By Zahid Hussain
Even before they reached the capital, the government capitulated, accepting all the demands of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Proscribed as a terrorist group just months ago, the TLP has once again brought the state to its knees. The ban is now lifted and the outfit that preaches violence has been declared kosher.
While the details of the deal have not been made public, the government’s capitulation raises questions about the state’s capacity and resolve to combat those that present an existentialist threat to the country. The writ of the state has crumbled in the face of the lawless brigade.
Apparently, the government has agreed not to pursue criminal cases against TLP activists allegedly involved in the killing of policemen and the destroying of state and public properties. It also appears that the state will not pursue the legal process in its decision to proscribe the group. The latest agreement with the TLP has worsened the internal security situation arising from increasing faith-based violence.
For over two weeks, TLP supporters had blocked the main highway in Punjab province. Several policemen were killed in the clashes. Although the TLP has been engaging in violent protests on various faith-based issues since its inception a few years ago, the latest round of agitations started last year when the group took up the matter of blasphemous images and the French president’s controversial remarks. It called for breaking diplomatic ties with France and besieged the capital.
The group went back triumphant after the government accepted its demands without understanding the diplomatic fallout of such an agreement. The government’s own stance on the issue was no less controversial. It was indeed not the first time the state surrendered to the group. But the November 2020 agreement was the most shameful. The agreement led the EU to censure Pakistan. It further tarnished Pakistan’s international image regarding religious extremism.
Unsurprisingly, the group was back on the streets earlier this year in pursuance of their demand for the expulsion of the French envoy. The government’s policy of appeasement came back to haunt it. A panicked administration outlawed the group and detained many of its leaders under the anti-terrorism laws.
But soon the government started backing down, promising to review the decision, thus creating a dangerous ambiguity regarding the TLP’s status. The group continued its activities with impunity. The administration seems to have deliberately kept its proscription decision ambiguous and continued with its appeasement approach.
The little-known group saw its rise after its first siege of the capital in 2017. It was the civil-military divide, and not its popular mass support, that turned it into a force to be reckoned with. It was a non-issue related to an oversight in a bill passed by the parliament that was used to whip up religious sentiment.
The three-week long siege of Islamabad in 2017 also saw the rise of the TLP as a major religio-political force. It remains a mystery how the outfit that preached violence in the name of faith was allowed to participate in the 2018 elections.
Although it didn’t win any National Assembly seat, the TLP emerged as the fourth largest block in Punjab in terms of share of votes. The TLP’s main support comes from the urban and rural lower-middle classes and traders. The frequent agitations are seen as a way of keeping the TLP politically alive and maintaining its financial lifeline.
The latest deal may have legitimized a banned group, but the crisis is far from over. Emboldened by their latest triumph, they will soon be back with new demands. The country remains hostage to a group threatening to tear apart the nation’s social fabric. While bringing the administration to its knees, the group has not yet agreed to call off its agitation.
It’s not just about dealing with the TLP but also the government’s efforts to make peace with other outfits– those responsible for the killing of thousands of Pakistanis. The government is reportedly in negotiations with the militant network Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) now operating from across the border in Afghanistan. It has offered amnesty to the militants at a time when the TTP has intensified terrorist attacks in the former tribal regions.
The PTI government’s policies of appeasement have increased militant threats to the country with very serious consequences for Pakistan’s security and stability.
(Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain)