Pakistan Reader# 175, 18 May 2021
Despite the TLP protests in the present and the past triggering deep troubles to the common citizens of Pakistan, there is a dramatic increase in the popularity and support base of the party. Several reasons have contributed to this surge.
On 12 April 2021, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan launched widespread protests in major cities of Pakistan to reveal their anger against the Government for detaining their leader Saad Hussain Rizvi. The detention of Rizvi was a defensive measure taken by the Khan government as the former had threatened to take extreme actions if demands of TLP are not met by the Government. TLP had signed an agreement with the Government on 11 February in which the last date for presenting the demands in Parliament, which was mentioned in the November 2020 agreement but were not implemented, was extended till 20 April 2021. As per the November 2020 agreement, the Government had vowed to come to a conclusion regarding the expulsion of the French ambassador and appointment of its ambassador to France by presenting the same in the parliament. The demands had come in response to the French President’s rebuttal to condemn the protesters who had displayed caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. (“Banned: What does the TLP want,” Dawn, 20 April 2021)
The only thing predominant in the recent as well as earlier protests staged by TLP is violence. Although TLP has been used as a tool by the previous governments, opposition parties and the establishment for their own political gains at some point in time, it has at present become a headache for the present Khan government and the Establishment. But it has wreaked more misery to the innocent common people of Pakistan primarily due to three reasons. First, the blocking of roads by the protesters. An unvarying trend is observed in TLP protests where tens of thousands of people come on streets and place their heavy vehicles in order to halt the vehicular movement in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. (Israr Ahmed, “TLP continues protest, block roads in twin cities with no police action,” The Nation, 14 April 2021) Second, the loss of lives during the protests. In the recent protests, at least three people were killed and more than 40 people were injured when the protesters had clashed with police personals. The protesters had also kidnapped around 11 policemen who were only released after TLP negotiated with the Minister for Interior Sheikh Rashid (“Three killed, 40 injured as TLP protest continues across Pakistan” ANI, 13 April, 2021) Third, damage to public and private property. In the 2018 protests, according to the Minister of State for Communications Murad Saeed, TLP activists had caused damage to the property along National highways on which billions have to be spent for repair works. In the recent protests also, TLP workers were seen burning public property. (Asif Shahzad, “Pakistan opens talks with outlawed Islamists behind violent Anti-France protests,” Reuters, 20 April 2021)
TLP’s indulgence in violence has had very little or no impact on its popularity. Following are the five main factors that have aided in intensifying the party’s popularity among the masses:
First, the success achieved in the previous protests: TLP has a history of compelling the Governments in fulfilling their demands through blocking of roads and thus cutting off the federal capital from rest of the country. TLP in 2017 had obligated the Noon League government to dismiss their law minister Zahid Hamid whom they accused of consciously altering the wordings of the oath taken by public representatives. (Roohan Ahmed, “The TLP’s rise to power explained,” Samaa, 16 November 2020) Similarly, it was also able to coerce the Khan Government to make a deal with it on handling the issue of expelling French ambassador. The success which the TLP was able to achieve in the past makes it more likeable among the masses which is why we are seeing a surge in its popularity.
Second, the sensitivity of Khatme Nabuwwat Issue: The issue of Finality of Prophet Muhammad has the capacity of bringing the entire Muslim community irrespective of their sectarian and ethnic differences on the same page. The issue is so sensitive that PM Imran Khan criticized the actions of TLP half-heartedly in his address to the nation so as not to upset his voters. The trend of giving undue importance to religious issues by previous governments in Pakistan has immensely benefitted the Religious parties which are able to make political inroads and TLP is the latest party to encash the same. Also, Religious issues have gained more prominence, especially in the present times as the West is plagued with the feeling of Islamophobia.
Third, Poverty and Price Hike: The issue of inflation in the economy and the escalation in the prices of daily items has haunted the common citizens of Pakistan ever since PTI came to power. In a situation like this where there is so much hatred against the ruling government, any party or pressure group opposing the government would receive support. The fact that TLP opposes the Khan Government primarily on religious issues facilitates it to garner support even from those who are dissatisfied with his economic policies.
Fourth, charismatic leadership of TLP: Khadim Rizvi, who restructured the religious movement Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah into a political party TLP was known for his excellent oratory skills that had the capacity to ignite passion among the common people. This had undeniably helped TLP to garner more followers, thus creating a larger follower base. (Fraz Ahmed Khan, “Firebrand cleric Khadim Rizvi dies,” Dawn, 20 November 2020). Saad Hussain Rizvi who is the present chief of TLP is known to posses a similar set of skills like his father Khadim Rizvi and is projected to take the party to new heights.
Fifth, subscription to Barelvi ideology: TLP subscribes to the Barelvi sect of Islam which is the largest Muslim sub-sect in the country. PML-N which also enjoys popularity among Barelvi voters, started losing its popularity after the 2017 Election Act incident which left the latter with TLP as their next best choice. Also, the religious politics in Pakistan which is mostly dominated by Deobandis, TLP rose as a political force, which the Barelvi population can deem as their very own party. (Hussain H Zaidi, “The rise of the TLP”, The News,” 5 December 2020)
TLP at the present is just not a pressure group but a full-fledged political party that actively takes part in the election process. The success of TLP in the 2018 elections in Punjab and in the NA-249 By-elections proves the fact that TLP does enjoy popular support and it is here to stay. It has political ambitions of coming to power and should not be viewed as a party with religious motives only. PTI till now had not viewed TLP as a serious political player and tried to unswervingly postpone their demands. Nevertheless, banning TLP under Anti-terrorism law proves the fact that PTI now comprehends the fact that it is necessary to give a setback so that TLP does not take the state for granted. (“Government bans TLP under anti-terrorism law,” Dawn, 15 April 2021) It remains to be seen how the Khan government which once had supported TLP’s violent protest deals with it in its remaining years of power.
About the author
Abhiruchi Chowdhury is enrolled with the NIAS certificate course on Contemporary Pakistan. He is also pursuing Masters in South Asian Studies from Pondicherry University. He is interested in exploring the Geo-politics and contemporary political happenings in West Asia.