The violent clashes in the past few days between the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and the law enforcement agencies (LEAs) are the latest incarnation of the state’s flawed and blundering policy of relying on religious extremist groups for furthering dubious political agendas. The pattern over the last almost 50 years runs along the by now familiar lines of first creating and encouraging such groups against mainstream political and civil society, then attempting to appease them when they grow wings large enough to challenge the state itself, and finally, under pressure of circumstances, to attempt to crack down on them. Such has been the case in the creation, nurturing and support to the Mujahideen and Taliban in the Afghan context, which spawned religious extremist and sectarian groups inside the country, and the rest of the trajectory followed the path outlined above.
The difference though between the past efforts in this regard and the emergence of TLP is that the Afghan adventure and subsequent ‘favoured’ religious extremist groups internally relied considerably on the minority Deobandi sect. The TLP, however, is composed of the majority Barelvi sect, once known for its moderation. Needless to say, flirting with a turning-to-militancy majority sect harbours within it even greater risks and threat than the past ‘reliance’ on a minority sect.
After three days of violent protests throughout the country following the arrest of the TLP’s chief Saad Hussain Rizvi on April 12, 2021, during which the much proclaimed ‘writ of the state’ appeared to have all but disappeared, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government finally abandoned its appeasement of TLP and cracked down hard on the group. According to Federal Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, accompanied by Minister for Religious Affairs Nurul Haq Qadri, the talks that failed to persuade the TLP to give up its planned long march on Islamabad on April 20, 2021 (today) have finally been abandoned. According to Sheikh Rashid, the three-day violent protest by TLP reaped the grisly harvest of five people killed, including two policemen, 580 policemen injured, and 30 cars destroyed.
The corollary to this casualty/destruction count is the summary approved by the federal cabinet, after which a notification banning the TLP was issued. The summary states that the federal government has reasonable grounds to believe that the TLP is engaged in terrorism, is destroying the country’s peace and security, creating anarchy by intimidating the public, has caused grievous bodily harm, hurt and death to the LEAs and public, etc. Such an indictment surely should attract the strictest actions to scotch this evil.
However, there are no guarantees, based on experience, that even the harshest crackdown will necessarily mean the end of the TLP threat. Not only have such religious extremist outfits demonstrated in the past their resilience in the face of (belated, it must be said) repression, most have come back with a vengeance over time. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a good example. One has been consistently warning that the TTP threat, following the military operations in erstwhile FATA, have not scotched the snake but only wounded and ‘exported’ it. The TTP, under the pressure of the military’s all-out offensive, could not sustain its hold on bases in erstwhile FATA and retreated in classic guerrilla fashion to safe havens across the border on Afghan soil, where it could not logically stay without the Afghan Taliban’s explicit or implicit permission. One had warned that the apparent ‘victory’ over the TTP could turn out to be a pyrrhic one since it was logical that it had left sleeper cells behind and would, sooner or later, mount attacks across the border. That has happened, although not to the extent and level one expected. That does not mean escalation in TTP’s activities can be ruled out. Vigilance is key in this matter.
Whatever the outcome of the belated crackdown on TLP, which by no means can be taken to mean that the militants will not continue to hit back, another worry is developments in Afghanistan. With US President Joe Biden announcing the complete withdrawal of US troops by September 11, 2021, it seems only a matter of time before the Taliban are once more ensconced in power in Kabul. How that will affect the fortunes of the TTP can only be guessed at this juncture, but the portents are threatening. The nexus of religious extremist groups is a permanent fact of life. Even mainstream religious groups like Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) are opportunistically poised to join any TLP long march on Islamabad after his Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) long march hopes have come a cropper due to internal dissent in the PDM. Mufti Muneebur Rehman is leading a strike in support of the TLP in Karachi. Even the Jamaat-i-Islami is making reconciliatory noises that in the present confrontation bring comfort to the violent zealots of TLP.
With so much consistent experience of the trajectory of creation, nurturing, appeasement, and eventual confrontation with religious extremist groups birthed for dubious political and strategic reasons, is it not time for the worthies who actually run our state to cease and desist this long standing and, in the final analysis, disastrous flirting with religious extremism at the cost of the state itself and society at large? Hope and pray.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021