By bowing to the demands of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Government did manage to ward off a potentially explosive situation — at least for the time being — but this does not mean that the challenge from this deeply orthodox and conservative group is over.
In fact, the government’s politics of expediency and appeasement is likely to embolden not just the TLP, but other hardline and extremist groups to stay the course. The government-TLP accord has sent all the wrong messages both at home and abroad. The first message is that the Pakistani state remains too fragile and weak to establish its writ even in the country’s major cities and punish those responsible for paralysing public life with their violence and lawlessness. Four policemen lost their lives and close to 1,000 were injured in the TLP’s vandalism.
The second message, and a more dangerous one, is that the government is ready to negotiate and cede ground to those political and religious actors and interest groups which can whip up sentiment and resort to strong-arm tactics and violence.
To the world at large, Pakistan comes across as a place where frenzied crowds rule, and where even the ruling party members are swept away by emotions, not reason.
The violent scenes witnessed in major cities, particularly Lahore where the violent TLP supporters attacked a police station and held several policemen and Rangers’ personnel hostage, should have resulted in stricter action against the culprits. But just like in the past, the government caved in before the TLP by agreeing to release its workers and promising to take up the matter of the French ambassador’s expulsion in Parliament.
Many on the government side argue that “prudent” handling of the matter, through talks, defused a potentially dangerous situation, which could have resulted in more violence and lawlessness. But the downside of the deal with the TLP is that the state and the government have been pushed further into a corner.
Similar firefighting measures were taken when the TLP was out on the roads in November 2020. The protest ended only after the government reached an agreement with the TLP, which included promises to take a decision from Parliament regarding the expulsion of the French ambassador within three months and release all TLP members.
The government reiterated that it would implement all its promises, when the TLP threatened another round of protests in February 2021. Once again, it promised to take the matter of the French ambassador’s expulsion from the country to parliament by April 20. However, the promise was aimed more to buy time than to be honoured. This resulted in the latest round of violence. Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the protesters to exercise restraint as there could be grave economic and diplomatic repercussions if the ambassador was expelled from the country. The question is, why did the government promise what it could not deliver?
Presently, Prime Minister Imran Khan is spearheading a campaign that exhorts the West, too, to criminalise blasphemy against the Holy Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him). His appeal to all Muslim-majority countries to band together to lobby Western governments to criminalise the insulting of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) carries weight and is the right strategy. After all, in the more than 50 Muslim countries, nowhere has one seen the kind of violent protests that one witnessed in Pakistan.
The government should have anticipated the public mood and gone for negotiations not just with the TLP, but other religious and political groups to build a consensus on this sensitive issue. But their short-sighted approach kept them in the firefighting mode, when efforts to build a consensus, along with adopting stringent measures to establish the rule of the law, would have gone a long way.
Sadly, the government failed on both these fronts and is now caught between a rock and a hard place: If Parliament rejects the ouster of the French ambassador, it could have grave consequences for the country vis-à-vis extremist parties like the TLP, and if it does expel the ambassador, it could face international censure, and even sanctions.
It is imperative that other religious parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, and mainstream political parties — Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz — help the government find a solution, instead of fanning the flames for short-term gains. However, the onus of taking the first step of holding broad-based discussions, lies with the government. This problem should not be allowed to linger, given the mood and the strength of the agitators.