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The TLP’s rise to power explained

It's now Pakistan's fifth largest political party

SAMAA | - Posted: Nov 16, 2020 | Last Updated: 8 months ago
Posted: Nov 16, 2020 | Last Updated: 8 months ago

Khadim Hussain Rizvi (C), leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan raises hands for supporters during a protest rally in Lahore on October 30, 2020, following French President Emmanuel Macron's comments over Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) caricatures. (Photo: AFP)

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the Barelvi hardline group headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has once again blocked Faizabad, one of the main entrances to Islamabad, as they protest against the publication of blasphemous caricatures in France.

The group is demanding the government severe ties with the French government. The government appears to have no plans to deal with the sit-in but has shut down cellphone networks and internet in Islamabad and its adjoining areas.

SAMAA Digital reached out to an official of the Interior Ministry to find out about the government’s plan to deal with the protesters. The official didn’t want to speak on the record and said “some things aren’t discussed”.

The group first emerged in Punjab as Tehreek-e-Rehai Mumtaz Qadri (movement for Mumtaz Qadri’s release) in 2015 and was later renamed the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR).

The TLP is the political face of the TLYR, which was formed in 2016 after Qadri, the convicted murderer of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was executed. The group demands death for blasphemers and strict implementation of its version of Islamic law in the country.

The rise of the TLP

Just two years after it was formed, the TLP secured over 2.2 million votes in the 2018 elections, making it the country’s fifth largest political party. The group, which is based in Punjab, wasn’t able to win a provincial or National Assembly constituency in the province but did manage to grab two provincial assembly seats in Karachi.

Just a few months before the elections, the Rizvi-led party staged a 21-day sit-in at the Faizabad Interchange in Islamabad against a minor change in the oath lawmakers take.

Activists and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a religious party, shout slogans during an anti-France demonstration in Islamabad on November 16, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

The then PML-N government did everything it could to disperse the protesters by first engaging in talks and later using force but the protesters remained unmoved.

Even the army “suggested” that the government “handle” the Islamabad sit-in peacefully to avoid violence because it was not in national interest.

The government acted on the military’s suggestion and the sit-in ended after the military acted as a mediator to end the protest and the PML-N government removed its minister for law Zahid Hamid.

Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, the incumbent ISI DG, had signed the agreement between the PML-N government and TLP as a guarantor.

In background conversations with this reporter in the past, mainstream political parties, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, had accused the military of launching Rizvi’s group to dent its vote bank in Punjab.

“The MML [Hafiz Saeed’s political group] and TLP were launched to damage the PML-N’s vote bank in Punjab and to benefit a certain political party,” a PML-N senator, requesting anonymity, had told SAMAA Digital before the 2018 elections.

Major General Azhar Naveed, the then director general of Rangers in Punjab, is distributing cash among the activisits of TLP in 2017. (Photo: Online)

Rizvi, the TLP leader, had denied taking any help from the establishment. “What is the establishment? I think we should sit again and you tell me what this establishment is?” he had told SAMAA Digital in a 2018 interview.

In its Faizabad verdict, the Supreme Court had stated that there was a “perception” that the ISI was behind the Faizabad sit-in.

“The perception that the ISI may be involved in or interferes with matters with which an intelligence agency should not be concerned with, including politics, therefore was not put to rest,” a two-member SC bench had written in its detailed verdict. It also noted that the TLP sit in participants “received cash handouts from men in uniform, the perception of their involvement gained transaction”.

Protests against Dutch politician

In August 2018, the group once again took to the streets over Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders’ plans to hold a cartoon competition featuring caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

The rally was, however, called off before reaching Islamabad because the Dutch Freedom Party cancelled the competition. But that didn’t stop Rizvi from threatening to nuke the Netherlands.

Countrywide protests against acquittal of Aasia Bibi

In October 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted Aasia Noreen, a Christian woman condemned to death on blasphemy charges in 2010.

This didn’t sit well with Rizvi, who ordered his party to hold countrywide sit-ins against her acquittal. As the protesters started rioting in major Pakistani cities, the government remained a silent spectator and did nothing to stop the mobs.

Seeing the large crowds on the street, the government once again decided to hold talks with the TLP. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government signed an agreement with the party in November, agreeing to bar Aasia Noreen from leaving the country until the Supreme Court decided on the party’s plea against her acquittal.

On November 23, 2018, the government finally decided to move against Rizvi and he was arrested by the police in Lahore.

Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious political party, protest against the court decision to overturn the conviction of Christian woman Asia Bibi in Karachi, Oct. 31, 2018. (Photo: AFP)

Fearing mass protests and violence in the country, officials and government authorities initially didn’t make his arrest public and news websites, including SAMAA Digital, that published news of his detention were told to take their stories down.

Weaponising blasphemy

In May, 2018, Ahsan Iqbal, the then interior minister of Pakistan, was shot and injured during a meeting in Narowal. The shooter, 22-year-old Abid Hussain, had told investigators that he was affiliated with the TLP and wanted to assassinate the politician because his government had made changes to the oath lawmakers take.

In March 2019, a college student stabbed to death his professor in Bahawalpur’s Sadiq Egerton College.

According to other students, Khateen Hussain attacked his English professor Khalid Hameed because a “farewell party” was going to be organized at the college where male and female students were supposed to perform a cultural dance to folk music. The attacker believed this was “un-Islamic”.

Officials later revealed that the young man was inspired by Rizvi’s videos and possibly radicalised through social media. Zafar Hussain Shah Gilani, an active member of the TLP, was also arrested in connection with the murder because police believed he knew about Khateeb’s plan to kill his professor.

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