Dominating the narrative

The government remains vulnerable to Tehreek-i-Labbaik pressure

The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has shown that it can still dictate terms to the government, the passing away of its charismatic founder Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi notwithstanding. Under pressure, the government has reached another agreement according to which it will remove the names of its chief, Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi, and 108 other activists from the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

The agreement has been described as a win-win formula as the TLP has agreed in return not to call for another sit-in in Islamabad.

After Maulana Khadim Rizvi’s sudden death, it was being predicted that TLP would lose its strength. The predictions fell flat on two counts. At the last major power show of the party, which also happened to be the funeral of its late leader Khadim Rizvi, the newly appointed chief Saad Rizvi, son of the deceased leader, got a chance to showcase his impressive oratory skills and cement his induction as the authoritative leader of TLP through his body language.

The second was TLP’s performance in Lyari’s by-elections. Party’s candidate bagged over 6000 votes and stood runner-up as PPP claimed the seat, while the PTI member lagged behind the two. By-election results gave a clear indication that the support to the TLP and its cause continues in the region.

Removal of TLP’s 109 leaders and activists from the Fourth Schedule is another indication that the government recognises the right-wing party’s influence and does not want to take another risk. Saad Rizvi had given the government an ultimatum asking them to implement the earlier agreement’s clauses by February 17. Saad Rizvi had given the government an ultimatum asking them to implement the earlier agreement’s clauses by February 17. The new leadership had threatened to stage another sit-in in Islamabad.

The agreement was signed on February 11. The TLP also received an assurance that the government would abide by the terms of previous agreement. Consequently, the federal government has directed the Punjab Home Department to remove the names of TLP men from its list.

The agreement signed by Federal Ministers Noor-ul-Haq Qadri and Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed and three senior TLP leaders acknowledges that parts of the previous agreement, signed in November 2020, remain unimplemented. It reads, “talks were under way between the government and the TLP on the issue for a month. The government has reassured the TLP that the terms of the previous agreement will be presented in the parliament by April 20 and that subsequent decisions in this regard will be made with the parliament’s approval.”

The agreement says that the TLP activists’ names would be removed from the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). It says the agreement shall stand cancelled if either side is found involved in any activity contrary to the spirit of the agreement until April 20.

Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noor-ul-Haq Qadri said that every Muslim’s stance on the issue of blasphemy was clear and unambiguous.

A clash between protestors in a demonstration called by the TLP in Rawalpindi last year and the police had left dozens injured. The TLP workers had assembled following a call given by their late chief Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi to protest against the publication of blasphemous caricatures in the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks about Islam and terrorism.

The TLP demands include expulsion of the French Ambassador from Pakistan, severing diplomatic ties with France and withdrawal of Pakistani mission from France.

If the parliament takes up the matter, it would be challenging for many members to remain entirely objective. Tehreek members and other groups might question the motivation of those disagreeing with their ideas. On the other hand, if the parliament supports the TLP demands, there would be more trouble for Pakistan’s image in the international community.

A senior Foreign Ministry official told TNS, “severing diplomatic relations with an important country like France is not easy in the current situation. One has to take into account not just France but also the rest of the European Union. The parliament has already condemned Charlie Hebdo and the French president’s statement.”

He added, “Foreign Office also summoned the French ambassador and lodged a protest.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan has criticised the French president’s statements by saying that Macron has deliberately provoked Muslims. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was the mover of the resolution in the National Assembly. “I don’t think that the parliament will decide for the French ambassador’s expulsion or severing diplomatic ties,“ the official said.

Pir Ejaz Ashrafi, a senior TLP leader, told TNS, “we are waiting for the parliament’s decision. We will then evolve our future strategy.” He said the TLP believed that the government would fulfil its promises. “Those who think that the TLP has been weakened after the death of Maulana Khadim Rizvi are wrong. Instead, his demise has triggered a new spirit in the Tehreek.”

He said the TLP had taken part in by-elections and will continue to field its candidates in all elections.

Tehreek-i-Labbaik emerged as the third biggest vote puller in the Punjab and fourth in Pakistan after the PTI, the PML-N and the PPP in the 2018 elections. Analysts have however said small groups might splinter over leadership issues. According to a TLP insider, “Saad Rizvi’s name was not discussed or approved by all members of the Supreme Council.”

Ejaz Ashrafi says that popular support for the TLP is increasing by the day. He says all the senior leaders support Saad Rizvi. “They see Khadim Rizvi in him”, he says.

The government will remain under pressure till April 20, and even afterwards, as the TLP has the capacity to galvanise mobs across the Punjab and Sindh.

The writer is a senior journalist, security analyst and teacher.

He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

Dominating the narrative