Pakistan has been a witness to large scale religious protests that turned violent with the loss of life and property in the last two decades. The Pakistani government had to back down on multiple occasions due to the Barelvi religious political party, Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP). The paper will try to assess the manner in which the recent protests were carried out and the manner in which the government handled the protests.
Pakistan has one of the strictest ‘blasphemy laws’ among countries with a Muslim majority.[i]The blasphemy laws and the allegations of blasphemy have been used as a tool to attack the religious minority. To understand the rise of the TLP in Pakistan’s political horizon, one should recollect the case of Asia Bibi, her imprisonment in 2010 and her release in 2018 while being sent abroad on a hidden identity for her personal protection[ii]; the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 by his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri for supporting the cause of Asia Bibi[iii]; the assassination of the only Pakistan’s Christian Minister Shahbaz Bhatti[iv]who also supported the release of Asia Bibi;the conviction of Mumtaz Qadri and later, his hanging on February 29, 2016[v] and his death being glorified turning him into a martyr by a far-right Barelvi Islamic group Tehreek-i-LabbaikYa Rasool Allah Pakistan under the leadership of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who later formed TLP as a political party on August 2016.[vi]
TLP have been demonstrating their street power on various occasions, where on each occasion the federal and provincial governments have given in to the demands of TLP, after most of the processions have led to large scale violence and loss of life and property. Though TLP has been part of the electoral process provincially as well as at the federal level, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has resorted to or later banned as it is engaged in terrorism, but later softening its tone by declaring it to be a proscribed institution, a militant organisation, and presently TLP has been allowed to emerge as a political party on October 31, 2021. The PTI government has released most of the arrested TLP members, including the present chief of TLP Saad Hussain Rizvi, who were imprisoned and dropping all the charges against them.[vii]
In the last few years, the TLP have taken to the streets seven times protesting against national or international events or decisions. During such protests, TLP has blocked major highways for weeks, challenging the writ of the State, leading to violent clashes between the protestors and law enforcement officials. It has also led to loss of many lives and properties.
On November 2017, there was a sit down protest for 20 days against the language of the Election Bill of 2017.[viii] The sit-in ended with the breakout of large scale violence and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government agreeing to change the language of the bill and removing Law Minister Zahid Hamid as demanded by TLP through an army brokered agreement.[ix]After the agreement was reached,the then Punjab Rangers Director General (DG) Azhar Naveed Hayat was seen distributing cash envelopes among the protestors.[x]It was stated that the ‘emergence of the TLP was actually an effort of the Pakistani Army to mainstream militant and jihadi groups’.[xi] Pakistani political commentator Ayesha Siddiqa stated that during the protest, TLP was not only assisted by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), but also assisted TLP protestors in physically assaulting police officers in Islamabad.[xii]“The police officers knew their attackers. It was a sad case of state institutions harming other state institutions to maximise power”.[xiii]
TLP carried out three protests till date on the cartoons of the Prophet being published by a French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and against the country’s President Emmanuel Macron for his anti-Islam remarks.[xiv] On November 2020, a major protest was carried out by TLP under the leadership of Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Violent clashes ensued leading to many injuries within the ranks of TLP protestors as well as law enforcement officials. Later, the government came to an agreement with the TLP leadership agreeing that the government will take up the issue of ousting the French Ambassador in the National Assembly setting a deadline of April 20, 2021.[xv] However, no discussion or debate was initiated by the government in the National Assembly on the agreed issues with TLP.
Within this time, the French government, to reduce Islamic radicalism, extremism and terrorism in France, placed bills in the French parliament in April 2021, which later led to the closure of specific mosques within France accused of teaching radical Islam. TLP, under the leadership of Saad Hussain Rizvi, son of late Khadim Hussain Rizvi, again took a decision for holding a street protest against the French government, as the previous agreement with the Pakistani government, was not honoured.[xvi]
To maintain law and order, Lahore law enforcement officials arrested TLP chief Saad Rizvi on April 12, 2021, which led to large-scale protests and violence in all major cities in Pakistan for ten days.The protestors took many law enforcement officials as hostages, while law enforcement officials and protestors were killed, having more than 500 policemen injured during the protests.[xvii] The name of Saad Rizvi was placed on the fourth schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), his assets were frozen and TLP placed on the proscribed organisation list.[xviii]However, TLP agreed to call off the protests as the federal government tabled a resolution in parliament to debate the French Ambassador’s expulsion. The government also agreed that they will be releasing Saad Rizvi soon, and all criminal cases against the protestors will be withdrawn.[xix]
However, the government was unable to release Saad Rizvi during the agreed time period and the National Assembly was unable to take a decision on ousting the French Ambassador from Pakistan. This led to the latest TLP protests that started from October 22, 2021, initiating a long march to Islamabad. The Imran Khan government initially approved the use of force against the protestors, which was opposed by the Pakistani Army.[xx] More than 8 policemen lost their lives along with hundreds of law enforcement officials were severely injured during the protests.[xxi] A government team headed by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and National Assembly Speaker AsadQaiser made an agreement with Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, a prominent Sunni cleric representing TLP on October 31, 2021, which partially resolved the crisis.Though the agreement has not been disclosed to the public yet, TLP spokesperson spoke later that TLP will be removed from the proscribed organisation list and Saad Rizvi will be released.[xxii]Mufti Muneeb, while addressing the TLP protestors, stated that TLP will return to the streets if the government fails to implement the agreement.[xxiii]
The federal government on November 07, 2021 removed TLP from the list of proscribed organisations and removed the name of TLP chief Saad Rizvi from the fourth schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) on November 11, 2021 as agreed upon. Along with Saad Rizvi’s name, 54 other members of the TLP, who were involved in the destruction of public property and inflicting grievous injury to the police were also removed from the fourth schedule of the ATA Act.[xxiv] As per the Punjab government, the last protest alone had cost the province approximately Pakistani Rs 35-40 billion.[xxv]
The Punjab Home Department on November 12, 2021 decided to withdraw 40 cases against Saad Hussain Rizvi in the first phase. In the second phase, the government revoked cases with sentences up to five years.[xxvi] Saad Rizvi was later released on November 18, 2021, on the death anniversary of Khadim Hussain Rizvi.[xxvii] After his release, Saad Rizvi asked his followers, who have shown total support to the TLP leadership, to vote TLP in the forthcoming 2023 elections.[xxviii] On November 20, 2021, PTI Senator Ejaz Ahmed Chaudhry met Saad Rizvi as a gesture of goodwill and to congratulate him on his release of prison. There are chances that PTI would be looking forward to make TLP as a coalition partner in the forthcoming elections.[xxix]
One should note that presently, the French Ambassador to Pakistan, Ambassador Marc Baretty has been appointed as the French Ambassador to Egypt, and presently, France has not appointed any new Ambassador for Pakistan.[xxx]It should also be noted that from mid-2020, no Ambassador has been appointed in Pakistan for its embassy in France.[xxxi]Therefore, the mandate of discussing the expulsion of the French Ambassador of Pakistan does not make much sense. Additional Judge of the Islamabad High Court, Babar Sattar has observed, “Nurturing and appeasing ideologically motivated extremist groups in the hope of controlling and using them as tactical weapons has been our biggest blunder. The leaders of these groups may be controllable, but the same could not be ascertained for their followers. Thus, when the state is required to change policy, as happened post-9/11, these ideological weapons turn on the state”.[xxxii] The manner in which the civilian leadership has miserably failed to protect the writ of the State against a religious extremist mob, giving in each time to their whims, remaining mere spectators, when they plunder public and private properties, shows the lack of political will of civilian leaderships to take any actions against religious groups and factions. The government has also failed to provide any justice to those law enforcement officials who lost their lives during such protests. In the last 2018 elections, TLP was able to secure more than 2 million votes[xxxiii], and is surely turning into a major political force in the forthcoming years.
* Dr. Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views are personal
[i] The offences relating to religion were first codified by India's British rulers in 1860, and were expanded in 1927. Pakistan inherited these laws when it came into existence after the partition of India in 1947. Between 1980 and 1986, a number of clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) - a voluntary organisation - has been documenting blasphemy cases for decades. It says that Muslims constitute the majority of those booked under these laws, closely followed by the Ahmadi community. “What are Pakistan's blasphemy laws?”, BBC, May 08, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48204815 accessed on October 28, 2021. For understanding the Blasphemy laws in Pakistan read RoswithaBadry, “The Dilemma of “Blasphemy Laws” in Pakistan – Symptomatic of Unsolved Problems in the Post-Colonial Period?”, Politeja, No. 2(59), India and Pakistan: Reflections on Politics and Culture 70 Years After Independence (2019), pp. 91-106.
[ii]Suhasini Haidar, “Who is Asia Bibi?”, The Hindu, November 10, 2018, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/who-is-asia-bibi/article25464283.ece accessed on October 28, 2021
[iii] “Punjab Governor Salman Taseer assassinated in Islamabad”, BBC, January 04, 2011 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12111831 accessed on October 28, 2021
[iv] “Pakistan minister Shahbaz Bhatti shot dead in Islamabad”, The Guardian, March 02, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/mar/02/pakistan-minister-shot-dead-islamabad accessed on October 28, 2021
[v] “Salman Taseer murder: Pakistan hangs Mumtaz Qadri”, BBC, February 29, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35684452 accessed on October 28, 2021
[vi] “Historic gathering at Qadri’s funeral in Rawalpindi”, The News International, March 02, 2016, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/102301-Historic-gathering-at-Qadris-funeral-in-Rawalpindi accessed on October 28, 2021
[vii] “Government bans TLP under anti-terrorism law”, Dawn, April 15, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1618391 accessed on October 29, 2021; “Proscribed TLP crossed red line, says Pakistan NSA”, ANI, October 29, 2021, https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/proscribed-tlp-crossed-red-line-says-pakistan-nsa20211029151239/ accessed on October 29, 2021; “Govt establishes 'red line' on Chenab, Jhelum bridges to stop TLP”, The Express Tribune, October 29, 2021, https://tribune.com.pk/story/2326890/govt-establishes-red-line-on-chenab-jhelum-bridges-to-stop-tlp accessed on October 29, 2021
[viii] The electoral bill changed the wording of the declaration while swearing in a member of the parliament to “I believe” from “I solemnly swear”. It was seen as a softening of the state’s position against the Ahmadis, who are considered to be ‘non Muslims’. “Anti-blasphemy protesters block entrance to Islamabad”, Al Jazeera, November 13, 2017, accessed on October 29, 2021
[ix] Zahid Hussain, “The capital under siege”, Dawn, November 15, 2017, https://www.dawn.com/news/1370547 accessed on November 01, 2021; “Islamist Protest Spreads as Pakistan Tries to End It”, VOA News, November 25, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/pakistan-islamist-protest/4136269.html accessed on November 01, 2021
[x] Amir Wasim and Munawer Azeem, “Faizabad sit-in ends as army brokers deal”, Dawn, November 28, 2017 https://www.dawn.com/news/1373274 accessed on November 01, 2021
[xi] Tilak Devasher, “India should be worried: Is Pakistan army trying to mainstream jihadi groups?”, India Today, December 02, 2017, https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20171211-pakistan-army-trying-to-mainstream-jihadi-groups-india-tlyra-1097531-2017-12-02 accessed on November 01, 2021
[xii] Ayesha Siddiqa, “Imran Khan’s secret agreement with TLP has brought the Barelvi jinni out of the bottle”, The Print, November 03, 2021, https://theprint.in/opinion/imran-khans-secret-agreement-with-tlp-has-brought-the-barelvi-jinni-out-of-the-bottle/760968/ accessed on November 15, 2021
[xiii] Ayesha Siddiqa, “Imran Khan’s secret agreement with TLP has brought the Barelvi jinni out of the bottle”, The Print, November 03, 2021, https://theprint.in/opinion/imran-khans-secret-agreement-with-tlp-has-brought-the-barelvi-jinni-out-of-the-bottle/760968/ accessed on November 15, 2021
[xiv] “French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo draws more controversy with new cartoon on Islam”, France 24, August 24, 2017, https://www.france24.com/en/20170823-france-satirical-magazine-charlie-hebdo-new-cartoon-controversy-islam-barcelona-cambrils-at accessed on November 15, 2021
[xv] “Imran Khan govt reaches secret agreement with TLP, accepts demands”, The Siasat Daily, November 05, 2021 https://www.siasat.com/imran-khan-govt-reaches-secret-agreement-with-tlp-accepts-demands-2220713/ accessed on November 15, 2021
[xvi] The Bill “Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic” was passed in the French lower house, the National Assembly in February 2021 and the French upper house, the Senate on April 2021. After the passage of the bill, 92 mosques have been closed for specific time periods, after inspection as they were harbouring radical Islamic leanings. “Apologie du terrorisme : la mosquéed'Allonnesfermée pour six mois”, France Bleu, October 26, 2021, https://www.francebleu.fr/infos/faits-divers-justice/apologie-du-terrorisme-la-mosquee-d-allonnes-fermee-pour-6-mois-1635224503 accessed on November 15, 2021; “France shuts mosque in Allonnes; set to close seven mosques over 'radicalism'”, WION¸ October 28, 2021, https://www.wionews.com/world/france-shuts-mosque-in-allonnes-set-to-close-seven-mosques-over-radicalism-424820 accessed on November 15, 2021
[xvii] “Clashes in Pakistan after TLP takes several police hostage”, Al Jazeera, April 18, 2021 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/18/clashes-in-pakistan-after-tlp-takes-several-police-hostage accessed on November 16, 2021
[xviii] “Banned party TLP's chief Saad Rizvi placed on fourth schedule, assets frozen”, Geo News, April 17, 2021 https://www.geo.tv/latest/345893-banned-party-tlp-chief-saad-rizvi-placed-on-fourth-schedule-assets-frozen accessed on November 16, 2021
[xix] “TLP calls off nationwide protests as NA debates French envoy expulsion”, The Express Tribune, April 20, 2021 https://tribune.com.pk/story/2295806/tlp-calls-off-nationwide-protests-as-na-debates-french-envoy-expulsion accessed on November 16, 2021
[xx] “Imran Khan authorised force against TLP but Pak military opposed”, DT Next, November 10, 2021 https://www.dtnext.in/News/World/2021/11/10123145/1328134/Imran-Khan-authorised-force-against-TLP-but-Pak-military-.vpf accessed on November 16, 2021
[xxi] “Pakistan: The Martyrs of October”, The Gulf News, November 07, 2021, https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/pakistan-the-martyrs-of-october-1.1636271311294 accessed on November 16, 2021
[xxii] Salman Masood, “After Violent Standoff, Pakistan Strikes Deal With Banned Islamist Group”, The New York Times, November 01, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/01/world/asia/pakistan-protests-negotiations-tlp.html accessed on November 16, 2021; “Pakistan reaches agreement with banned TLP to end violent rally”, Al Jazeera, October 31, 2021 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/31/pakistan-reaches-agreement-with-banned-tlp-to-end-violent-rally accessed on November 16, 2021
[xxiii] “We will return with full force if govt fails to implement agreement with proscribed TLP: Mufti Muneeb”, The News International, November 01, 2021 https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/905006-tlp-to-return-with-full-force-if-govt-fails-to-implement-agreement-mufti-muneeb accessed on November 16, 2021
[xxiv] “After TLP chief, 54 members removed from Pakistan terror list”, Times of India, November 12, 2021 https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/pakistan/after-tlp-chief-54-members-removed-from-pakistan-terror-list/articleshow/87664485.cms accessed on November 16, 2021
[xxvi] “Home Dept to withdraw cases against Saad Rizvi”, The News International, November 13, 2021 https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/908382-home-dept-to-withdraw-cases-against-saad-rizvi accessed on November 16, 2021. Ejaz Ahmed Chaudhry is a serving Pakistani senator from the PTI and former deputy mayor of Lahore. He is also the President of the Punjab chapter of PTI.
[xxvii] Imran Gabol, “TLP chief Saad Hussain Rizvi released from jail”, Dawn, November 18, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1658810 accessed on November 22, 2021
[xxviii] Imran Gabol, “Saad Rizvi urges people to vote for TLP in next polls”, Dawn, November 22, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1659486/saad-rizvi-urges-people-to-vote-for-tlp-in-next-polls accessed on November 22, 2021
[xxix] Imran Gobal, “'Goodwill gesture': PTI's Ejaz Chaudhry meets TLP chief Saad Rizvi to congratulate on jail release”, Dawn, November 20, 2021 https://www.dawn.com/news/1659209/goodwill-gesture-ptis-ejaz-chaudhry-meets-tlp-chief-saad-rizvi-to-congratulate-on-jail-release accessed on November 22, 2021
[xxx] Saleh Zaafir, “France sends its envoy in Pakistan to Egypt”, The News International, October 29, 2021 https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/904044-france-sends-its-envoy-in-pakistan-to-egypt accessed on November 16, 2021
[xxxi] “No Pakistan Ambassador to France for 3 months, National Assembly demands recall of its Ambassador”, ANI, October 28, 2020, https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/no-pakistan-ambassador-to-france-for-3-months-national-assembly-demands-recall-of-its-ambassador20201028012513/ accessed on November 17, 2021
[xxxii] Babar Sattar, “We the bigots”, The News International, December 03, 2017 https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/251504-legal-eye-we-the-bigots accessed on November 16, 2021
[xxxiii] “Pakistan takes far-right leader off terror list to end protests”, Al Jazeera, November 12, 2021 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/12/pakistan-far-right-leader-saad-rizvi-terrorism-list-protests accessed on November 16, 2021