Several hundred protesters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) were camped out at the Faizabad Interchange near Islamabad on Monday after marching from Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi over the weekend. These protestors are being lead by Khadim Hussain Rizvi who was released on bail by Lahore High Court in May 2020.
TLP protesters were growing as Monday dawned. Despite the rains on Sunday, more than 300 men were sitting on the bridge and more than a thousand were under the shelter of the bridge. Official sources had privately told the media, on strict condition of non attribution. Mainstream TV media have not been reporting this development, though English newspapers, like The Dawn and The Nation, have been updating on the TLP plans and negotiations with the Islamabad administration. Social media is erupting with anger on the traffic nightmare between the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad and the shut down of cellular networks since Sunday morning.
It is as yet unclear whether the rally will transform into a sit-in. The protesters march against the publication of blasphemous cartoons in a French magazine and demand that the Pakistan government cut off ties with the European country over the incident. French President Emmanuel Macron has defended the publication of cartoons, deemed insulting to Islam, under French laws on freedom of speech.
As mentioned above, mainstream Urdu media have not been reporting on the gathering, but English-language newspapers, like Dawn and The Express Tribune, have published a few reports on the protest. However, social media users in the twin cities have been active in providing updates on the developing situation in the area, with several videos of the TLP rally shared on Facebook and Twitter over the past twenty-four hours.
Why Rawalpindi Police allowed TLP to march towards Islamabad?
Over the past several weeks, the protest movement aimed against the presence of the French diplomats in Islamabad has been gaining momentum. Last month, TLP had sought permission from the Islamabad administration to hold a rally in front of the French Embassy but were denied. In the ensuing talks, the party was allowed to hold a protest at Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi to register their anger against the cartoons.
Breaking Alert: Unruly #TLP mob sit at Faizabad & hundreds of strangers r roaming in streets of Sector I-8.Charged crowd atacked police men.Nine police men injured & shifted 2 hospital.Writ of State is only to suspend mob signal & internet.Khadim Rizvi’s men made capital hostage.
— Zahid Gishkori (@ZahidGishkori) November 15, 2020
At the time, several police officers had confirmed to the media that the protesters would not be allowed to march to Islamabad after the rally. Statements of CCPO and RPO Pindi were published in major English newspapers to that effect. However, on Sunday evening, as the TLP protest concluded, heavy rains lashed the twin cities. The containers brought in to seal off the entrance to Islamabad were not placed on the roads, and the protesters were allowed to reach Faizabad Interchange late Sunday.
Why Rawalpindi Police allowed the TLP protesters outside the Liaqat Bagh to march towards Faizabad Interchange, at the junction of Islamabad and Rawalpindi remains unclear. In 2017, Khadim Rizvi and his TLP supporters had blocked the twin cities and the heavy traffic towards Murree and Azad Kashmir for almost three weeks by blocking the same Faizabad Interchange. “A Case Study existed” a senior officer on condition on anonymity told GVS. “Why then allow TLP to repeat the same story?” is beyond understanding, officer added.
Political experts speculate that the protesters may have reached an agreement with the administration of the capital to gather at Faizabad and hold a rally, where TLP chief Rizvi is likely to address them before a peaceful dispersal. This strategy may fulfil the political requirements of TLP and Khadim Hussain Rizvi whose party has been created on the single agenda of “Respect for Prophet” (Namoos-e-Risalat). However, an official confirmation in this regard is still lacking. After sporadic clashes near Liaqat Bagh on Sunday evening, the protesters were by and large allowed to proceed forward on Murree Road toward Faizabad.
Uncertainty prevailed in the twin cities on Sunday, with students unsure about schools and colleges’ opening. Some universities had exams on Monday. Students to campuses of NDU, NUST, Quaid-e-Azam University, Bahria College, NUML and SZABST etc often travel from the satellite towns of DHA, Bahria Towns and other outlying new residential areas around Islamabad. Population of the “Greater Islamabad” in recent years has grown beyond 1.5 million.
In 2017, TLP staged a sit-in at Faizabad Interchange, and commuting between the twin cities was severely affected. The protest lasted three weeks, created huge difficulties for offices, businesses, colleges and universities and caused massive losses to the national exchequer. A similar situation seems to be developing presently, and citizens are unsure about what will happen next. Everyone awaits for clarity from the city administration and the government that is totally silent on this situation.
TLP: A history of violence
TLP was created in the summer of 2015 after Mumtaz Qadri – the person who shot and killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer over blasphemy in 2011 – was hanged. TLP was created in reaction to Qadri’s execution and made blasphemy a central issue in its political charter. The party was founded by religious leaders Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Ashraf Qadri and quickly gained traction across the nation.
#BreakingNews: Thousands of #TLP supporters on Murree road, #Rawalpindi marching toward #Pakistan’s capital #Islamabad. Big face off between police and protestors expected on Faizabad bridge. pic.twitter.com/P6lCj1FikF
— Asad Ali Toor (@AsadAToor) November 15, 2020
In September/October 2017, TLP organised a show of power in Islamabad by staging a sit-in at Faizabad to call for the removal of then law minister Zahid Hamid after changes were made to the electoral laws of Pakistan regarding Qadianis. TLP holds that Qadianis are non-Muslims and should be treated as such under Pakistani laws. The protest movement quickly spread to other cities, and politicians were attacked as well.
As a result of this show of power, the government first used police action that failed to achieve the desired results. Khakan Abbasi was the PMLN PM, he wanted the army to take action. However Army Chief, Gen. Bajwa, wanted to avoid use by force by army that has no crowd management training and using live ammunition. He recommended negotiations and sought permissions for total autonomy for Rangers and Intelligence for such negotiations. Protracted negotiations followed. After a formal agreement was signed, the TLP protesters dispersed. However, the controversy was generated when a senior Rangers officer distributed cash, Rs. 1000/per released prisoner and told them to use it to travel back to the cities from which they had come. A newspaper reporter captured that on camera creating a totally new controversy.
Some politicians used this video of cash distribution to blame the security establishment for organising the TLP protest to embarrass and weaken the PMLN govt. Security Establishment repeatedly explained that only 12 or 13 released prisoners were given cash by the Rangers officer in public only to help the poor activists to speedily go back to their towns and villages after an agreement had been signed and prisoners were released and were on roads on their own. As main crowd had left by then. However the political controversy failed to die and resulted in a Supreme Court case by Justice Qazi Faez Isa that also blamed the security agencies.
Events next year proved all conspiracy theorists wrong when TLP again blocked Faizabad Interchange and created serious challenges for the new government. It was in October 2018 when Imran Khan government had taken over after the July 2018 elections and opposition had blamed PTI government of being supported by the establishment. A Christian woman, Asia Noreen, commonly referred to as “Asia Bibi” accused of blasphemy was released by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and allowed to travel abroad.
TLP marched on to Islamabad and when its leaders – Khadim Rizvi and Ashraf Qadir – were arrested, the TLP activists attacked common citizens across the motorways and roads leading to casualties and perhaps one death. Mood across the country turned sour against the TLP. However fearing greater violence and alleged support by PMLN activists across Punjab, PTI government compromised and signed an agreement with TLP promising that Asia Bibi will not be allowed to fly out of the country till the decision of appeal from the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Asia Bibi was thus placed on “Exit Control List” (ECL) or “No Fly List”. Imran Khan government came under severe criticism from its supporters within the country and across the world. Even Jemima Goldsmith, Imran Khan’s ex-wife tweeted against the decision.
However in November, after another Supreme Court decision on appeal, Asia Bibi was allowed to fly out of Pakistan to Netherland, she finally took asylum in Canada. TLP again decided to read and march onto Islamabad. This time government was ready, hundreds of activists were arrested including the leaders like Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Ashraf Qadir. security agencies cracked down on the TLP in 2018 was hard and meaningful. Several activists were given long term sentences including a brother and nephew of Khadim Hussain Rizvi.
Both Ashraf Qadri and Khadim Hussain Rizvi offered apologies for their rogue acts on video tapes. Ashraf Qadri announced relinquishing all politics. Finally both were released in May 2020, on bail and bonds, by Lahore High Court. Now six months later, Khadim Hussain Rizvi is again sitting on Faizabad Interchange. Is this a new defiance by the paralysed religious fanatic or this is his political predicament that he has to demonstrate on “Namoos-e-Risalat” since this defines his political party and will leave in 24 hours. Demands of breaking relations with France and sending the French Ambassador home are not issues on which the government can even think of giving him a centimetre of space.
As TLP prepares for yet another protest in the capital, citizens are wondering whether the party will be allowed to hold Islamabad hostage yet again, or will the government crack down hard on it as it did in 2018? Officials are still hesitant about approaching media with more information on the matter. As of now there is no clarity.
GVS News Desk with additional input by other sources.