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EXPLAINED: How Fringe Group TLP Has Put Pakistan On Edge

TLP supporters disperse  as police use tear gas during a protest march towards Islamabad from Lahore. (Image: Arif ALI/AFP)

TLP supporters disperse as police use tear gas during a protest march towards Islamabad from Lahore. (Image: Arif ALI/AFP)

A far-right group that routinely manages to bring Pakistan to a standstill, here's all you need about the latest protests by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

At least 15 people, including four police personnel, have been killed in the latest round of protests led by banned outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). This is not the first time that the group, which has gained popularity in the last few years on its radical Islamist agenda, has managed to bring cities in Pakistan to a standstill over its demands, which includes the expulsion of the French ambassador over the issue of the Prophet Mohammad’s cartoons.

What Are The Latest Protests All About?

TLP supporters have taken to the streets seeking the release of their leader Saad Rizvi, who has been in detention since April, when widespread protests led by the group had triggered scenes on the streets much like the ones unfolding now in Pakistan. Faced with the protests then, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government headed by former cricketer Imran Khan had decided to outlaw the party and seek its dissolution, decisions that do not seem to have had the intended effect.

A key TLP demand now, as it was then, is for the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan over the Prophet Mohammad cartoons that French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — whose Paris offices had faced a terror attack in 2015 — republished last year to mark the beginning of a trial related to the incident in which attackers had killed 12 people.

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This is the third time since 2017 that TLP supporters have staged such protests. In April this year, violent protests had erupted as TLP acccused the government of going back on its word on the expulsion of the French envoy, which it had extracted following protests in November 2020 in the wake of the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in France by a radical Islamist.

Paty had shown a the Charlie Hebdo caricatures to his students and French President Emmanuel Macron had reacted to his killing by saying that France would defend its liberal values. That had sparked protests in the Muslim world, with TLP supporters taking to the streets in Pakistan. But the PTI government had managed to defuse tensions by promising to bring a resolution in the Pakistani national assembly on the expulsion of the French ambassador. But the government’s failure to go ahead with such a resolution angered TLP and it launched protests in April, which ended with the ban on the outfit and the arrest of its leader.

Didn’t Protesters, Govt Arrive At An Understanding?

The Imran Khan government is seen as having botched its handling of TLP protests with each deal struck to restore peace ultimately leading to fresh protests over accusations that it had failed to keep its promises.

The November 2020 protests had ended after the Pakistan government struck an the agreement with TLP that it would address its demands on the expulsion of the French ambassador, severing of ties with France and boycotting of French products within three months in parliament. But its failure to do so by its April deadline had triggered the next round of protests, which had seen the French ambassador advise French nationals to leave the country while the protests continued.

On April 20, while the government did table a resolution to give effect to the TLP demands, it was withdrawn before being discussed in the national assembly. The latest protests have flown from that episode and fresh negotiations to end the flare-up have been hit by the same allegations. As a means to calm tensions, Pakistani authorities had released 350 TLP supporters days into the October 2021 protests only to see fresh protests erupt after TLP leaders accused ministers of lying to them.

“Sheikh Rashid (Pakistan’s Interior Minister) lied… that matters have been resolved. Let the entire nation see the malicious intent of the government," TLP leader Syed Sarwar Shah Saifi said in a statement even as Rashid is reported to have said that the government and TLP were in agreement on all issues but for the matter of the French ambassador’s expulsion.

“Don’t lie to the nation. No negotiations are being done with us. The government is not sincere in negotiations, but if more blood is shed now, revenge will be taken," Saifi said.

What Is The TLP?

TLP is the political faction of the Islamist movement called Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan, which was started by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the father of its present leader Saad Rizvi.

The movement took shape in 2016 over the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who shot the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salman Taseer in 2011 over the latter’s support for Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who was put on death row in a blasphemy case before being acquitted by the Pakistan Supreme Court in 2018. She left the country later that year, much to the displeasure of TLP, which had protested against her acquittal.

TLP had gained prominence in 2017 after it held protests against a change in the wording of an electoral form that it said diluted the assertion of canddiates’ belief in the finality of Prophet Mohammad, a key tenet of the outfit. Those protests had ended with the then Pakistani law minister tendering his resignation.

The TLP shot to prominence in 2017 when it held a massive protest for three weeks in the busy Faizabad interchange near Islamabad. The party lifted the lockdown of the city after the then government sacked the law minister. In the elections held the next year, it emerged as the fourth largest party, bagging more than 4 per cent of the national vote although it won no seats in the national assembly. Its performance — it won two seats in the Sindh provincial assembly — however, drew the attention of political observers given that religious outfits are typically not seen as being major players in Pakistani politics.

Although it does not enjoy the electoral support commanded by Pakistan’s mainstream political parties, the Barelvi sect with which it is aligned represents the biggest religious group in Pakistan with a report by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) saying they “comprise about 50 per cent of the country’s total population" and dominate the Punjab and Sindh provinces.

Protecting the honour of the Prophet Mohammad is a crucial principle for the group, but experts say that its popularity can also be attributed to discontent among youths from economically marginalised groups.

“TLP’s popularity is linked to wealth and income disparities in the country. Its supporters are not only madrassa students but even common youngsters who have gained nothing from the country’s political and economic system," Pakistani political analyst Raza Rumi was quoted as telling German state broadcaster DW. However, former Pakistani diplomat Hussain Haqqani has dismissed TLP’s rise, saying that “it is just one of many Islamist groups that has become a threat to Pakistan’s stability".

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first published:October 28, 2021, 11:52 IST