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The TLP conundrum

Despite Barelvis being the dominant sect – almost fifty percent – they had been overwhelmed by the Deobandi-Salafi brand since independence. Such was the impact of political Islam as the Subcontinent drifted towards a post-British era.

Barelvis supported the creation of Pakistan; Deobandis opposed it. More pacifist in nature, and inclusive and liberal in its expression, Barelvis have differentiated themselves from the Deobandis-Salafis by keeping a low, pacifist profile. All told, the Deobandi-Salafi-Ahl e Hadith make up about 25 percent of the Muslim population, yet they brandish a presence far exceeding its weight, hitching themselves with the state and making permanent inroads into politics.

Three separate events in Pakistan’s socio-religious milieu gave cause to the Barelvi resurgence. The Sunni Tehreek became a platform for Barelvism to popularise it in the face of a greatly more assertive Wahhabi-Salafi combine, especially after the Zia era. The Muttahida Majlis e Amal (MMA), a conglomerate of the Far Right (Deobandi-Salafi) in 2008 touched the political zenith by founding the first regular government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This spurred the imagination of many of the politico-religious hue, including the Barelvis. The Defence of Pakistan Council gave them a taste of political activation through the Sunni Tehreek and the JUP. All that was left was for Barelvis to now seek power on their own steam. The Mumtaz Qadri affair gave them such a moment; a shade of militant Barelvism began to take shape. Hurmat-e-Rasool became the slogan around which Allama Khadim Rizvi and Pir Afzal Qadri hinged their politics.

It was during the by-elections for NA-120, on the seat vacated by Nawaz Sharif after his disqualification by the Supreme Court, that the TLP under its former mnemonic TLYR first emerged as a political entity. Most pro-PMLN quarters quote this as a proof of the engineering allegedly undertaken to break the PML-N vote. The Barelvis in Punjab – as some Deobandis too – have traditionally voted for the PML-N as their rightist political preference. The PML-N has been popularly known to accost religious voters by kowtowing to their militant influence by permitting entities such as the LeJ, JuD/LeT (proscribed now) to operate without hindrance. Punjab was insistently reluctant to open itself to an operation by the Rangers to eliminate extremist and militant elements for fear of losing its vote-base (among other reasons). In popular perception thus, when the TLYR first appeared on the political scene it was alleged to have been sponsored for damaging the PML-N’s prospects in the electoral process.

How far that’s true remains moot but the Barelvis’ rise to political potential over time remains a reality. One study by Fafen suggested that the votes scored by the TLYR in the NA-120 by-polls roughly matched the Barelvi votes sponsored by the over 200 Barelvi mosques in the constituency with their potential membership and extended family affiliations. Hafiz Saeed was another entrant into electoral politics in NA-120. His party didn’t score well because the Barelvi mosques outnumbered the support available to his candidate. The 2018 elections place the TLP (TLYR) as the third largest political player in Punjab.

This points to another dilemma. As the state closed to eliminating armed radicalism through a sustained military operation, one lesson stood out. It could not repeat the 1989 folly of the US-Pakistan establishments to leave the fighters unattended. Closure of their need for war also meant settling them down to normal life, otherwise the tragic political choice of their continued use to seek geopolitical goals could only augment Pakistan’s continued embroilment in a self-perpetuated internal strife. That also caused Pakistan to pick up the muck for using non-state actors for foreign policy objectives. That was then and a lesson seemed to have seeped in the decision process. And, come the opportunity, a more positive recourse of mainstreaming those once radicalised became the new mantra. Is it rational? Will it deliver? Is it an easy way out for those who have been on the wrong side of law? Blame the IRA if this too fails.

So NA-120 or Faizabad, when the TLYR chose to sit-in for extended duration in 2017 and established its organisational credentials and place as a possible alternative, or the recent three-day shut-down of the country to reiterate its claim as the sole proprietor to Hurmat-e-Rasool, these are all links in the chain of the overt politicisation of religious outfits, armed or otherwise. Clearly the trophy that the TLP now vies for is the same that its Deobandi cousins have been far successful in anointing in their political avatar – political power brings closeness to pelf.

The outlandish outbursts by the TLP against leading personalities of the judiciary and the army, urging almost a mutiny, was a step too far but it feigned a rallying cry to its supporters of its imagined strength. The state’s kids-glove handling of such openly vicious calls to sedition added strength to the perception of a hopeless state in the face of a complex challenge; the state in this case chose to resolve the immediate challenge without resort to force. This has irked many in the vocal sections of the civil society and the media, framing the establishment as a collaborator. The recall to the civil-military divide or the military’s not so adulatory past for using such elements in their service in wrong policy choices is just one more occasion to malign the state and its establishment further. Hence the cacophony.

The state faltered; no doubt on that. Perceptively the state also appeared weaker in the way the agreements were concluded. That too didn’t serve the state any better when it should be the only proprietor of power and the ultimate repository of ensuring both law and order. Both were violated in no uncertain terms. But the backdrop in which such social forces emerge should not be forgotten too. Among the many divides the most yawning is the have/have-nots divide, the one that has ruptured this nation no end. The liberal/secular-religious divide gives reason to play religion by the other side. And the rampant failure of governance under every disposition has rendered the fabric of this nation tenuous and vulnerable.

An apt comment notes, “what have we left in the hands of these angry young men other than the promise of ‘Jannat’ and ‘Houris’. The rapacious elites have stolen these young men’s today for their own perpetuity, dealing these young men only a deep sense of deprivation. Seeking a NW-type armed intervention in such a milieu would be a rather unfortunate choice where a malady has been let to grow untreated for that long. An armed resort is the easiest intervention. Its aftermath is what makes for a harrowing prospect. It is time for the nation to revisit its past and re-ascertain the conduct of its ruling elites which give occasions for such challenges to continuously recur. The state though still must up its game. How is what must take our most attention.

Shahzad Chaudhry, "The TLP conundrum," The news. 2018-11-16.
Keywords: Political science , Political entity , Political activation , Political preferences , Militant influence , Electoral process , Political player , Political choice , Social forces , Sunni Tehreek , MMA , TLP