Last week, for the first time in nearly two decades, the specter of martial law hung over the horizon in Islamabad. The threat to state and society didn’t come from the popular mainstream, nationalist, ethnic or secessionist parties, nor from foreign-inspired terrorist groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or Al-Qaeda. It came from the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a newly minted, religion-inspired party, tens of thousands of whose angry, passionate, militant supporters swept the squares of Lahore and fought pitched battles with the Punjab police that left over a dozen dead, scores injured and hundreds in prisons, provoking the PTI government to hurriedly brandish Anti-Terrorist laws to impose a ban on the party and stop it from marching on to Islamabad. In the event, a “dialogue” between the leaders of the TLP and representatives of state and government managed to diffuse the situation by shunting the matter to the National Assembly for resolution. Is this the beginning or end of the matter?
The TLP was borne of the religious passion to defend and uphold the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) from blasphemy by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, at home and abroad. An early casualty of its rage was Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab in 2011, who was gunned down by one of his own security guards, a TLP follower, when he sought to defend a Christian woman in prison who he felt had been wrongly accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed assassin who portrayed himself as a “lover of the Prophet (pbuh)”, languished in prison for five years before the Supreme Court plucked up the courage to sentence him to death and a trembling PMLN government carried out the sentence. The funeral of the assassin was the largest in Pakistan’s history, testifying to the birth of a new mass party whose relentless rise on the back of a one-point agenda has been so phenomenal that it has now acquired the capacity to literally bring the state to its knees – it is reported that a top security officer negotiating with the TLP leaders actually touched the knee of his counterpart (a gesture of obeisance) and begged him to call off the long march. This is a far cry from a situation two years earlier when the TLP had marched on to Islamabad, successfully agitated the ouster of the federal law minister, Zahid Hamid, for effecting a change in a swearing-in oath and then dispersed upon receiving a monetary incentive from a uniformed officer of the state. The irony of the situation should not be lost on us: Qazi Faez Isa, the judge who delivered a scathing judgment on the attitude and approach of the security forces which succumbed to the threat of the TLP, is in the dock today, fighting for his professional career, because the Miltablishment has not forgiven him for challenging its dangerous opportunism.
The history of the Pakistani state’s response to militant Islam is both opportunist and tragic. Since the time of General Zia ul Haq, the Miltablishment has injected, nurtured, accommodated and defended militant Islam and ethnic organisations in the body politic of state and society as legitimizing forces for its political interventions at home and military adventures in the neighbourhood. Prime examples are the MQM in Karachi and pro-Kashmir jihadis (the former laid Karachi low for nearly a decade and the latter tried to assassinate General Pervez Musharraf when he turned off the jihad tap against India in the mid 2000s) and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (who were molly-coddled with numerous financial “deals” for many years as “good but misguided Muslims” as they went on a killing spree, bombing bazaars and schools across the country, until they attacked an army school and murdered nearly 150 students in cold blood in December 2014, forcing the army to finally attack and stop them in their tracks – now they are sanctuaried in Afghanistan whence they carry out their anti-Pakistan, sectarian attacks in FATA and Balochsitan). The TLP is the latest example of such misplaced concreteness.
Last February, the TLP had threatened to run riot if the PTI government didn’t expel the French Ambassador and sever diplomatic relations with France for defending a batch of blasphemous cartoons against the Prophet of Islam (pbuh). The government bought time by promising to bring a resolution to that effect in the National Assembly two months hence. The TLP went back to the streets when the appointed date of April 20th came and went without any redemption. Now, after the loss of so many lives, damage to property and work stoppages, the government has contrived another hollow parliamentary pledge it cannot keep, insuring that the next time the TLP bursts on to the stage it will demand much more than a pound of flesh for another betrayal, and that it will be much more empowered and aggressive than this time round. In between we can expect the TLP to flex its muscle whenever it thinks that by so challenging the writ of the state or society it can be nourished and grow as a powerful force in the next elections whenever they are held. The TLP is modelled on the MQM that was based on regional ethnicity and used violence and terrorism to enhance its financial and electoral prospects with the support of the Miltablishment, except that the canvass of the TLP is all Pakistan and its fuel is passionate all-encompassing religion.
The Miltablishment’s response to the rise of the TLP is delusional. It claims it is being funded and propagated by India, America, Saudi Arabia and Israel to undermine Pakistan’s pivotal role in the developing linkage of China to an anti-West bloc comprising Central Asia, Iran, Turkey and Russia. But the fact is otherwise. The TLP is a product of the strategic miscalculations of the Miltablishment that have now put it squarely in the eye of a gathering storm that will exact a huge and bloody price from Pakistan.