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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

10 days of TLP protest that shook the government

The government of Pakistan has signed yet another agreement with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) after a two-week-long protest by the group, which killed scores of policemen and caused massive economic losses. It has refused to divulge details of the deal done with the proscribed group. One of the reasons for the government not making public the agreement it signed with the TLP is criticism and pressure it could draw internationally.

After the TLP agreement, the PTI government has suffered embarrassment, and Prime Minister Imran Khan is believed to be unhappy over the terms of the agreement. The Prime Minister refused and barred PTI Ministers who were negotiating the same deal in Lahore nearly a week ago. Now the same deal has been forced on the PTI government after the violent protest of the TLP who reached near Islamabad. The deal was Interestingly made after cajoling by the Army Chief who met religious scholars of the Brehlavi School of thought.

Earlier government instantly decided to block the TLP March towards Islamabad by using police force. However, police could not face the baton-charged marchers of the TLP and had to be pulled back. As a result, the Interior Minister announced to call in Rangers. Sleepwalking into a civil-military sensitivity zone, the govt’s move of Rangers’ deployment would have serious repercussions as it is a paramilitary force.

Read more: PM Khan summons PTI Core Committee meeting on TLP agreement

What actually happened?

The Rangers’ deployment notification was leaked on purpose to give the impression that Rangers and the Army are behind this operation. Ordinary masses do not differentiate between Rangers (which technically operate under the Interior ministry) and the Army which will not fire upon a charged crowd having political demands.

Secondly, fake news was carried that PM along with DGMO and DG MI presided over a meeting and decided to deal with the TLP kinetically. For many, the purpose was to force a  choice on the Army to back the govt’s kinetic action and by implication drag in the Army Chief purportedly portraying him as anti-TLP in the perception.

Another negative aspect of the Renagers’ deployment (invoking in aid of civil power provision) was if the Army refused to drag in it would have sent out a message to the world that the PTI government was against terrorist/militant TLP but the establishment was supporting the TLP. Also, the Army would have been put in an impossible position to conceivably fire upon, say, a 20,000 strong crowd reaching Islamabad.

While the TLP protest gained steam and was on its way to Islamabad, the government exacerbated the issue further by issuing contradictory statements. The context was first it made an agreement with the TLP to expel French Ambassador which should not have been done in the first place; as now the issue was not whether it was right or wrong to expel the ambassador but the issue had ethical dimension, i.e that whether to fulfill the promise made in a written agreement by the government or not.

Read more: Analyzing the role of Ulemas in the Government-TLP standoff

What were the government’s conditions?

Then the government entered a second agreement pledging to enforce the 1st agreement. It was followed by the third agreement made whereby the TLP ban would be reversed and its Leader Saeed Rizvi released through courts. LHC ordered the release yet the government challenged the decision in SC and SC formed a two members bench that endorsed the LHC’s judgment.

So after a month of mis-commitments of the government, the TLP took to the street to protest. Their ranks had sentiments that they tried to steer their move on the lines of a political party i.e. PTI. They copied sit-ins and lockdowns of PTI held in 2014; they claim if the political pedestal is taken away, they will have no option but to go for kinetic movement. A TLP affiliate commented, “did we explode bombs? “ that we were termed as terrorists”. He says what we have done effectively, all political parties in their own time tried to do the same.

As the marchers were on their way to storm Islamabad, the government summoned a national security committee meeting with the view to requisitioning the Army to deal with Marchers in Islamabad. However, the Prime Minister was reportedly told to resolve the issue through talks and that since it was a political issue the Army will not fire upon the crowd.

This message carried the day and eventually, the PTI government made the fourth agreement with the TLP which led to workers of TLP unblocking GT Road and other routes.

Who benefitted from the TLP protest? The TLP arrived in Islamabad on its own, contrary to a narrative peddled by some PTI elements that the established was behind the TLP protest.

Read more: Blacklisted TLP to be dealt with ‘iron hand’

However, its arrival created many opportunities for the PTI government. It successfully diverted the attention of the people from inflation and hardships thrust upon them by the poor economic management of the government.

Who is responsible for this fiasco?

PTI successfully ruined the momentum created by the possible rapprochement between the PML-N and the establishment. By requisitioning the Army, the government attempted to pitch soldiers against ordinary Pakistanis who would be killed while citing “Labaik Ya Rasool Allah” (PBUH) and Allahu Akbar, given an army that has been trained in a right-wing environment.

The government’s move of deployment would also have dented the goodwill for Army and its Chief as pro-TLP leaders were seeking the intervention of the Army Chief against the govt’s use of force and for possible resolution of the deadlock.

The PTI government requisitioning the Army also meant seeking kinetic action against the TLP which was a lose-lose situation for GHQ in other ways. First, the Army had to own govt mishandling of TLP from the start. Second, the cost of the law and order problem, instability and near civil war-like situation created again by mishandling of the TLP protest would have to be dealt with by the Army itself. Third, like police, Rangers and reservists may have also refused to fire on the “God is great” slogan chanting mobs of the TLP given their right-wing tilt.

Read more: Watch: TLP worker attacks statue in Lahore while chanting Labbaik

Fourth, the Army, if it refused to back the govt after being requisitioned by the executive, might have run the risk of flaunting orders of the executive and might lead to full civil-military rupture. Last but not the least, if the Army did not fire, any possible D Chowk scenario created by the TLP crowd would have crippled the government machinery. The TLP standoff also opened the possibility for international players to lean on.

At last, sanity prevailed and nongovernmental Ulema’s intervention produced the fourth understanding to resolve the standoff. The big breakthrough is of course the withdrawal of the TLP from its demand of expelling the French Ambassador. Now it is again the government’s sincerity and credibility that is at stake if it does not implement the agreement.


Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space