India Today 02 December 2017
The series of events in Pakistan over the past two months that culminated in the siege of its capital Islamabad by adherents of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) – and the following abject surrender of the state – are an ominous warning of the rise of the religious right in the country. The TLYRA is a Barelvi group formed following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the police guard who killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 and was hanged for the crime in February 2016.
In September-October 2017, the political wing of the TLYRA called the Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and the JUD/ LeT-linked Milli Muslim League (MML) burst on Pakistan’s political scene by doing surprisingly well in the Lahore and Peshawar by-elections. In Lahore, the TLP polled more votes than the PPP and the Jamaat-i-Islami. Hot on the heels of its electoral foray, the TLYRA also managed to corner the government over its attempts to tinker with clauses affecting the Khatm-i-Nabuwat (finality of prophethood) declaration, a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan, in the Election Act 2017.
The government finally capitulated to TLYRA’s demand that its law minister Zahid Hamid be sacked for the ‘transgression’. Following up on the success of a sit-in that forced the government to cave in, TLYRA chief Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi has announced that they will contest the next election and win a thumping victory. As the NA120 by-election in Lahore showed, the TLP would eat into the rightwing vote bank of the PML(N).
The three-week-long sit-in has profound implications for Pakistan. It has brought to the fore the political awakening-and activism-of the Barelvis, so far thought of as a peaceful group. It could lead to the consolidation of a large, if dispersed, Barelvi vote bank. Pakistan is already contending with militant Deobandi, Ahle-Hadis and various sectarian groups. With militant Barelvis coming to the party, Pakistan could be headed down an even more disastrous path. The speed with which such a large number of people were mobilised and came onto the streets in different parts of Pakistan shows how widespread and deep-rooted this radicalisation is. Add to this attempts to revive the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and the release of Hafiz Saeed and the cocktail of religious parties and groups calls to mind nightmare scenarios.
The precedent has been set: elected ministers can be forced to resign by religious groups on an issue of their choosing. Today the government had been wrong-footed due to its own stupidity. Tomorrow, who knows what the cause could be.
For India, these developments have grave implications. For one, there is talk in Pakistan that the emergence of the TLP and the MML is actually an effort of the army to mainstream militant and jihadi groups. This will give them a political role and wean them away from violence. And if these efforts are successful, there could in the near future be ‘mainstreamed’ jihadis in Parliament. Given their common Kashmir and anti-India profile, they will become a pressure group that will ensure that no political government tries to makes any friendly moves towards India.
Moreover, given the abject surrender of the government to the TLP on a religious issue, what if any of these groups were to foment an issue or incident with India on religious lines? Will any Pak government be able to resist the pressure to act aggressively? Hence, these developments are ominous for India and need to be watched closely.
For China, too, the developments are cause for concern. It is on track to invest close to $60 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Its record in dealing with the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang is repressive, to say the least. Many cases have been reported of ill treatment of Muslims on religious grounds, which has elicited adverse comments from several religious groups in Pakistan. Additionally, the growing success of the religious groups in Pakistan will only be a source of encouragement for Uighur Islamists. The emboldening of these groups in Pakistan will, thus, not be good news for the Chinese.
With the US, interestingly, Pakistan may find some traction. As in the time of Gen. Musharraf, Pakistan will use the rise of the religious right to frighten the US: wave the threat that they may grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons unless additional funds are sanctioned to further strengthen the army. While Presidents Bush and Obama had fallen for it, it remains to be seen if a tougher President Trump will do likewise.