On the 22nd of October 2021, the infamous Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) had started mass demonstrations in Lahore in preparation for its Long March towards Islamabad. This far right Islamist group had started these riots in response to the breakdown of negotiations in regards to the release of the detained TLP leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, whose detention since April was declared illegal by the Lahore High Court, as well as the prevailing issue of the expulsion of the French ambassador. By the end of the protests, through an agreement mediated by the upper echelons of the establishment as well as religious leaders, nearly 57 were killed, including 7 policemen, and hundreds left injured as a result of the clashes. The TLP was the clear victor of this agreement as 800 protestors detained by the Punjab police, furious at the government’s decision, were released and 54 TLP leaders removed from Schedule 4 of the Anti-terrorism Act, most notably Saad Hussain Rizvi.
The underlying issue in this entire affair is, however, not with the existence of such Islamist groups, but rather the overwhelming growth in support of such extremist groups amongst the masses and the state’s complete inability to counter them. With every victory achieved by TLP, the far right gain strength in Pakistan and it is important to determine the factors that have lead us to this moment.
It is needless to say, as seen many times before with other likeminded extremist groups, of the state’s constant attempts throughout the years (following the riots in 2017) to mainstream and contain the “rogue” TLP to utilize for its own political ambitions, both civilian and military. Following the recent agreement, Senator Ejaz Chaudhry of the ruling PTI hinted at a potential electoral alliance between TLP and PTI for the next general elections. Likewise, influential clerics like Mufti Muneeb and other politically active Islamist groups have tried to influence TLP by leading marches and rallies in support of it.
However, the establishment has been at the forefront of this mainstreaming effort. The 2017 Faizabad riots led by TLP as a reaction to the issue of “Khatam e Nabuwat” or more particularly about the rights of the Ahmaddiya community against the then ruling PMLN was resolved through the intervention of the establishment via DGISI Faiz Hameed who was a signatory to the agreement. The influence of the establishment over the TLP protests was witnessed through the videos showing the DG of the Punjab Rangers Maj-Gen Azhar Navid Hayat seen giving envelopes containing 1,000-ruppees to TLP protestors and was further hinted at in the famous Faizabad verdict written by Justice Faez Isa. The negotiations of the most recent riots in October were mediated by the COAS along with well-known businessmen and clerics. This process of “mainstreaming” has occurred for other far right extremist groups like the anti shia “ASWJ”, the internationally designated terrorist outfit “Lashkar e Taiba” who formed the “Milli Muslim League” to conform to mainstreaming attempts and is occurring most recently with the TTP who have signed a ceasefire with the state (part of the larger amnesty scheme) pushed by the establishment. Therefore, the state holds itself responsible for giving national credibility and political power to groups like TLP
One of the other important factors as to why the state has been unable to deal with the TLP is due to its overwhelming street power and support from the lower sections of Pakistani society. This stems from a multitude of social, political and economic problems that have long prevailed for many decades and have mostly affected the downtrodden of the urban/semi-urban areas of the country where TLP draws most of its support from. In regards to economic issues, a UNDP report recently stated that nearly 27 million youth in the country are unemployed and that total unemployment has increased by 6.6%, even more so after the Covid era. This along with the intense social media campaigns launched by the party under Saad Rizvi hoped to attract Barevli youth from religious seminaries. This is best expressed by the young activist Muhammad Abu Bakr in the recent protests whose infamous video being interviewed a local journalist showed that such extremist groups are gaining ground amongst future generations.
Furthermore, groups like TLP are propelled even further due to the state’s attempts to discourage critical thinking and independent thought in the masses by introducing educational policies and curriculum like the “Single National Curriculum” which has been heavily criticized by educationalists like Dr Ayesha Razzaque and Dr Pervaz Hoodbhoy for introducing even more right wing elements into an already anti-intellectual education system. Professors and teachers who dared to move away from the official narrative and tried to encourage dissent and independent thought, which usually works in opposition to the anti-intellectual ideals and stances of groups like TLP and especially IJT in school campuses, usually end up like Prof Ammar Ali Jan, Prof Pervaz Hoodbhoy and others who were forced by their respective universities to step down, resign or let go of their contracts.
In relation to what was mentioned above is the issue of a lack (or rather discouragement) of progressive organizations or ideals that act as a counter to the narrative and organizational power of TLP. This is mostly due to the sheer suppression of trade and student unions in the country, organizations most receptive to progressive and leftist ideals and perhaps the only true counter to the Islamist narrative of the groups that have long been assisted by the state. According to a DAWN report by Manzoor Raza in 2016, Off the nearly 63 million workers in total, the 945 trade unions accounted for only 1.8 million workers, a mere 3% of the total labor force. In a recent report by the journalist Fawad Hazan, describes the stories of Karachi garment workers who were picked up by factory owners with connections to the state just for demanding a higher wage. Such marginalized workers and labor who are unable to unionize and therefore improve their livelihoods are likely to be radicalized by right wing extremist groups like TLP, who gained 3 seats in the Sindh provincial assembly in the 2018 elections and have recently managed to gain ground in the working class communities of Karachi such as Lyari and Azizabad.
Since Zia-ul-Haq managed to crush student unions in 1984, progressive voices amongst students began to fade as state backed far right groups like “Islami-Jamiat-Taiba “or “IJT” took over campus life and began enforcing state friendly narratives and discouraging dissent and similar activities with the assistance of the campus police and Jamaat backed university administrations. The murder of Mashal khan, a leftist student activist, in 2017 by a right wing mob shows just how far student activism has fallen in the country and replaced by conservative forces. More recently, IJT have been accused of attacks of progressive student federations in Punjab University, Science College Wahdat road etc., while the state itself have attacked student protests as seen in the fee hike protests at Islamia College Peshawar, as well as the Balochistan University protests amongst a multitude of others. Such acts of suppression have only encouraged the depoliticization of Pakistan’s universities and students and given way for TLP and others to reach out to affected students who cannot express dissent in any other way. The state, therefore, does not allow any counter narrative to develop against that which is expressed by TLP by discouraging trade and student unions.
In conclusion, the State’s inability to curb groups like TLP is because of its past policies and actions that helped groups like TLP, dissatisfied by the Islamization policies of the state and who are organized working and middle class communities, especially the youth, through effective organizational connections through madrassas, bazaars, social media etc., to gain political and street power in important parts of the country. Even currently, the state has been unable to present an alternative to the popular narrative of TLP that resonates with large sections of Pakistani society and even with the state (take the anti ahmaddiya statements & policies of both entities).
For Pakistani society to be released from the scourge of right wing fanaticism, progressive politics must be encouraged and allowed to flourish, trade and student unions restored, and efforts taken to change the official security, educational and economic policies of the administrations to ensure that such groups can never become the plague that they are today.