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Explained: How radical outfit forced Pakistan hand in move to expel French envoy

Pakistan's decision to discuss in Parliament a resolution demanding the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Pakistan is the latest in a long series of surrenders to the group and its radical agenda.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: April 27, 2021 10:18:52 am
A supporter of Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan prepares to hurl back a tear gas canister fired by police to disperse protests over the arrest of their party leader Saad Rizvi, in Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, April 19, 2021. (AP Photo: Fareed Khan)

Any hope Pakistan might have had in November 2020 that the death of Khadim Hussain Rizvi would lead to the disintegration of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the extremist outfit he headed, has evaporated. Pakistan’s decision to discuss in Parliament a resolution demanding the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Pakistan is the latest in a long series of surrenders to the group and its radical agenda.

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Old demand, new leader

The violence and chaos in Pakistan all of last week around TLP’s demand that Pakistan send back the Ambassador has its roots in a protest in November 2020 in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s landmark speech on Islam and the French way.

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Khadim Rizvi was alive then. He summoned a huge rally to march on Islamabad from Rawalpindi to make the point that Pakistani Muslims were wounded by Macron’s defence of the right to caricature the Prophet as integral to freedom of expression and French secularism.

As police tried to stop the march with tear gas and lathis, there was rioting. The rallyists sat on a dharna on an arterial road, blocking access to the capital Islamabad, while Khadim gave fiery speeches from Karachi.

Police officers prepare to leave after conducting a crackdown against supporters of Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan, in Lahore, Pakistan, Sunday, April 18, 2021. (AP Photo: K M Chaudary)

The government caved in. Interior Minister Ejaz Shah purportedly signed off on a written agreement that Parliament would decide on the expulsion of the French diplomat within three months and on the demand of Pakistan not stationing an Ambassador in Paris. It would release all TLP workers arrested in the clashes, and not register any cases. Although the government did not confirm the written agreement, it did not deny it either. Khadim died hours after declaring victory, likely due to Covid-19. Saad Hussain, his son, was anointed the new leader.

Brewing since January

In January, Saad reminded the government of its agreement, warning that three months would end on February 17. Five days before the deadline, the government reached another agreement, that it would place the matter before Parliament by April 20. In the first few days of April, the government was negotiating with TLP to buy time, but as large crowds started gathering in Rawalpindi, the government arrested Saad. That led to a week of clashes and rioting in Rawalpindi and Lahore. Four policemen were killed; over 800 were injured. France asked all its citizens to leave Pakistan. On April 15, the government banned the group, including it in its list of proscribed terrorist organisations under its Anti-Terrorism Act.

By the weekend, TLP had taken 11 policemen hostage at Lahore. By Sunday, the government was back to negotiating with TLP for the freedom of the captured policemen. They were released on Monday, and on Tuesday, a member of the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, moved a private member’s Bill for the expulsion of the French envoy to Islamabad. The government has said Parliament will discuss it and arrive at consensus decision.

Saad has been released, and so have other TLP cadres. It is unclear if the ban on TLP has been lifted, but that is likely to happen too.

TLP has emerged stronger from the standoff, and Saad has cemented his leadership.

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Barelvi and radical

The rise and rise of TLP of has been unique even in Pakistan, whose military-dominated history has been shaped over the last four decades by radical Islamist groups under the enabling gaze of the security establishment.

Birthed only five years ago, it has managed to come out winning each time it takes to the streets. TLP was founded after the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri. Khadim had been a supporter of Qadri, the police bodyguard who in January 2011 killed Salman Taseer, then the Governor of Punjab province.

A government-appointed cleric at a mosque in Lahore, Khadim started Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (Movement to free Mumtaz Qadri) after Qadri was jailed for the assassination. Following his execution in February 2016, Rizvi renamed the movement Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolullah in 2016. It morphed into a political party, TLP, which contested the 2018 general elections, and won two seats in the Sindh Assembly.

TLP is a Barelvi movement. Most Barelvis are viewed as middle-of-the-road, moderate Sunni Muslims. Half of Pakistan identify as Barelvi, whose practice of Islam is suffused more with Sufi traditions prevalent across South Asia, than with the Saudi Wahabism that reigns over jihadi tanzeems.

Khadim channelled the belief that there can be no forgiveness for blaspheming against the Prophet, and turned it into raw street power. His biggest success was in forcing governments to abandon the idea of reforming the draconian blasphemy laws.

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan carry a casket of their colleague, who was killed in the Sunday’s clash with police, for a funeral prayer, in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, April 19, 2021. (AP Photo: K M Chaudary)

Relations with Pak army

Khadim made it clear that he trusted the Pakistan Army more than politicians. It was only after a deal brokered and underwritten by the army that TLP called off a 2017 siege on the capital, accusing the PML(N) government for trying to dilute anti-Ahmadi clauses in the Constitution. For the government the deal was a surrender. A minister had to apologise and resign. As the rallyists dispersed, an army general handed them envelopes with cash.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who in November had criticised Marcon’s speech, on Monday made the case that cutting off ties with France, as TLP was demanding, was suicidal for Pakistan’s economy. It would hurt Pakistan more than France. EU is the largest market for Pakistan’s textile exports. It would lead to closure of factories and unemployment in Pakistan, he said.

The message did not go down well. It only added to TLP’s popularity. And the government has had to eat crow, once again.

(With inputs from Zeeshan Shaikh)

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