By winning two provincial assembly seats in the last general elections, Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) became an electoral force to reckon with. It appeared that the TLP, with its anti-blasphemy agenda, successfully made inroads in Karachi’s political scene without any considerable challenge. This was because the once formidable Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) political structure had been reduced to shambles after a major security operation.
Barelvi politics found its lost charm in the city with the arrival of the TLP. The madaris, ulemas, pirs and a local political offshoot of Sunni Tehreek all united under the strong financial backing of Memon businessmen in a bid to reclaim Karachi’s political turf which they once lost to the MQM.
Then, in November 2018, the TLP lost its leverage soon after the Supreme Court verdict on Asia Bibi’s case. The government launched an all-out crackdown after an unsuccessful attempt to dissuade TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi from holding a rally in Islamabad.
“As many as 180 workers were arrested all across Karachi. Many of them have been released on bail now but they have to regularly appear before the court due to case proceedings,” says TLP Karachi Chief Allama Razi Hussaini.
Although all jailed workers have been released by law enforcement authorities, it is evident that the state has not given the same free hand to the TLP which it once enjoyed
The most interesting bit here is that days before the crackdown, Sunni Tehreek disassociated itself with the TLP, after its leader Pir Afzal Qadri issued controversial remarks against Prime Minister Imran Khan, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Supreme Court judges.
In the crackdown, workers of Sunni Tehreek were also picked up along with TLP supporters and they were also released. “A few TLP affiliates received bails after they submitted an affidavit to authorities that they were no longer part of the TLP and had joined Sunni Tehreek,” said Fahim Qadri, spokesperson of the party.
With their backs against the wall and cadre splintering to other groups, the TLP high command held an urgent consultative meeting with party sympathisers, sources privy to the development say.
“The meeting included TLP’s city leadership and sympathisers who are working professionals, including lawyers, doctors, chartered accountants, bank managers. All professionals who have a soft corner for the party,” the insider said. “The sympathisers raised serious reservations over the hard line stance taken against the state and held the traditional ulemas in the party’s central leadership responsible for the hard times. They urged the leadership to revamp the structure in order to survive politically,” the source said.
The meeting yielded results as indeed the party revamped its structure and replaced the old guard with young workers on key positions. For instance, Allama Hussaini’s appointment as Karachi chief; the cleric who appears to be in his early thirties was preferred over the old guard for the all-important position.
“It is a very intriguing development. Barelvi youth having both religious and professional qualifications are claiming their stake in the party which was earlier dominated by senior and elderly ulemas. Old clerics have been subtly side lined within the party structure. Call it a necessity of the time or pressure within the party. The TLP took a decision which is quite different from the party’s customary culture of preferring seniority,” said Najam Soharwardi, a research scholar and journalist based in Karachi.
Although all jailed workers have been released by law enforcement authorities, it is evident that the state has not given the same free hand to the TLP which it once enjoyed. “Our IT cells has been the most affected due to the crackdown. Facebook takes down our groups and blocks our IDs whenever we try to put up a campaign with Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s picture,” said Muhammad Waqas, a TLP activist assigned to look after the party’s digital content on Facebook and YouTube from the party’s new central office, Bahar-i-Shariyat mosque.
For the TLP cadre, with the new leadership at the helm and strict restrictions on its online outreach, Karachi is not yet a lost battle. “Khadim Hussain Rizvi, in his last visit to Karachi, gave three-month tasks to party representatives. We all are working towards them. In his next visit, we will show the work done and will strategise. We believe we are still in the game,” Waqas said. He is a TLP activist who was in hiding during the state crackdown against the party.
The question remains: was the TLP a one-hit wonder in Karachi or does it have a future? For Soharwardi, the golden days of the party are over no matter how hard they try to reclaim political space which they once enjoyed, since mainstream political parties are taking a strong stance over issues like blasphemy on local and international forums. The unique selling point for the TLP is diminishing with every passing day, an observation which the TLP obviously denies.
The writer is a journalist based in Karachi