Pakistani government has banned the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, following violent protests that erupted after the arrest of its leader Saad Hussain Rizvi. If Supreme Court endorsed the decision of the government then it will be all over for TLP as a political party.
The political parties rise and fall in certain conditions. The legal restrictions imposed by the government can minimise the capacity and ability of a political party or to mobilise its resources both human and financial. But such restrictions cannot do away the support based on a narrative.
The Election Commission of Pakistan will dissolve the TLP as a political party. It might continue to operate with other name but it will be hard for TLP to
maintain the support it used to enjoy. This ban alone will not be able to wipe out the TLP and its hardline narrative. TLP might seize to exist as a political party after dissolving it. But its narrative and support might not go away.
It is an open secret that the TLP was supported and helped by real powers of this country. They used it for their political interests. They let it spread its narrative of hate bigotry. The ban will not dilute the narrative that fuels the party. As they used Jihadi groups during Afghan war.
The establishment has a long history of using religious groups and parties to gain political interests. Such groups also used to sideline the mainstream parties. TLP was a political project to target PML-N in the 2018 general elections.
TLP was formed by its founding leader Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi in August 2015. TLP was formed as an ultra-right wing religious political party. The TLP gets its inspiration from the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.
The governor was gunned down by one of his guards for being critical of the blasphemy law. In the eye of a considerable section of society, even a soft criticism of the blasphemy law is itself blasphemous and thus constitutes an unpardonable act.
Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who passed away few months ago, had risen to prominence in a short period on the politico-religious landscape of Pakistan. His reputation rested on two things: the ability to agitate on the highly sensitive issue of blasphemy so successfully as to bring the government on its knees; and speaking with a sense of no-holds-barred and brutally stigmatizing anyone – including the clergy – who dared to question his tactics.
Thus in 2017 and later in 2020, on both occasions in November, his party the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) demonstrated its capability to throw life in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad into a tailspin. On both the occasions, the party forced the government of the time to strike a deal on the former’s terms.
TLP emerged on the national scene in 2017 when it organised sit-in at Faizabad in Islamabad. Since then it became the largest religious political group belonging to Barelvi school of thought.
The sudden rise of TLP in the electoral politics surprised many. Within short period of just two years, TLP became a force to reckon. The TLP secured over 2.2 million votes in the 2018 general elections and has three members in the Sindh assembly. All the three members of Sindh assembly were elected from Karachi.
TLP failed to win a single national or provincial assembly seat in 2018 general elections but some of its candidates got good votes. TLP’s presence cost both PML-N and PTI some seats.
In its inaugural general elections in 2018, the TLP fielded 571 candidates including 178 for the National Assembly. Although it secured only three provincial assembly seats – significantly enough all three from Karachi, the party emerged as the fifth largest party nationwide with 2.2 million votes. This was 4.2% of the total votes cast, narrowly behind the relatively moderate clergy alliance MMA’s 2.56 million votes. In the Punjab province and the two biggest cities each, the TLP finished third in terms of votes obtained.
The rise of the TLP was the result of political vacuum that existed after the decline of largest Barelvi party JUP led by Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani. Political parties and movements need material conditions and circumstances to flourish and grow. Political parties grow out of the cleavages present in a society.
Typically, these include political ideology, creed, ethnicity, location, caste or race and social class.
Barelvi political parties, such as the JUP, have contested national elections since 1970. The electoral appeal of these relatively moderate parties remained largely confined to urban Sindh, and some districts of South Punjab. Other sects or sub-sects have also had their political parties. Over the years, the electorate has not been much impressed with religious parties and overwhelmingly voted for the mainstream political parties.
The rise of the MQM in the early-1980s shrank space for both JI and JUP in Karachi and Hyderabad. MQM became the dominating political force in Urban Sindh. In other parts of the country, the Barelvi vote bank was mainly captured by the PML-N. The efforts of Allama Tahir ul Qadri, a renowned Barelvi scholar who founded the Pakistani Awami Tehreek, to make a niche for him in electoral politics also came to grief. Disillusioned with the electorate, he reposed his faith in agitation politics.
Both the events – the execution of Mumtaz Qadri and the promulgation of the Election Act, 2017 – which catapulted the TLP into popular politics took place when the PML-N, Barelvis’ first electoral choice, was in the saddle.
The TTP’s rise was also aided by the changing political ethos under which politics has become largely a squalid affair in which demonizing rivals, showing zero tolerance for dissent, and the ability to command mindless submission from supporters have come to be prized as the foremost virtues of a leader.
The biggest challenge faced by the Barelvi religious-political movement was the absence of an established leadership. There was no national level leadership that can make other small groups and local leaders put up a formidable challenge to political opponents.
There was a huge vacuum as the Barelvi political movement has been divided and fragmented since the death of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) leader Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani. Once a considerable political force under Maulana Noorani, the JUP lost much of its political clout.
The leaderless JUP is now divided among different factions that are fighting among themselves to gain their own political clout and influence.
Since the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, various religious-political groups belonging to the Barelvi school of thought have gained strength. The TLP emerged as the leading force in this struggle for political gains.
The Barelvis have traditionally been considered relatively moderate and socially liberal as compared with other Sunni sects. But the events in the aftermath of Qadri’s hanging and the then two sit-in in Islamabad have sent disturbing signals.
It seems that an extremist Barelvi strand has started to emerge and has been allowed to spread hatred against certain political leaders and state officials. While it may not be correct to compare Barelvi extremism to the activities of Taliban-like groups, the consequences could still be devastating for Pakistan as we have already witnessed.
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