In mid-April 2021, people in Pakistan’s major cities were confined to their homes. Roads were emptier than usual, markets were closed, partially in some places and fully in others, most offices were forced to employ a work-from-home regime and all incoming and outgoing traffic was blocked.
The situation seemed similar to a government-imposed lockdown prompted by Covid-19 except that it had nothing to do with coronavirus. The government, in fact, was doing whatever it could to keep the roads and businesses open.
The blockade was imposed by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a political organization that came into being a few years ago over a single point agenda of protecting the honor of the Prophet of Islam. It was protesting the detention of its chief, Saad Rizvi, who was arrested on April 12. According to law enforcement agencies, his detention was a “preemptive measure” because he had urged his party members to prepare for an agitation on April 20 -- the deadline his organization had set for the government to expel the French ambassador in Islamabad.
The deadline had its origin in an agreement forged between the federal government and TLP leadership in February 2021. The agreement obliged the former to present a proposal before the parliament for the expulsion of the French envoy as a protest over the showing of blasphemous caricatures by a French teacher in his class. (He was later beheaded by a Muslim teenager.)
With less than ten days to go before the deadline and no apparent government intention to meet it, Rizvi announced a long march to Islamabad. Given that TLP protests usually cause a lot of disruption to public life, the government detained Rizvi in order to stop the march before it started.
What followed proved to be equally – if not more – disruptive. TLP members came out in large numbers in Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi. They blocked major intra-city and inter-city roads and refused to end the blockade until their chief was released. When police attempted to remove them through force, violent clashes erupted in many parts of the country – particularly in Lahore – in which several policemen were badly beaten up. A couple of them died later.
While the protests were still going on, the federal interior ministry banned TLP under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997. Immediately after the ban, the police launched a massive operation to remove TLP protesters from various public places. This led to another round of clashes.
Peer Waqar Ahmed Shah Hashmi claims to have overseen the medical examinations of 80 TLP members who, according to him, were injured in the police action. At least three of them died, he says. He also repeats an unsubstantiated allegation which many TLP members and supporters have leveled against the police. “Around 25 unarmed TLP workers were killed in police shooting,” he alleges but offers no evidence.
Hashmi is a lawyer in Lahore (though he originally comes from Burewala town in southern Punjab’s Vehari district). He joined TLP in 2017 because he was “inspired” by its protest sit-in at Faizabad, near Islamabad, that year. He later founded the Labbaik Lawyers Movement, a group of lawyers ideologically, albeit not organizationally, affiliated with TLP.
He claims that hundreds of TLP members are still behind bars. “We are providing legal services to all the arrested members and leaders of the organization,” he tells Sujag.
Hashmi is also getting ready to argue in favor of a review petition that TLP has filed at the interior ministry against the ban imposed on it. The success of the petition is critical for the party’s survival. If it loses its case, it will require an alternative mechanism to keep itself alive in the public arena.
The state strikes back
The government possesses two major instruments to ban a political organization – each with different implications. The first one, delineated in the Elections Act, is used against a party for having financial and organizational links with another state and/or non-state actors abroad and for indulging in terrorism.
The second instrument is derived from the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997. It empowers the federal government to proscribe a political party or any other organization if it is involved in terrorism. By using this instrument, the government can also include the leaders and members of a proscribed party in 4th Schedule – a list created under the Anti-Terrorism Act – which obliges them to keep their area police informed about their movements.
A Lahore-based lawyer explains that this type of ban authorizes the government to “seize the offices of the proscribed party or organization, ban its press coverage and stop the printing of its poster, banners and other party literature”. The government can also block identity cards, passports and bank accounts of its office bearers and their arms licenses can be revoked too, he says.
Since 2000, Pakistan has banned many organizations under the Anti-Terrorism Act which obliges the interior ministry that it informs the proscribed party in writing as to what grounds have been used for its proscription. The party also has the right to challenge its proscription by filing a review petition at the interior ministry.
In TLP’s case, this process was set in motion on 15th April 2021 when the interior ministry issued a notification in the official gazette, saying that it is enlisting TLP as a proscribed organization. The notification said TLP was banned because it was “engaged in terrorism, acted in a manner prejudicial to the peace and security of the country, involved in creating anarchy in the country by intimidating the public, caused grievous bodily harm, hurt and death to the personnel of Law Enforcement Agencies and innocent by-standers, attacked civilians and officials, created wide-scale hurdles, threatened, abused and promoted hatred, vandalized and ransacked public and government properties including vehicles and caused arson, blocked essential health supplies to hospitals, and has used, threatened, coerced, intimidated and overawed the government, the public and created sense of fear and insecurity in the society and the public at large”.
A few days after this notification was issued, Punjab’s home department included around 100 TLP leaders in 4th Schedule. The provincial government directed district administrations to restrain their movement and stop them from collecting any funds.
TLP’s lawyers claim they have never received in writing the grounds for the banning of their party. They, nevertheless, have filed a review petition at the interior ministry on 29th April 2021. Their petition contends that the grounds given in the government notification are “quiet vague, whimsical, untrue, illegal, unlawful… [contradictory to] ground realities and against the norms of natural justice”. It also alleges that the government is treating TLP with “deceit, deception and chicanery”.
Hashmi makes another point. Referring to three agreements between the government and TLP – signed in 2017, 2018 and 2021 – he says: “If TLP is a terrorist organization, why has the government signed these agreements with it and promised to meet all its demands?”
He claims his organization does not use any arms during its protests (though he does not explain why its protests always involve violent clashes with law enforcement agencies). He also argues that banning TLP could set a dangerous precedent because, according to him, all the major parties have been accused of violence and vandalism in the past. Some of them are alleged to have even committed murders and attacked government institutions, he says. “If we are to be banned, which political party in this country deserves to stay functional?”
Making the ban effective
Pakistan’s history of banning political parties, especially religious ones, suggests that none of them have been eliminated completely and effectively – in particular over the last couple of decades. In most cases, members of the proscribed parties were allowed to form new organizations to continue their activities. The state’s policy to bring these parties into “mainstream” politics as opposed to consigning them to elimination is, at least partially, to be blamed for the ineffectiveness of bans on them.
Zafarullah Khan, former executive director of Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Services (PIPS), points out that this policy of “mainstreaming” is no longer as secret as it used to be under the government of General Pervez Musharraf in 2000s. He says the last government of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) owned it publicly. “PMLN’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on record that his government will mainstream these parties,” Khan says.
He also refers to the banning of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a Lahore-based organization alleged to have sent Pakistani militants into Indian Occupied Kashmir. “After it was banned during the PMLN tenure, it was allowed to resurface as Milli Muslim League.” Similarly, he says, Muavia Azam, son of the founder of a banned anti-Shia sectarian outfit, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, was given a legal leeway to contest 2018 general elections under the banner of Rah-e-Haq Party. “He is now an elected representative in Punjab Assembly,” says Khan.
Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, in fact, has resurfaced more than once under news names. One of its latest avatars, Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, has also taken part in elections in 2013. Though it was banned later, its leaders, including its chief Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, can be often seen addressing public gatherings and taking part in political activities. Its senior leader Aurangzaib Farooqi also contested 2018 election as a candidate of Rah-e-Haq Party from a constituency in Korangi, Karachi, and came second.
The federal government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has continued the same policy. Its Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary explained in March 2019 as to how the government would go about mainstreaming the banned parties/organizations. “We have a three-pronged strategy to deal with the proscribed organizations,” he said. “Firstly, banned outfits would be disarmed and then there would be [their] economic integration. Those associated with them would be given loans. Employment opportunities would be created for them. At the third stage, there would be political mainstreaming in which they will be allowed to take part in elections as individuals or as groups,” he said.
In effect, this policy allows banned parties/organizations to retain their political capital as well as their networks of members, supporters and sympathizers which can be organized and mobilized through a new setup.
The same applies to TLP.
Even if it remains banned, this will not eliminate its support base which can easily assert itself both in agitations and elections under a new name. In Zafarullah Khan’s words: As the political representative of Barelvi school of thought within Sunni Islam, TLP or its successors will continue to appeal to voters across central Punjab and in some parts of Karachi.
He explains that various political parties representing this school have had large electoral following in Punjab’s various districts – such as Mianwali, Jhang, Dera Ghazi Khan and Lahore – as well as in Karachi in the 1970s. These parties, however, splintered in 1980s and 1990s and were then overshadowed by Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek and a militant organization, Sunni Tehreek, he says.
Now it is TLP that publicly flaunts its credentials as the sole representative of Barelvis in Pakistan. It says in its review petition that it “represents the majority population of Ahle Sunnat Brailvis...” Even after the ban, it will continue to enjoy large scale support among Pakistani Barelvis.
Its political appeal among the members of this school of thought was proven, to a large extent, in 2018 election when it polled the third highest number of votes in Punjab and won two Sindh Assembly seats from Karachi. These electoral results point to another problem the government is confronted with: what to do with TLP’s members of Sindh Assembly? The government cannot unseat them unless it takes a different route and bans TLP under the Elections Act.
Under this act, a party can be dissolved for two reasons: if it is found to be foreign-aided or if it operates in a manner prejudicial to Pakistan’s sovereignty and integrity including indulging in terrorism. But the act also obliges the government to refer the dissolution of a party to the Supreme Court of Pakistan which has the authority to uphold or reject it. If the dissolution is upheld, the Supreme Court directs the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to remove the banned organization from its list of parties eligible to contest elections. Any legislator belonging to a dissolved party also automatically stands disqualified to hold his or her seat.
This is how National Awami Party was dissolved in 1970s. It, indeed, remains the only party in Pakistan to have been banned under the Elections Act.
Short of that kind of dissolution, expect TLP to continue disrupting public life every now and then – though probably under some other name.
This report was first published by Lok Sujag on 1 Jun 2021, on its old website.
Published on 10 Jun 2022