The Imran Khan government, like its predecessors, has arrived at an agreement with the Barelvi religious-political group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which was marching towards Islamabad for release of their leader and ouster of France’s ambassador from Pakistan. Besides talks with the government, it was the timely intervention by Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa that saved the day.
Proving the members of Imran Khan Cabinet including National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf wrong, who had claimed that the government would not tolerate breaking of law by the TLP miscreants, the general got top businessmen and religious leaders to help draw yet another secret agreement. The government has refused to disclose the details of the arrangement, but it is clear that a politically expensive agreement has been inked as a result of which the TLP will get more than a pound of flesh for calling off its march.
The first agreement that the TLP signed with the previous government of Nawaz Sharif in late 2017 was to call off a protect against minor changes in electoral laws that would have accommodated the Ahmadiyya community, which majority Muslims in Pakistan and around the world do not consider as Muslims. Pakistan even passed a constitutional amendment in 1974 declaring them as non-Muslims.
Since then, individuals from Ahmadiyya community are systematically victimised. The 2017 agreement was reportedly facilitated by the outgoing Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt. General Faiz Hameed in which another general, head of Rangers Punjab, was caught on camera distributing money to TLP protesters. After that arrangement, there was no looking back for the Barelvi group, which also became popular because of its leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi who is known for letting out invectives.
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Who is TLP?
On the surface, the TLP is like any other religious group in Pakistan, which was either made or assisted by the Army. One is reminded of other groups like the Deobandi Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) or the Ahl-e-Hadith Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) – all had support of the military in surviving in return for furthering their ideological support base in the society.
But the TLP is different from these groups as it was never engaged in violence outside Pakistan. Barring a small unit from South Punjab, Barelvi religious groups have largely stayed away from the State’s wars abroad.
The TLP’s agenda is very political and reactive and its creation very much a result of the politics within Pakistan. The TLP formally became a party in 2016 consolidating around the death-by-hanging in the same year of Mumtaz Qadri, the security guard who shot dead Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011 for supporting a Christian woman, Asiya bibi, who was accused of blasphemy.
The TLP began to find its feet after the 2017 sit-in and run-in with the police in which the ISI not just helped, but also assisted TLP goons in beating up police officers in Islamabad. I personally met officers from the Bara Kahu (suburban Islamabad) police station who spoke of being attacked with wooden sticks laden with nails. The police officers knew their attackers. It was a sad case of State institutions harming other State institutions to maximise power. Since the first sit-in and encounter, the TLP has threatened mass protest at least thrice and each time around the two issues of the finality of Prophet (khatme Nabuwat) and blasphemy that are also the party’s main selling points.
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A dangerous agreement
The establishment has brought the dangerous jinni out of the bottle. The agreement will have an impact at four levels.
First, ideologically, the agenda laid out by the TLP is what will guide all other stakeholders. No other party is likely to cross the threshold on blasphemy or Khatme Nabuwat. Since the party entered the sociopolitical arena, even its ideological rivals like Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith had to support the rhetoric on these issues wholeheartedly. In this respect, it will now paint the colour of Pakistan’s religious-nationalism deeper than before.
Second, the Barelvi party has overtaken powers of pirs to set the ideological and political agenda. The politics of Punjab and Sindh is dominated by pirs or a combination of interests between agriculturists or landowning pirs. The shrines dominated politics for a long time, which also means control of the social discourse that created some space for minority groups. Though this began to change much earlier, the entry of the TLP in politics has raised the bar for the pirs. The rising number of small towns throughout these two provinces, the growing urbanisation combined with the advent of technology, social media, and some literacy (not to be confused with education) has changed the political taste of the constituent. The pirs contesting elections or having some role in politics will now be judged much more on the position they take on blasphemy and Khatme Nabuwat. The pirs have a challenge but the TLP brings them power as well. The State’s support to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith militancy had muddied the waters for even the pirs. The Barelvi political-militancy put them back in center stage not just religiously but also more central to politics of the state. It were more than a dozen pirs of important shrines around the country that met the prime minister to help avoid a conflict between the TLP and the government.
Third, the TLP’s relevance for the establishment is adjusting the domestic political balance, especially in pushing back the conservative Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PMLN). Notwithstanding Imran Khan’s growing unpopularity, the generals remain sceptical of allowing Nawaz Sharif back into corridors of power or entry of his daughter Maryam. While there are many theories floating around regarding the real reason for the latest TLP protest and it certainly denotes tension within the establishment, one cannot ignore that the prime reason for the march to Islamabad was to erode Sharif’s support base or divert the neutral voter. Though the TLP did not manage a single seat from Punjab in the 2018 elections, the fact that it now has a solid ideological vote bank in every constituency, which like the Deobandi vote bank will be used to negotiate at the local and national level with major parties, cannot be ignored.
Finally, the Barelvi jinni is far more dangerous than its Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith counterparts because of the ideological following across the spectrum, which includes the armed forces. Even though the military remains professionally controlled and strictly hierarchical, the jawan’s ideological sensibility is equally affected by the TLP rhetoric. An Army chief can continue to function but will feel seriously restrained in case of a battle within the institution in which ideology is used against him. General Bajwa had to reach out to Barelvi ulema, which, besides being a signal to his own men of his ability to solve political problems, was also a proclamation that religious nationalism of the State won’t be abandoned. Bajwa, in any case, has organised more private religious gatherings throughout his career as the service chief to command support of his men. Although the TLP didn’t win a seat in Punjab during the last elections, it is also a battle for controlling Punjab where the bulk of the military comes from. One is reminded of the early 2000s when the then army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani would not dare conduct a military operation against militants in tyhe tribal areas due to its impact on peace and stability in Punjab.
There is no doubt that the TLP will ultimately be managed. It will get challenged from within the religious opposition. The unhappiness of Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, the Deobandi head of the Ulema Council, with the agreement indicates an ideological competition and discomfort. In case of a major threat, the establishment could use the divide-and-rule formula. Also, once the Army and ISI reach their tolerance threshold or the party runs out of efficacy for the establishment the latter will use the method it uses typically to bring down power of a group: create and insert a rival group and encourage internal conflict to bring down overall power. it will be pushed through possible insertion of some rival group. But strategically, this means that the new TLP rival will be even more vicious and drastic in their agenda. In today’s Pakistan, the mullah is a serious stakeholder ready to cut a deal with the establishment for short-term gains but long-term socio-political impact.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)