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Once again, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has wrested a 'compromise' agreement from the sitting government after a violent protest movement bolstered by its repeatedly demonstrated street power. This time, though, the level of TLP violence against the police reached new heights, including the use of deadly weapons. As on previous such occasions, the details of the agreement have not been made public. Mufti Muneebur Rehman, one of the leading ulema of the Barelvi sect that TLP belongs to and who was inducted along with other Barelvi ulema to help conduct negotiations with the TLP, said the details would be revealed at an 'appropriate time'.

From sketchy reports, it appears that the agreement is an attempted halfway house (again) that attempts to persuade the TLP to give up its long march on Islamabad in return for the release of its leader Saad Rizvi and hundreds of his supporters arrested during the two-week confrontation. The TLP's long march to Islamabad remains encamped at Wazirabad, although the protestors are packing up while awaiting instructions from their leadership. The government has set up a committee to oversee the implementation of the agreement.

Chances are the TLP demand for expulsion of the French Ambassador if not cutting off diplomatic relations with France over the repeated publication of blasphemous caricatures will be defused by reference to parliament, as an earlier agreement had promised. The French Ambassador is no longer in the country and reports say the former incumbent has been posted as French Ambassador to Egypt.

Since its formation in 2015 by the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP has conducted seven violent protests, causing economic losses of some Rs 35 billion, apart from paralysing cities and their functioning. Each time, the government of the day has attempted compromise agreements to defuse the protests, which keep springing back time and time again on the grounds that the terms of the accord have not been met. Informed observers view the emergence of the TLP as a piece with the establishment's unreconstructed habit of playing with the fire of extremist religious groups for one purpose or another, with the by now almost inevitable result of these establishment proxies slipping off the leash as their strength and power increases. Then follow the mixed messages (and actions) of repression, retreat, compromise, soon to be followed by the by now familiar pattern of return to challenges to the writ of the state.

This pattern is discernible in the reliance in the past on the Deobandi sect for so-called jihad in Afghanistan, a venture that gave birth to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), with tragic and bloody consequences. Some analysts read the emergence and attempted mainstreaming of the TLP as reliance on the dominantly majority Barelvi sect to offset Deobandi extremism through recourse to the Barelvis' adherence historically to Sufi Islam. However, the brew has boiled over to make the erstwhile peaceful Barelvis another militant religious outfit in the avatar of the TLP.

Playing with religious groups of one denomination or another is the favourite ploy of the establishment to control the national narrative and meet critical, especially progressive voices' challenge through recourse to a religious narrative. In the process, the multiplying threats to the security of the state and (flawed) democratic system have failed to teach any lessons to our stubborn and short-sighted establishment, which seems unable to learn from this accumulated experience.

Playing on the religious turf has proved a swampy terrain. Opening the gate to religiously inspired extremist narratives only works briefly, soon to be overtaken by the autonomy acquired and claimed by such groups from the control of the establishment. It also carries the added burden of rendering even our less than credible democratic 'system' a victim of extremist religious pressure from the street or even the barrel of a gun.

The present TLP-government agreement could perhaps have not been possible if the military establishment had not applied its shoulder to the wheel on the side of the government. This has been confirmed by one of the Barelvi ulema negotiating with the TLP. COAS General Qamar Jawed Bajwa has been cited as the main figure in this outcome.

Pakistan has been rendered infructuous as a credible, functional state by the establishment's games to preserve its hegemony. In the process, the slow and difficult process of allowing a genuine democratic system to take root finally, with all its admittedly attendant difficulties given our fraught history, has taken a fatal hit. This manipulation of the polity has prevented Pakistan from acquiring the legitimacy and credibility of a modern, democratic state internationally. Perused with a critical lens, Pakistan has been incrementally reduced to isolation because of its policies regionally and domestically, currently rendering it, partly because of US estrangement over Afghanistan, into a dependent but pariah status.

Perhaps it is time for the ubiquitous establishment to return to the drawing board and examine what the wages of creating, encouraging, and later appeasement of religious fanatics has wrought. Time for some fresh thinking gentlemen, particularly in the light of the impasse the establishment has landed itself in by putting all its eggs in Imran Khan's basket, a venture on which the people, sans leadership, are nevertheless pronouncing daily.

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Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

Rashed Rahman

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