Pakistan has removed far-right leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Saad Hussain Rizvi, son of its deceased founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi, from its terrorism watchlist on November 11, paving the way for his release from detention under a deal to end weeks of violent demonstrations and protests by his followers. The fresh spate of protests in the month of October is TLP’s third nationwide protest since 2017 over caricatures that are considered blasphemous by Muslims published in a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
The TLP with a history of street politics and has been rather active in recent past. The latest protests and clashes resulted in death of at least seven policemen and caused injury to dozens on both sides. The clashes between armed TLP members and activists and police started on October 27, at Sadhoke, some 50 km from Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab province, when thousands of TLP protesters who had been camping between Muridke and Gujranwala along the GT Road for three days started the march towards the capital city of Islamabad after getting a go-ahead from their leadership.
In a move to placate the radical outfit, on November 11, Saad was removed from the watchlist, a week after the government agreed to free 2,000 detained members of his TLP movement, lifted a ban on the group and agreed to let it contest elections. In return, supposedly the TLP has agreed to shun the politics of violence and withdraw a demand to have France’s Ambassador expelled over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad by Charlie Hebdo.
In the summer of 2021, the TLP led violent anti-France protests nationwide in major cities of Lahore, Karachi, Hyderabad, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Multan, following the issue of Mohammad’s caricatures and arrest of Saad Rizvi (under Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997). In a statement, the TLP Naib Emir Syed Zaheerul Hassan Shah said the party’s workers had “paralysed the entire country”, adding that Lahore had been sealed from 24 points. He further asserted the road link between Sindh and Balochistan had been cut off, while important roads in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as Islamabad’s Faizabad Interchange had been blocked. Despite being banned by the government over its violent anti-France demonstrations in April, the TLP continues to openly spread its ideology, with the group’s banners displayed across the country.
If we review the origin of the entire TLP movement, it can be said that the death of Salman Taseer (Governor of Punjab) in 2011 and subsequent arrest of his assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, an ardent follower of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, propelled the political participation of Barelvi followers into the mainstream politics of Pakistan. The TLP, comprising Barelvis, capable of mobilising thousands of supporters, was born in the year 2015 out of a protest campaign to seek the release of Qadri who assassinated Taseer, over his calls to reform blasphemy legislation. Khadim Rizvi systematically launched a huge campaign demanding release of Qadri and provided legal assistance to him. The capital punishment of Qadri provided ample pretext to both Khadim and TLP to plunge into the political arena of Pakistan, with the aim of establishing the supreme political authority of Sunni Islam in the country.
Subsequently in the year 2017, TLP shot to fame when it held a massive protest for three weeks in the busy Faizabad interchange near Islamabad. The party lifted the lockdown of the city after the then government sacked the Federal Law Minister, Zahid Hamid. Rizvi had demanded his resignation over charges of Khatm-i-Nabuwat oath in the Election Act of 2017.
Also, TLP entered the mainstream Pakistani politics in 2017 and surprised the political elite by securing more than 2 million votes in the 2018 election. It secured two seats in the province of Sindh. Later in a televised interview dated August 23, 2018, Khadim Rizvi stated that as people of Karachi were more religiously inclined, therefore, they could understand the ideological differences of TLP and Muttahida Quami Party (MQM), which helped TLP to secure two seats.
Interestingly, TLP members belong to the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam, which is more syncretic in nature. The Barelvis are known to revere the local Peer and Fakir of the rural areas and they constitute about 50 per cent of Pakistani population. The Barelvis have a strong hold in the rural areas of Punjab province. Unfortunately, in a turn of event, the entire politics surrounding Salman Taseer’s assassination by a Barelvi gave a personal sense of victimhood to the sect and resultantly, TLP was formed as a resistant movement by Khadim Hussain Rizvi.
Rizvi was in favour of implementation of Sharia Law through political and legal process. Following Taseer’s death, Rizvi was instrumental in starting the Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri, a movement to free Qadri. This movement was later named as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolullah in 2016, which subsequently morphed into the current formation of TLP.
According to proponents of Deobandi and Salafi Islam, Barelvis are guilty of sacrilege owing to their devoutness to the Sufi saints, which hardliners interpret as shirk (idolatry). Today, most unfortunately, the followers of Barelvi, a sub-sect accused of blasphemy by radical members of other Sunni sub-sects, are witnessing the upsurge of a radical version of their sect, which itself has now weaponized blasphemy.
It can easily be said that with all these periodic street protests and violent movements, TLP is actually testing its ground in Pakistani politics. There is no doubt that Saad Rizvi is on his way to fulfill the political ambition of his father and predecessor, Khalid Rizvi. It is only a matter of time, before Saad is released and the compromise of Imran Khan government, will a lead to a new chapter into the political future of Pakistan, in the shape of TLP. Though Imran Khan is hoping to influence the Barelvi vote bank with this compromise, but at the end, the followers are going to vouch for Saad Rizvi as their leader and TLP as their own party.