On November 1, supporters of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) abandoned their two-week long protests and marched to the Pakistani capital Islamabad after the group signed a deal with the government, whose details were initially kept secret. The deal was facilitated by several religious scholars and leaders of the Barelvi school of Islamic thought, including Mufti Muneebur Rehman, Maulana Adil, and Bashir Qadri. As a result of the deal, the two-week-long impasse between TLP and the Pakistani government ended, and TLP supporters vacated the Grand Trunk Road in Punjab province, which leads to Islamabad (Dawn, November 1).
These events began in October when thousands of TLP supporters in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore in Punjab started marching towards Islamabad to demand the release of the group’s leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, as well as the expulsion of France’s ambassador in protest of the blasphemous cartoons published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in September of last year. At one point, the government had decided to crush the TLP for challenging the writ of the state and demanding the closure of the French embassy in Islamabad and expulsion of the ambassador. After the failures of the police to maintain law and order, the government called in the army and paramilitary forces to stop the thousands of TLP workers marching towards Islamabad. At least seven policemen and dozens of TLP activists lost their lives in the ensuing violent clashes (Dawn, October 28). The government, however, has now suddenly taken a U-turn and reached an agreement with the TLP.
The TLP is a Barelvi Islamist group and has garnered massive popular support across the country by vociferously promoting anti-blasphemy slogans since its emergence in 2015. As a result, it became harder for former Pakistani Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif and the current Pakistan PM Imran Khan to deal with the TLP’s thousands of religiously motivated activists. Statesmanship demands the government avoid using force against the TLP, which resulted in the government’s appeal to the Barelvi leaders and scholars to facilitate a deal between the group and the government.
The Pakistani Government’s Deal with the TLP
These recent clashes can be attributed to the detainment of Saad Hussain Rizvi by the present government, led by Imran Khan; this occured in April when Rizvi called for marches to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador. On April 12, thousands of TLP workers blocked major roads and highways across the country in protest over the detention of Rizvi. The TLP’s protest created a law-and-order problem and disrupted normal life and business activity in the country (Dawn, April 12). In April, Pakistani authorities declared TLP a proscribed organization under the country’s anti-terrorism laws for its alleged involvement in terrorism and its creation of an anarchic structure in the country during the violent protests following the detention of Rizvi. The country’s National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) formally labeled it a terrorist organization (The News, April 16).
A report in the Pakistan daily newspaper, Dawn, claims that Pakistani authorities under the deal to end the protests and march to Islamabad agreed to allow the TLP to continue to function as a political party. While the legal cases registered against the TLP under the Anti-Terrorism Act would still be decided by the courts, the government would not pursue charges against the TLP for other minor crimes that are not under the country’s terrorism laws (Dawn, November 1). Under the deal, the TLP also agreed to withdraw its demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan (Express Tribune, October 31).
Just one week after the signing of the deal with the TLP, the government followed through with a notification of the revocation of the group’s proscribed status (Dawn, November 7). The Punjab provincial government also removed Rizvi from the Fourth Schedule list of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. This removal unfroze Rizvi’s assets and his national identity card, and his bank accounts were unlocked. He had been added to the list on April 16 (The News, November 12).
The TLP’s Popular Stand on Blasphemy
Blasphemy is a very sensitive issue in Pakistan with its 97 percent Muslim population. Under the country’s own blasphemy laws, disrespecting the Prophet Muhammed and desecrating the Koran are capital offences punishable by death. The TLP has often raised these issues.
Saad Hussain Rizvi’s father, Khadim, was a firebrand cleric who founded the TLP in 2015 mainly to defend the country’s blasphemy laws. However, the TLP is not like the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or al-Qaeda because it has no known connections with any terrorist groups in Afghanistan and has not been involved in violent acts of terrorism against the Pakistan state (Dawn, October 31). In addition, unlike other Sunni militant or jihadist groups belonging to the Deobandi and Wahhabi schools of Islamic thought, the TLP belongs to the Barelvi school, which has not generally been involved in jihadist activities.
The TLP emerged as the first militant Barelvi politico-religious party whereas other Barelvi groups, such as Sunni Tehreek (ST) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) in Pakistan, abstain from politics (Samaa tv, April 12). The participation of tens of thousands of people in Khadim Rizvi’s funeral prayers in Lahore reflected the massive popular support he had received for his stand on blasphemy (The News, November 22, 2020). Weeks before his death on November 19, 2020, Khadim staged a sit-in for thousands of his supporters at Islamabad’s Faizabad interchange to protest the publication of blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Muhammed in France. Three days earlier, the government had signed a deal with Khadim to expel the French ambassador through a parliamentary decision within three months’ time, although it eventually delayed the decision in April 2021, and later did not expel the ambassador. Saad Hussain Rizvi succeeded his father and accepted that the French ambassador would not be expelled, despite his father’s prior refusal to compromise on this matter (Militant Leadership Monitor, June 4; Quora TV, April 12).
The question remains about whether the Pakistani government has “surrendered” to the TLP after being challenged by the group, or whether Pakistan exercised statesmanship to resolve the sensitive religious issue peacefully with the TLP. Likewise, the TLP has seemingly withdrawn its demand of expelling the French envoy for political gains after no longer being a banned group. The deal was essentially a bargain and both parties benefited.
The government could not afford to expel the French ambassador and antagonize the European Union because such a decision could negatively affect the country’s exports. On the other hand, the TLP is now preparing for its next elections to be held in 2023, and wanted the government to lift the ban imposed in April 2021 so it could participate in the elections. The government’s lifting of the ban has, therefore, placated the TLP.
The TLP will likely become a popular political party, as evidenced by its having received over two million votes in the 2018 parliamentary elections (The News, July 30, 2018). Moreover, although the TLP showed a violent face amid protests, it has never been involved in sectarian killings or claimed attacks on security forces like TTP. In Pakistan, protests of mainstream political parties often become violent with political activists torching vehicles or blocking roads and highways. The TLP deal with the government reflects the TLP’s ambition to survive and function as a political party in the national mainstream, and Pakistan’s desire to maintain the TLP as a politically active group that will not evolve into yet another Pakistani militant group.