File image of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan | Photographer: Cate Dingley | Bloomberg
File image of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan | Photographer: Cate Dingley | Bloomberg
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New Delhi: As Pakistanis continue to ride on the high of defeating India in the T20 World Cup’s opening match, the Imran Khan-led government Sunday released hundreds of activists of an outlawed far-Right political party, which has a history of holding policemen hostage.

On Sunday, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad announced that the government released 350 workers of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), founded by late firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi and currently led by his son, Saad Rizvi. According to the minister, this was done “as per the decision with TLP”.

Meanwhile, protests demanding the release of the group’s chief — who has been in police custody since April after leading an agitation calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan over comments by French President Emmanuel Macron last October that were interpreted by many as Islamophobic — rage on. At least two policemen died while trying to handle the ongoing agitation, and in keeping with previous TLP demonstrations, some officers were held hostage until rescued later on.

The government’s latest move has attracted a ton of criticism from within the country, with many news outlets, political analysts and social media users calling it a “surrender” to the TLP,  an outfit that has railed against blasphemy and employed it as its main talking point.

Former diplomat Zafar Hilaly suggested it is now likely for the government to “surrender to the US demand for overflights to bomb Afghanistan at will (sic)”.

Journalist, filmmaker and magazine editor at Dawn, Hasan Zaidi, remarked, “Bizarre that the government is negotiating and accepting the demands of “India-sponsored and India-directed organisations.” Or was that all the usual bullcrap that government ministers put out?” (sic).

Zaidi’s remark reminds of how some analysts were sceptical of the government’s decision to ban TLP under the Anti-Terrorism Act in April. Back then, there were suggestions that the ban was imposed for the sake of optics, especially for a country eager to get off the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list. Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistan ambassador and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, had gone so far as to say the ban would be an “additional talking point” for Pakistani diplomats.

‘Even cricket can’t save us’

Pakistani author and columnist Mehr Husain agreed with Zaidi, saying it was a sign of “reality” while other social media users lamented that ‘even cricket can’t save them’ from this.

Others compared the release of TLP workers to the plight of parliamentarian Ali Wazir, arrested in December 2020 along with senior Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) leaders for allegedly inciting the public against the state.

“Demands of TLP accepted two days after they killed policemen in Lahore. However, member parliament Ali Wazir remains incarcerated for giving a speech. The state continues to make a mockery of law and justice,” said Amar Ali Jan, a member of Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement, which campaigns for the enforcement of people’s fundamental rights in Pakistan.

Beyond TLP’s demands

Meanwhile, the TLP got some support from hardliner and former opposition leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, currently serving as president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a Deobandi Sunni political party in Pakistan.

In a confusing tweet, Rehman lamented the blood spilled during protests on the roads of Lahore and to see people carrying caskets from GT Road to Islamabad, while also calling for people to stand with the TLP.

Apart from ‘trending’ the hashtag #PTIterrorist_StopKillingTLP online, TLP supporters and online fan accounts appear to be enjoying the media attention. A TLP supporter account with over a thousand followers, recently shared a clip of German-owned broadcaster DW discussing the ongoing TLP-led protests with the caption: “Now the world is interested to know what TLP and its leader is all about”.

 

In the full segment, Shamil Shams of DW Asia does admit that the civilian government in Pakistan “does not hold much power over such groups”, meaning Islamist outfits like TLP. However, he goes on to explain that the issue goes beyond the TLP’s demand to release its chief Saad Rizvi or to expel the French ambassador.

“Some experts and some groups say that there is a rift between the civilian government and the military. The military wants to create more pressure on Imran Khan — Imran Khan’s government — through these groups because historically we have seen that the military has used these groups against civilian governments as it did against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif,” said Shams.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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