TLP protests and the power of state

Syed Sharfuddin

The past few days in the politics of Pakistan have been reminiscent of the sunset days of the PML-N era when suddenly a small interest group best classified as a non state actor held the government on tenterhooks leaving it undecided whether to use coercive means to end the widespread public protests or follow the path of compromise through negotiations which involved conceding and reversing the course of action earlier taken by the government to resolve the matter in the wider national interest of peace and tranquillity. The aim of this article is not to recount the development of the episode and its end, which is already covered in the media, but discuss four important issues to help the government in dealing with such issues in the future.

The four issues are: the power of government and the credibility of governors; the role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state; balancing legitimate state authority versus people’s democratic right to protest; and, the role of government and political parties.

1) The power of government and the credibility of governors

The question why the power or writ of government is often flouted in Pakistan by non-state actors, including the opposition parties, is so well known that the state has no choice but to come hard on any incident where its authority is in question or is likely to be challenged with armed resistance. It is not an easy task because while the government has the authority to eve’s drop on personal communications, get search warrants for suspected persons and their residences and even arrest those suspected of disobedience to law, it cannot go beyond a certain point because of human rights considerations and the backlash of civil society which easily plays up internationally against the democratic credentials of the state. This delicate balance is also affected by how well prepared the government is in enforcing its political will and whether those tasked with the mandate to govern keep changing their positions every few days. Sometimes the cabinet is also not united on policy matters and the statement of one minister is contradictory to his statement made earlier or to the statement of another cabinet colleague made on the same issue the same day. The buck in parliamentary system for all such contradictions stops at the door of the Prime Minister who must be seen to be in-charge of his team and ahead of everyone’s game.

The PTI government may be given the credit for acting wisely in defusing the crisis and not showing full force of the state in silencing the TLP protests, but it has certainly failed on consistency of policy. For example it was ludicrous for the interior minister to rush to announce that his ministry had decided to approach the cabinet to ban the TLP as a political party without due process, which did happen the next morning, and yet two days later the interior minister agreed to attend a meeting with TLP leaders and reached an agreement with them to end the protests peacefully. It was also embarrassing that the Prime Minister, who is so rightly against the dishonouring of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, who made a historic speech at the UN General Assembly about Islamophobia, made no hard hitting statement, nor took any action last year when the French government officially supported the reprinting of the offensive cartoons by a French magazine in the name of freedom of speech. On the TLP crisis, the Prime Minister said one thing in his speech to the nation holding firm on not giving in to the key demand of the TLP but the very next day he appreciated his interior minister sitting down with the TLP elders to sign an agreement accepting that in return for TLP ending the protests, the government would send their demand about the French ambassador’s return to France to parliament for a debate.

The question of government credibility goes further than domestic audience. Once international community starts to suspect that a country’s leader cannot be trusted for his word, then there is noting left for the government machinery under that leader to convince the world that they are serious about a matter of importance. Pakistan has been through this before and we know that many previous US government officials have publicly said that they didn’t trust Pakistan on its commitments.

Unlike the Turkish President who is unequivocal on the question of blasphemy against the Prophet in the non-Muslim world, the Pakistani leadership has, through its unprepared actions and perhaps contrary to its real intentions, conveyed to France and the EU the wrong message that its previous stand against the blasphemous cartoons was meant only to appease the Mullas domestically. In conveying this message the Prime Minister is not alone. he is joined by the whole caboodle of liberal politicians, many of whom, are represented in the PPP, ANP, BAP, and also to a certain extent in PML-N. Pakistani social media also shows this ideological divide. One the one side is the liberal civil society, media and bureaucracy who couldn’t care less what French magazines print about the Prophet or French lawmakers rule in regard to banning Hijab for French Muslim girls; and on the other are those Pakistanis who genuinely think raising voice against Islamophobia is right, even though the timing to do so now is not right because they have missed the boat. These protests should have come about last year when the magazine published the rude cartoons.

The TLP demand for sending he French Ambassador home makes no diplomatic sense because he is only an official of his government. His function is not to make or change French policy but to act as a conveyor of French government’s foreign policy as it applies to Pakistan. He is but a dignified messenger representing his side between the two governments. Sending him home or breaking diplomatic relations with France can serve no purpose except to remove the official messenger of his government and leave the communication line exposed to third countries and media to add their own spice into your messages. The government should never have agreed to this demand to take it to parliament.

In any case, defence, foreign affairs and printing currency are federal subjects and no federating unit, let alone a political party or religious group has any authority to start dictating heir terms in these areas. The government keeps a specialised department whose job as Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to advise the government through its envoys what is best and possible in the interest of the country. But now that the matter has been referred to parliament, I hope that the parliament will not make the poor ambassador a lamb at the altar, but instead agree that nothing should be done about his staying or returning which is a matter only for the French government to decide. However, the parliament should mandate the PM to make a policy statement through his high podium condemning any foreign government in advance if they continue to back their ‘intellectual terrorists’ in the future to cause anger and violence in the Muslim world through blasphemy against the Prophet and hate speech against Islam, Pakistan would consider it as an unacceptable act against its friendship and bilateral relations. The PM’s speech should also say that Pakistan will not hesitate to draw up a list of such Islamophobia promoting countries for starting an official campaign against them through the Organisation of Islamic Conference and other relevant international official and unofficial platforms of Muslim countries to react reasonable and proportionately. This may include such action as boycott their products; stop attending conferences held in these countries, stop accepting tenders and aid, refuse to send their students to their universities and suspend sporting activities with them.


2) Role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state

This issue has been publicly debated at every forum in the last ten years. However, what is new is that when the state has a constitution, which declares Islam as the state religion of Pakistan; when the elected leader of the country is a practicing Muslim and talks about making the country a welfare state modelled after the State of Madina, and when the state broadcaster dubs and airs for two years a Turkish TV play Dirilish Ertugrul which is half history and half fiction but it takes the entire country, as well as the Muslim Ummah all over the world by a public following never witnessed before, then you are obviously talking about a nation that is not prepared to ignore blasphemy against its Prophet, as well as its religious icons, and that its people expect their government to react strongly if the government of a country where the blasphemous act has occurred wilfully to hurt or infuriate Muslims, does not condemn such act or refuses to take action to stop it.

We live in a funny world. Governments and humanists who were so loud in condemning the destruction of the ancient Buddhist icons in the Bamian province of Afghanistan during the Taliban rule are not bothered with the insults hurled at the Prophet of Islam from their lands. The long conflict in Syria for and against the incumbent Asad regime has resulted in the destruction of a rich historical heritage common to the adherents of three great Abrahamic faiths. No one bemoans this great loss. The West has no problem with the whole humanity wearing facemasks to protect against the spread of Covid-19, but it has issues with innocent young Muslim girls wearing Hijab in deference to their beliefs. No one should be allowed to get away with blasphemy of the Prophet of Islam whose name, when recited in public, results in billions of hands rising to touch their hearts as a mark of deep respect for Muhammad, peace be upon him.

The TLP protests did not fall under the category of a non-state actor challenging the power of the state. Unlike the opposition dharnas they did not call for this government to resign. TLP is a registered political party in Pakistan, or was so until it was shut down arbitrarily without involving the election commission or invoking a due process by the interior ministry. They still have a chance of this decision reserving to status quo ante after a successful legal challenge. TLP has two elected representatives in a provincial assembly. Even the Prime Minister said that his government’s goal is the same as the goal of the TLP except that they differ on approach. TLP protests came not as an isolated event after a long time. TLP had staged similar protests earlier pursuing the same matter, but the government did not take action despite promising to do so. In between their two protests, there was a series of dharnas organised by the opposition parties against the government demanding new elections. A lot of dirty language was used in those dharnas, including verbal attacks on the state’s constitutionally protected institutions. Against the high tempers and the fluid political background of the country, the TLP episode was only a small jolt in the present uncertain situation. It could well be a sleeping volcano but it was not an earthquake.

What is surprising, however, is that the government has not fully used the existing state institutions and government apparatus, such as the Council of Islamic Ideology or the Ministry of Religious Affairs to bring about an understanding between the state and the religious parties (not just political parties) on issues that have caused confusion and distrust between the clergy and the state. Not too long ago, a federal Minister of this government with no religious background attacked the Ruet Hilal Committee for being out of times for sighting the Ramadan and Eid moon and caused more harm than good in bringing upon goodwill between the clergy and the state.

The issues where the government needs to work hard include inclusive reform of the madrassas and their state financing, incorporating Imams and Muezzins in its state employee structure and drawing TORs for their recruitment, employment and retirement and delivering uniform Friday sermons approved by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This will be possible only if the clergy sees these government institutions promoting Islam and finding common ground, and which are run by officials who are not corrupt and who could be trusted with the religious knowledge and services they provide. The government also needs to address issues around application of blasphemy laws in relation to cases brought against poor and uneducated minority citizens, the status of witnesses who are called to testify and the way FIRs are drafted by police; the insistence of Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims in Pakistan and their boycott of electoral rolls, which result in adverse reaction from the clergy against their community; and now the more recent question of blasphemy of the Prophet globally by provocateurs who clearly have an agenda to foment hatred and violence in the Muslim communities and countries and who are officially protected by their governments for carrying out such racist and divisive acts.

3) Balancing legitimate state authority versus democratic right to protest

Organising protests is an essential feature of democracy and defines the political space in which the government and opposition parties operate. In a representative democracy, protests are not the right of political parties alone. Any interest group or gathering of citizens has the right to start or join a public protest in a democracy. In western countries protests are staged against the policies of the government on issues the protestors do not agree with. Sometimes their demands are ignored and at other times these are accepted and result in change of policy. Unfortunately, in countries where democracy is nascent or has repeatedly suffered from authoritarian rules, protests have not evolved into an established form of political expression. The Arab Spring resulted in premature revolutions in countries, which were not prepared for post revolution governance, resulting in great loss of life, instability of state, and damage to the economic well being of their people. In Pakistan, protests do not take place to convey a message of dissent to government. They sound more like a clarion call for a people’s revolution that luckily never happens. The protesting side believes that the government has to bow down to its demands or else go home. The long history of political protests in Pakistan shows that these have been used to bring down a weak government through violence or by creating unstable conditions, which force the military to intervene and restore peace and stability. This is how Ayub Khan’s rule was ended in 1969 and how the lawyers’ movement forced General Musharraf to convene multi-party elections in 2008. Since 2013, a good understanding has been reached between political parties that a regime change through public protests is not the best thing for democracy. However they have yet to develop the understanding that the place to protest and make political noise is parliament and not the street or social media or the country’s TV screens.

It is to the government’s credit that it showed flexibility and agreed to listen to the demands of TLP to end their dharna in the long hot days of Ramadan. Although the interior minister’s U turn so soon after a tough administrative action against the party was a surprise for the country, it was in retrospect a good thing in clearing the position of the TLP as a party which has no hand in terrorist activities. The Sarina Hotel bombing in Quetta on 21 March, only a day after the successful talks between the government and TLP, is evidence of how foreign enemy planned to exploit the TLP dharna to destabilise Pakistan and achieve multiple aims. However, planning and executing a terrorist act from overseas using local sleepers does not happen quickly, and that’s why the enemy failed to anticipate how quickly the TLP dharna ended and could not fast track the terrorist act earlier than it happened. Another lesson for the government is that if public protests on religious questions are allowed to continue without taking urgent and reconciliatory prudent action, Pakistan’s enemies will try to take advantage of it and make the situation worse.

4) Role of government and political parties

There are justifiable questions on the performance of government for not finding a permanent solution to the irritating religious issues resurfacing frequently despite its best intentions to make Pakistan a moderate Islamic state. However, the silence of other political parties, as well as role of other religious parties during the peak of the TLP crisis was most unfortunate and unacceptable. As the country’s opposition they have a responsibility to set aside politics when it comes to issues like Kashmir, Palestine, respect for the honour and character of the prophet, and defence of Pakistan. The opposition and other religious parties failed to meet this expectation leaving the government and the TLP to sort this out between them. It was most unfortunate that some security personnel lost their lives and public property was torched and in retaliation many protestors who were probably fasting were beaten and arrested for disturbing peace. The role of PPP was in particular pathetic when it continued to play politics and boycotted the parliamentary session in which it could have made all the right statements about the incompetent way the government dealt with the matter. That the PPP chose to air its criticism of the government on TV talk shows instead of raising these from the floor of the parliament, shows their seriousness about the blasphemy of the Prophet in countries, which have traditionally been supportive of PPP governments in the past due to their secular ideology and hatred for the Mulla.

5. What’s Next

The government may have crossed the delicate bridge on this crisis and moved on after referring the matter to the parliament. But it must learn to make contingency plans on matters of utmost importance to the country where public sentiment cannot be ignored. It must learn how to create space for public protests and draw up a modus operandi for their organisation and acknowledgement and ensure that it will deal with them not by force but through flexible yet firm hand. On the question of protecting Islamic icons, values and traditions, there will always be a difference between the orthodox and liberal Pakistanis. This difference must be respected and nurtured as part of Pakistan’s rich diversity. However, if the country’s constitution envisages Pakistan to be an Islamic state and be guided by the holy Quran and Sunnah in its affairs, then the state should use its mandate, resources and institutions to bring about a new ‘entente cordiale’ between the clergy and the state to work for the common objective together, and not as mutually exclusive forces. The mischievous question: which Islam Pakistan should follow? is an old red herring and there will be no gain trying to answer this question and forget the constructive things that need to be done first in the interest of the country and its people.