TLP’s end of proscription – after recent violent protests – raises difficult questions and these may haunt coming governments and generations of Pakistan. Govt of Pakistan, on Sunday Nov 7, issued a notification to end the revocation of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s (TLP) proscribed status. This notification from the Ministry of Interior, headed by Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, came few days after the government had reached a deal with the religious group to end its violent protest march to Islamabad. Many across the country’s media and civil society have openly called this an outright surrender by the government.
Interior Ministry’s Sunday notification, to end TLP’s proscription, was issued hours after the federal cabinet approved the proposal by the Interior Ministry seeking the TLP’s de-proscription. According to local media in Gujranwala, TLP workers were still sitting in Wazirabad, till the night of Nov 6, waiting for the government to release their leader Saad Rizvi. His release was expected on Saturday, 6 Nov, but till the late evening he was not released.
Notification raises difficult questions for the Government of Pakistan
Notification to end TLP’s proscription status raises difficult questions for the government of Pakistan. Federal cabinet, led by PM Imran Khan, had in April, taken the decision to ban TLP as a proscribed outfit under the anti-terror law of 1997. This was taken after three days of violent protests by the group’s members across the country in April.
But TLP was also on roads in January of this year, when they demanded that government should implement its earlier commitments of November 2020 regarding the French Ambassador. In that month, when TLP was still being run by its late founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi it had marched onto Islamabad against the French cartoons and French government and left after extracting an agreement from the government to take the matter of relations with France into parliament. Govt did that but the parliamentary committee never decided the matter, prompting TLP to come on streets in January and later April of 2021.
But cabinet’s decision to declare TLP as proscribed was also in view of TLP’s earlier actions. TLP had barged into Islamabad for the first time in March 2016, during the government of prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, when it ransacked newly constructed metro stations in the capital city in addition to other government property. But TLP was back into Islamabad in Oct 2017 when it demanded resignation of PMLN’s law minister and PM Shahid Khakkan Abbasi had to accede to their demands to end the 21 days long siege of Islamabad from the central point of Faizabad.
In September 2018, when the newly elected government of PM Imran Khan appointed Dr. Atif Mian, into its Economic Advisory Council (EAC), TLP threatened government with violent protests because of the faith of Dr. Atif Mian who was from Ahmedi sect – that is considered non-Muslim. Government in panic forced Dr. Atif Mian to resign, that also lead Dr. Asim Khawaja – another notable economist of world-wide fame – to resign from EAC. But government’s’ surrender did not please TLP for long; they were back on streets, one month later, in October 2018, when Supreme Court had acquitted Asiya Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
Imran Khan government again surrendered and promised to file a review in Supreme Court against court’s decision. However, in November, when Supreme Court maintained its decision to acquit Asiya Bibi, TLP was again on roads – however this time it was confronted by a government that was prepared; TLP workers were thrashed, and its leaders were put behind bars for several months. TLP remained quiet for almost two years but resurfaced under the pretext of protests French cartoons. Federal cabinet’s decision to proscribe TLP in April 2021 had a long history and now its revocation brings Pakistan to where it was in 2017 when TLP had extracted resignations of law minister.
Background to the Notification to de-proscribe TLP
The matter of TLP’s de-proscription came under consideration after the latest violent protests by the banned organization, which started on October 20 in Lahore and led to several deaths including those of at least seven policemen – thought some sources have claimed ten. These protests, it’s now clear, were mainly launched to exert pressure on the Punjab government for the release of TLP chief Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi, the son of its late founder Khadim Rizvi, and but the expulsion of the French ambassador over blasphemous sketches of Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was often cited as a motive. Even Interior Minister keeps on referring to that but TLP’s leaders later denied that this was not the case.
The situation seemed to improve only after negotiations between the TLP and government started on October 30, with the members of the negotiating team from the government side claiming the next day that they had reached an “agreement” with the proscribed group but refused to divulge its details.
While some 2,100 TLP activists have been released from police custody after the federal government-TLP agreement, the revocation of the group’s proscribed status will automatically remove around 8,000 TLP activists from the Fourth Schedule — a list on which suspects of terrorism and sectarianism are placed under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. This is perhaps one of the biggest reversal in country’s’ recent history given its 20 years plus struggle against terrorism.
The interior ministry’s notification, on Sunday Nov 7, now said: “The [Punjab] cabinet has considered the request of the organisation (TLP) and in view of the assurance and commitment by the organisation, is of the opinion that the said organisation shall abide by the Constitution and laws of the country, and therefore, keeping in view the larger national interest and long-term perspective to ensure that such incidents do not recur in future, the Government of Punjab has proposed to the federal government to consider revoking of proscription of [TLP].
“Therefore, […] the federal government is pleased to remove the name of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan from the First Schedule of the [Anti-Terrorism Act] as a proscribed organisation.”
A day earlier, Prime Minister Imran Khan had approved the submission of the summary to his cabinet while an anti-terrorism court granted post-arrest bail to several leaders of the group in the criminal cases registered with different police stations.
“The cabinet considered the summary dated Nov 6, submitted by the Interior Division, which was circulated in terms of Rule 17 (1)(b) read with Rule 19 (1) of the Rules of Business, 1973 for ‘de-proscription of TLP’ and approved the proposal,” says the decision by the cabinet, most media organizations have reported.
According to the Pakistan’s Rules of Business, 1973, approval by circulation means that a summary is sent to federal ministers for their opinion. The ministers’ recommendations are then sent to the prime minister after a stipulated period for further decisions on the matter. If a minister fails to respond within the stipulated time, it is assumed that they have approved the recommendations made in the summary.
Cabinet had rejected TLP’s earlier demand to de-proscribe
As per the contents of the Ministry of Interior’s summary, the TLP had made a request to the Punjab government for its de-proscription on April 29.
A proscription review committee (PRC) was then constituted to deliberate on the matter, and it concluded that the government’s decision to declare the TLP a proscribed outfit was “based on merit”, the summary said while recalling the history of the entire episode. It added that the views of the law ministry had also been obtained on the matter.
“In view of the commitment and assurance given by the organisation (TLP)” as well as “keeping in view the larger national interest”, the provincial cabinet asked the federal government to consider de-proscription of the TLP, the summary had noted.