A number of friends based outside Pakistan were left puzzled weeks into the Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) Faizabad protest after violence broke out across the country as police attempted to move the protestors and open the arterial road between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Several astonished friends forwarded me material they had received alleging the protest and unrest was the doing of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to involve the poor army and pit it against the people to save himself from corruption charges, and demanded to be explained the rationale to. A quick appeal to reason at least took care of the absurd conspiracy theory: that no government or political party gets religious zealots to protest against itself, have itself accused of blasphemy or instigates violent riots across the country, no matter what; besides there is no conceivable link or causality between trapping the ‘poor’ army into conflict with the people and escaping punishment for alleged corruption.
For the who and what, rewind to the by-election in NA 120 in Lahore for in September this year. Suddenly two brand new religious parties entered the fray to contest that by-election. One was Milli Muslim League (MML) founded by Hafiz Saeed. The other new party was the TLP founded by an erstwhile obscure Barelvi cleric, Khadim Husain Rizvi, who had gained a reputation on social media for his colourful language cursing public figures. He had developed a small cult following in his support of Mumtaz Qadri. Just a year earlier, a retired ISI officer had spilt the beans on national television that the outfit wanted government to mainstream militants. But the then PM Sharif had refused. Moving right along, however, these two extremist/militant parties were propped and fielded against the ruling party PMLN in the Lahore by-election. Together the two parties cut the PMLN vote by about 13,000 with TLP bagging over 7,000. PMLN still won the seat, but its nose bloodied by a reduced margin.
Now forward to the march led by Rizvi from Lahore to Islamabad which culminated in the 21 day sit-in in Faizabad, blocking the main artery between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. It was ostensibly to protest ‘meddling with the Khatm-e-Nabooat (finality of the Prophet) law’ by the government, specifically by the ruling party, PMLN.
In actuality, the parliament had been working for over a year and half on the Electoral Reforms Bill, and as part of the reforms, had repealed the entire Conduct of General Election Order (CGEO) 2002, which had been put in place by then military dictator Pervaiz Musharraf. Two sections of CGEO dealt with the Ahmedia sect, one of which was a redundant repetition of a provision of the constitution of Pakistan, while the repeal of the other would have enabled the Ahmedia to end their decades long boycott of elections and be able to vote whilst registered on the general electoral rolls, without having to declare themselves as non-Muslims. Given that the Ahmedia sect have boycotted voting ever since 1974 when they were declared non-Muslim by Pakistan’s parliament after Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto caved into the Khatm-e-Nabooat movement threatening to de-seat his government with agitation and widespread riots, the Ahmedia have effectively been disenfranchised since that act of parliament in 43 years ago.
Now it is a matter of record and minutes of parliamentary committee meetings document that the language of the Bill was developed and agreed to by consensus between all political parties, whether in government or in opposition. Further, the Bill was passed unanimously by the lower house, but it was challenged in the Upper House by JUIF, a coalition partner of the ruling party. The ruling party agreed to pass the amendment and re-insert the sections pertaining to the Ahmedia sect, but opposition parties having a majority in the Senate won the vote to pass the Bill without the amendment.
However, a media campaign blaming the government for the change gathered force. Other parliamentary parties partook in the campaign opportunistically, pretending they had had no role to play in the drafting or passage of the Bill. Government’s protestations and clarifications were ignored, and the religious parties soon started to demand resignation of the federal law minister because he had tabled the final bill. The government moved quickly to re-insert the Ahmedia sections and the revised Bill was approved by both houses of parliament fairly quickly and the matter stood resolved. Or so it should have been.
But certain forces remained adamant to keep the non-issue alive in the media and religious groups continued to demand reversal of the Bill and ministerial resignations. Next came a press conference by the Director General of the ISPR. Primarily, the press conference was meant to defend the army’s foray into economic policy of the country where the DG insisted he had a right as a citizen to comment on economic policies of the government. In response to what appeared to be question after planted question, he stated that the government had indeed made a mistake with the Khatm-e-Nabooat law, and that Pakistan army would defend it at every cost. He said that every Muslim Pakistani would be willing to sacrifice his life for the cause and that the Pakistan army would never compromise on the issue. With this statement, he neatly laid the blame at the feet of government/ ruling party (not parliament) and arrogated to the army the role of defender and saviour of Islam. To keen observers, the next frontier became apparent.
Soon after this, the sections of Pakistani media generally said to be proxies of the military establishment ran a systematic campaign against the ruling party as having attempted to have sneakily meddled with the Khatm-e-Nabooat law to favour the Ahmedia community. The fact is that the actual Khatm-e-Nabooat law had remained untouched in the Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan and the campaign was dishonest and opportunistic. Amidst this campaign, cleric Rizvi of TLP commenced his protest march on Islamabad.
Why was this campaign needed? The sit-ins of PTI’s Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri of Pakistan Awami Tehreek in 2014, brazenly encouraged by the military, had failed to dislodge Nawaz Sharif. However, the Superior Judiciary obliged and dismissed the elected Prime Minister in July 2017 in the Panama Papers. But Nawaz Sharif refused to go away. He returned home to Lahore in a mammoth four day rally from Islamabad that saw hundreds of thousands of people feting him, responding to him, understanding him and wanting to support him. His core message to the people asked, ‘mujhe kyon nikala? (why was I expelled?)’ whilst driving home extremely successfully the message that he was disqualified over the technicality that he did not take a salary from his son’s company because no corruption charges could either be brought or proved against him. The disqualification had backfired massively, making him more popular than before and he had successfully demonstrated his street power. Therefore a blasphemy type of campaign against Nawaz Sharif and his government was needed to bring them down.
Subsequent bizarre developments further clarified who and what was behind the Faizabad sit-in. A judge of the Islamabad High Court ordered the Federal Interior Minister to remove the protestors from the road; shortly after this order the judge served a contempt notice on the minister; when the minister deployed police and the frontier constabulary, and they were nearly successful in moving and arresting several law breaking protestors, a force of over two thousand (by some accounts) highly trained and equipped appeared out of nowhere and beat the living daylights out of police and FC personnel who had to beat a retreat; the Rangers’ force that reports defacto to the military watched the massacre of police unmoved; the Interior Minister subsequently ordered the military to act in aid of government and remove the protestors; the military chief effectively said ‘I don’t think so’; the DG of the military tweeted that both stakeholders (govt and violent religious protestors) should remain non-violent; after nightfall, in the presence of 17 federal and provincial ministers, a couple of generals had the interior minister sign away the law minister’s resignation and other choice delights coveted by the military; the next day Khadim Rizvi, the protest leader told the BBC the military had engineered the ‘negotiations’.
Who and what was behind this, you ask?
The writer is a human rights worker and freelance columnist.