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April 18, 2021

Lessons not learnt


April 18, 2021

We are not ready to learn lessons from our past mistakes and continue to repeat the same mistakes again and again expecting different results. And each time we get the same result.

What has been happening in the country for the last three days is a clear manifestation of this approach. The TLP is not doing something new or surprising. This has been its pattern of protest. From the November 2017 Faizabad sit-in to the current protests, the TLP used the same tactics time and again. They organised violent protests and sit-ins when the Supreme Court acquitted Aasia Bibi in a blasphemy case. At the time, no arrangement was made to deal with the highly charged crowds in different cities. Finally, action was taken against TLP leaders and activists and that too only after speeches made by TLP leaders and supporters that used harsh and abusive language against the judiciary and the military top brass.

This too was not the first time the leaders of the TLP used abusive and highly objectionable language in their speeches. The group used similar derogatory language and threats during their Islamabad sit-in in November 2017. But a few months later, TLP leaders were released and were allowed to continue their activities. They organised huge public gatherings in different parts of the country, and continued to spread hate and extremism without any check. The TLP has continued to use mob violence to press their demands. Each time we sooner or later obliged them, appeased them and encouraged them without realising the long-term consequences of this flawed strategy.

The TLP was treated this way at least four times in the last four years. Every time the group used mob violence and openly challenged the writ of the state, we signed agreements with them and retreated. They are even more emboldened after every such event.

This recent protest is not the first time the TLP attacked police officials, ambulances and damaged public and private property. They blocked motorways, highways and main roads in our major cities. They were allowed to do whatever they wanted to.

The government silently watched all that for three days and then came the knee jerk response from our interior minister to ban TLP under terrorism act 1997. Will this ban solve the larger problem we have been facing for more than four decades?

We need to address three issues immediately. One, the use of religion by the state to gain political mileage has made it easier for religious parties and clerics to exploit people. This is exactly what has been happening for nearly four decades. This policy and strategy needs to change.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani ruling class is not ready to abandon its decades-old policy of appeasing and supporting the religious right. This policy has spread hatred, intolerance, extremism and bigotry in society. We haven’t learnt from our past mistakes that the use of religion for short-term political gains can have long-term consequences.

This form of capitulation is not new; it started in the 1970s and has never halted since then. By surrendering to the hardliners, Pakistan’s state apparatus and ruling class have sent a clear message that they are not interested in stopping bigots and mobs.

This policy of appeasement and surrender has brought catastrophic consequences for us. Our economy has lost billions of dollars. Thousands of lives have been lost, including those of our brave men in uniform. Our international image has also been tarnished. But who cares?

Two, we need to realise that those who spread hatred, bigotry and extremist ideas through their sermons and religiously-motivated political speeches are as dangerous as those using guns to impose their ideas and world view.

We have done a lot to control militancy and armed groups, but little has been done to control the spread of hatred, bigotry and extremism through speeches and sermons. We need to realise that religious extremism and bigotry pose a threat to society.

We allowed the TLP to gain ground in the country – just because its rise served the interests of some powerful quarters. Within a couple of years, the TLP became the largest religious political group belonging to the Barelvi school of thought. In the 2018 general elections, the TLP bagged nearly two million votes from Punjab.

Three, various right-wing political parties and extremist groups have succeeded in their agenda to render the elected parliament ineffective by not allowing it to debate the major political and social issues the country faces. They want to make decisions on the streets instead of in parliament and other legal and constitutional forums.

Every time the government makes an agreement with the TLP or with other extremist groups, it sends a clear message: parliament has no authority. The state isn’t in the mood to challenge the hegemony of the religious forces and thereby establish its own authority.

The fact is that the religious right is not ready to give up the space and authority it gained during the military rule of General Zia. And the real issue is that state is not interested in reimposing its writ and taking back the space it surrendered to the religious right in 1977.

The writer is a freelance journalist.