New Delhi: The Imran Khan government Tuesday presented a resolution on the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan in the National Assembly.
However, before a vote could take place on the resolution, which could downgrade Paris-Islamabad ties, the speaker announced the formation of a special committee to discuss the matter and asked the government and the opposition to engage with each other to develop consensus on the issue.
In a video statement earlier in the day, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid said the decision to present the resolution was taken after a round of talks with the recently outlawed far-right political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The party was banned under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, last week.
اسلام آباد۔ 20 اپریل
حکومت اور تحریک لبیک پاکستان کے درمیان مذاکرات کامیاب۔
— Sheikh Rashid Ahmed (@ShkhRasheed) April 20, 2021
The government is currently engaging with TLP workers, who have been holding anti-France protests for more than a week after clashing with the police in Lahore Sunday. Amid tensions, the French embassy advised its citizens to leave the country temporarily.
During the clashes, TLP workers took 11 policemen hostage. According to Rashid, 580 police personnel had sustained injuries and at least 30 cars had been destroyed during the violence. The captured policemen were later released after negotiations with the government.
The TLP has put forth four demands: the expulsion of the French ambassador over President Emmanuel Macron’s backing of Prophet Muhammad caricatures last year; the release of party chief Saad Rizvi; removal of the ban on the party; and the release of party workers arrested as well as FIRs against them to be dropped.
The party has termed the latest round of talks with the government “successful”.
On Monday, Prime Minister Imran Khan said his government and the banned TLP had the same goal — to end incidents of blasphemy around the world — but their methods were different.
ThePrint describes what led to the ban of TLP, a rising far-right religious party in Pakistan.
Events that led to the ban
Since last November, the TLP has been protesting the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s decision to republish cartoons featuring Prophet Muhammad, that had prompted the 2015 terror attack in its Paris office.
The TLP has called the cartoons blasphemous, and opposed Macron’s public backing to them. It has also demanded the French ambassador be sent home and a boycott of French products.
On 16 November 2020, the Imran Khan government reached an agreement with the TLP to decide on the matter by 16 February 2021. At the time, TLP founder and firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi was still alive. He had earlier led a rally of about 5,000 TLP protesters chanting anti-France slogans and demanding the resignation of the French envoy, before coming to the table with the government.
Rizvi died on 19 November after suffering from an illness. His son, Saad Rizvi, took over as party chief.
As the 16 February deadline neared, the government sought more time on the matter, which the TLP agreed to, and a new date was set — 20 April.
Last week, Saad Rizvi issued a video message, mobilising TLP workers to prepare for a protest march if the government failed to meet the deadline, which prompted his arrest on 12 April. He was attending a funeral in Lahore at the time.
In response, the TLP called for countrywide protests which led to large-scale sit-ins in major cities, blocking of highways, motorways and train tracks and violent clashes with police. The group was then banned by the government.
Experts say the ban, however, has more to do with optics for a country eager to get off the Financial Action Task Force grey list.
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistan ambassador and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, called the move an “additional talking point” for Pakistani diplomats.
How TLP was formed
The TLP, the political wing of far-right religious group Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan, has railed against blasphemy and employed it as its main talking point.
The party was formed in 2016 by Khadim Hussain Rizvi after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard policeman of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Qadri shot Taseer in 2011. This was after Taseer publicly voiced support for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was arrested for blasphemy and accused of insulting the Prophet.
TLP subscribes to Sunni Barelvi sect, often portrayed as “Sufi Islam” and a counter to the ideology of hardline sects. However, Rizvi “weaponised the Barelvi sect in the name of blasphemy in a way that’s unparalleled in Pakistan”, scholar and author Khurshid Nadeem told TRT World.
The party made waves when it secured 8 per cent of total votes cast in the by-election for Lahore’s National Assembly constituency in September 2017. Two months later, it made headlines after calling for the resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid, accusing him of blasphemously changing the wording of an oath taken by parliamentarians.
In the 2018 general elections, TLP fielded 744 candidates, gained a significant number of votes and won two seats in Sindh province. When Rizvi contested elections in 2018, it ate into former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s vote bank in Punjab.
“A newbie Right winger emerged as the fifth largest party. That this immensely helped the establishment’s vicious campaign against Sharif goes without saying,” noted Tara Kartha, former director, National Security Council Secretariat.
It has been argued that TLP precipitated its own downfall for its response to the acquittal of Bibi by the Pakistan Supreme Court in 2018. At the time, TLP co-founder, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, said the top court judges who freed Bibi deserved death, but more importantly, called to overthrow Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
A Reuters report said it was “an unthinkable comment in Pakistan where the military is rarely criticised in public and the army normally does not tolerate such dissent”.
Following the ban on the party last week, the government has decided to approach the apex court seeking dissolution of the group.
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