government had the same goal to end incidents of blasphemy around the world, however, it was their methodologies that differed. Thus, in a way influencing its decision of not siding completely with the group.
Second, keeping other right-winged groups at bay. The state seems to be treading the waters cautiously to not seem weak in the eyes of other right-winged groups. The government thus wants to be in control or be seen as in control.
Third, the TLP as a rival. The TLP has become a force to be reckoned with in Pakistani politics. Given that as a political party the group has made substantial inroads into Pakistani politics, posing as a challenge to other political parties both at a provincial and federal level.
The state once again finds itself in a fix because of the TLP. Although Pakistan may want to be seen as a champion of Islam or a crusader against Islamophobia, achieving it through the TLP’s demands may not be what the state wants. However, at the same time, banning the TLP is not going to resolve the issue either.
Munawer Azeem, Kalbe Ali, Mohammad Asghar, “Paramilitary troops arrive to counter TLP’s expected march on Islamabad,” Dawn, 23 October 2021
“Lahore police on high alert as TLP stages sit-in for its chief’s release,” Dawn, 21 October 2021
Imran Gabol, “3 policemen martyred, several injured in clash with TLP protesters in Lahore,” Dawn, 23 October 2021
“TLP Protests,” Pakistan Today, 22 October 2021
“TLP protest: Sheikh Rashid chairs meeting in Lahore,” Business Recorder, 23 October 2021
“This time, won't go home till demands met: TLP leaders,” Dawn, 24 October 2021
“Talks with banned TLP end in success, says Rasheed,” Aaj Tv, 24 October 2021
“Government has decided to ban TLP under anti-terror law, says interior minister,” Dawn, 15 April 2021
“Govt presents resolution for debate on expelling French envoy in NA,” Dawn, 21 April 2021
“TLP and govt have the same objective but our methods are different: PM Imran,” Dawn, 20 April 2021