Conflict Alerts # 366, 21 April 2021
In the news
On 15 April, the Pakistan government banned the fifth largest political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), under anti-terror law, after the protest by TLP workers turned violent across the country. Earlier, on 12 April, security agencies arrested Saad Hussain Rizvi, leader of TLP, to obviate the organization's long-march and sit-in in Islamabad for demanding the expulsion of the French Ambassador and severing ties with France. The arrest sparked a countrywide protest, which turned violent as TLP activists clashed with law enforcement agencies. The protestors were also able to take hostage 11 police officers and made government come back to the negotiating table with the banned group.
Issues at large
First, the four demands of the TLP. It includes: the expulsion of the French Ambassador, the Release of the party chief Saad Rizvi, the removal of the ban on the party, and the release of all arrested activists. On 20 April, the government released Saad Rizvi, and agreed to withdraw all cases against TLP workers and is currently having a debate in National Assembly over the expulsion of the French Ambassador.
Second, the TLP and the issue of blasphemy. This is not the first time TLP activists have taken to the streets and created mayhem across the country over blasphemy. In 2017, they held a demonstration against the re-wording of the electoral oath that they found blasphemous. Similarly, in 2018, they held a protest against the Supreme Court's verdict on acquitting Aasia Bibi on the issue of blasphemy. In both these cases, the government had to accommodate their demands to diffuse the situation. These demonstrations have increased the group's popularity by making it the fifth largest political party. The impunity enjoyed by the group and its rising popularity hinged on demonstrations to safeguard 'Islam' provides it with the confidence to disrupt civil administration over the issues of blasphemy.
Third, Imran Khan's catch-22 situation. He was one of the first leaders to criticize the French government over the issue of controversial cartoons. While the demands of TLP are untenable and inimical to the interest of the Pakistani state, flatly refusing them will make him contradict his position and call into question his popular support. Also, the electoral success of TLP helps PTI by undercutting the votes of PML-N in Punjab. Therefore, Imran Khan finds appeasing TLP more pertinent than taking any punitive actions against them.
Fourth, non-state actors challenging the writ of the state. If the monopolization of violence is indispensable for internal sovereignty and independent foreign policymaking is a display of external sovereignty, the actions of TLP challenges both. The ability of TLP to pressurize the government in signing an agreement on the issue of expulsion of the French Ambassador and create chaos on the streets without facing any effective resistance from the state machinery underscore the state's weak capacity to enforce writ on its territory. The ability of various non-state actors to challenge the state's monopoly over violence underlines the crisis and challenges of state-building in Pakistan.
The ban on the group will not achieve anything. Numerous fundamentalist groups exist in Pakistan's polity because of the patronage given by the establishment. There is a strong current of political appeasement while dealing with any religious group, which invariably boost their confidence and popularity. The need for the state is to rethink its approach in dealing with religious groups and religious issues and not let them invalidate the democratic structures of the state. To stonewall sensitive issues only allow the state to postpone crises and not eliminate them.