Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan approves withdrawal of ban on extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

The development comes after the government and the TLP reached a agreement following violent protests by the extremist right-wing group demanding the release of the leader Saad Hussain Rizvi

November 07, 2021 by Shriya Singh
Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan activists at a protest. Photo: TLP

On Saturday, November 6, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan approved the withdrawal of the ban on the the right-wing extremist political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The development comes after the government and the TLP reached an agreement on October 31. The TLP had undertaken a series of actions over various demands, including the release of its leader Saad Hussain Rizvi. Over 20 people were killed during these protest actions.

On November 2, the minister of state for parliamentary affairs, Ali Muhammad Khan, who headed the steering committee for the agreement’s implementation, announced on Twitter the release of TLP activists from government custody under the terms of the agreement. According to media reports, around 2,000 activists of the party have been released. The TLP was banned in April.

According to reports, TLP officials told Reuters that the government agreed to lift the ban on TLP and allow its entry into mainstream politics in return for the withdrawal of their demand for the French Ambassador’s expulsion. There is speculation that Rizvi might soon be released.

On April 12 , Rizvi, who acceded to the party leadership in November 2020 after the death of his father and party founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi, was taken into custody for demanding the expulsion of the French Ambassador over allegedly Islamophobic comments of French president Emmanuel Macron in the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy.

This was followed by a series of events resulting in the death of at least seven police officers and several protestors in April, a ban on the political group, and fresh protests in October which were launched after the Lahore high court declared Rizvi’s continuing detention as illegal.

More than 2,000 activists were detained following several episodes of violence during TLP’s ‘long march’ from Lahore to Islamabad which began on October 22. The TLP members cut off motorways, blocked highways, and vandalized public property. The rally was a powerful and violent display of the party’s political hold in the heartland of Pakistan’s electoral politics.

The geography of these protests is also the reason why many see the agreement as a confirmation of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government reeling under the pressure of a group like the TLP. Umair Javed, assistant professor of politics and sociology at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and a columnist at Dawn, wrote, “It (TLP) is tied to the same supposed heartland that provides the greatest numbers and legitimacy to the state. Turning on it is not an option like it is in areas far removed from the state’s largesse and imagination.”

TLP launched its political career through a major protest in 2017 when its followers blockaded the roads of national capital Islamabad for several weeks against “blasphemous” changes made in the oath of parliamentarians. 

TLP’s hardline extremist politics, which has made ‘blasphemy’ its rallying cry, has gained significant ground in the last six years, demonstrating its strength on the street and in terms of votes, after it was declared as the fifth largest national party in the 2018 elections. In the same year, the group had threatened to paralyze the country through nationwide protests after the supreme court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was convicted and sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010.

The extent and the frequency of street violence in TLP’s protests runs the risk of stoking sectarian tensions given TLP’s religious positioning in Pakistani politics.

According to Taimur Rahman, general secretary of the Mazdoor Kisan Party, “The party’s political ideology draws heavily from the Barelvi Ulema (religious scholars) of Punjab and Sindh who have historically constituted the most numerous sect within these provinces. A majority of their supporters come from the most marginalized sections of the Pakistani society, sidelined by modernization projects of the state-capital nexus.” 

The rise of TLP and its increasing far-right influence on Pakistani politics in the backdrop of a worsening socio-economic situation in the country points towards a further weakening of the governance system under the present federal government, which Rahman says has already been on the defensive due to record-breaking inflation rates. He added, “The PTI government lacks the authority or the goodwill to stand against the religious right as more liberal ministers of the government have been completely sidestepped in the negotiations signalling a dangerous lurch to the Ultra Right within the country.”