Exonerated: TLP goes from 'militant outfit' to potential PTI ally

Two PTI leaders confirm reports
Nov 05, 2021

Less than a week after the banned Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was classified as "a militant banned organisation" by the most vociferous minister in the federal cabinet, Fawad Chaudhry, it is being described as a potential political ally of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). PTI's Punjab president Ejaz Chaudhry has said he will pay TLP chief Saad Rizvi a visit as soon as the latter is released from prison.

Latest developments suggest that the Punjab government has approved a summary to lift the ban against the TLP.

Under the new deal, the TLP has been allowed to contest the next general elections, and it was assured, during that talks, that the government will lift the ban on the group. A steering committee oversees the execution of the agreement. It is headed by Ali Mohammad Khan, the minister of state for parliamentary affairs, who says his party will welcome the TLP in mainstream politics.

The promise to lift the ban nearly materialized on Thursday, when Punjab cabinet ministers approved a summary in this regard. The summary was approved through circulation, instead of holding a meeting. The ministers were told that they could send their opinions within three days and in the event they abstained from doing so "it shall be deemed that the minister accepts the recommendation(s) contained in the summary."

By Friday, November 5, the TLP was only a notification away from complete exoneration.

The TLP's journey from one end of the spectrum of political acceptability to the other end took exactly one week. These developments show exactly how politics works in Pakistan.

The TLP protesters had left Lahore on October 20 to march on Islamabad with a list of demands. Although the government was able to hold them back successfully at Muridke for a week as it attempted to talk, events took an unexpected turn over the past seven days.

How it unfolded

Thursday, October 27: Federal Information Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhry told journalists that the federal cabinet had decided to treat TLP as "a militant organisation" and that it would be crushed in the same manner as other such groups were eliminated.

"It was decided that the TLP would no more be dealt with as a political party but as a militant organisation and it would not be tolerated anymore," he said after a cabinet meeting.

This statement kickstarted a social media campaign and some Twitter profiles claimed that the TLP was being funded by India.

Friday, October 29. A clash between protesters and law enforcement personnel, especially the Rangers, seemed imminent when the government convened a meeting of the National Security Council and declared that it would neither release TLP chief Saad Rizvi nor expel the French ambassador  two key demands by the TLP. By then the Rangers had put up banners near GT Road in Wazirabad to warn protesters that the law enforcers had been authorized to "shoot miscreants."

The Rangers marked a red line stopping TLP protesters from marching on Islamabad. Photo: Twitter

Saturday, October 30. A delegation of Barelvi ulema led by Sahibzada Hamid Raza met the prime minister at his Bani Gala residence. Crucially, this group did not include Mufti Munibur Rehman, who would later play an important role. Speaking to the ulema, the prime minister said he did not want bloodshed but he would not be blackmailed either. He did make a key offer: if a court orders the release of Saad Rizvi, his government would not object. This was contrary to the PTI's earlier position when it challenged the Lahore High Court's order to release Rizvi before the Supreme Court on October 11.

However, the concession came too late. As the prime minister was meeting the ulema, another meeting was being held elsewhere in the twin cities. This meeting was not publicized and it received little media coverage, though journalists in the capital were fully aware of its importance. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Mohammad Khan began talks to end the standoff with the TLP.

Sunday, October 31. The outcome of these almost secretive talks was announced at a press conference in which Mufti Munibur Rehman told journalists they had resolved the impasse. The interior minister of the country was excluded from the negotiations that were meant to overcome a law and order issue.

It was later confirmed that Mufti Munibur Rehman, businessman Aqeel Karim Dhedhi, and Maulana Bashir Farooqi had met Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Farooqi said on SAMAA TV's programme Nadeem Malik Live that Gen Bajwa had a 1,000 per cent role in the TLP-government agreement.

The confidence in the outcome of these talks was so remarkable that local authorities in Rawalpindi and Islamabad immediately started removing roadblocks. Some of the roadblocks in Jhelum and Gujrat were also removed. Local officials were certain that the TLP rally that camped at Wazirabad would not move forward.

Monday, November 1. The shipping containers from the River Chenab Bridge, the first line of barricades against the TLP marchers, were also removed. By Tuesday, life had mostly returned to normal in cities along GT Road.

Tuesday, November 2. Fawad Chaudhry was busy downplaying the possibility that the banned TLP could "play a vital role" in the formation of the central government after general elections. Responding to a tweet from journalist Zahid Gishkori, he equated the TLP with the Sunni Tehreek, a Barelvi outfit that used violence to advance its goals in the 1990s.

However, within hours, PTI Punjab President Ejaz Chaudhry hinted at a political alliance between the TLP and the PTI in the upcoming general elections. He seemed to confirm the reports that the TLP is to be given a wider role in the new political set-up. The general elections are slated to be held in 2023, but Islamabad is rife with rumours that elections may be held earlier.

Speaking to SAMAA TV, Ejaz Chaudhry said his party was considering a possible "seat adjustment" with the TLP and that he would visit Saad Rizvi after the young man was released from prison.

Ejaz Chaudhry said the electoral alliance could materialize as soon as next month when a National Assembly constituency in Lahore (NA-133) goes to the by-polls.

What TLP offers in return

Ejaz Chaudry's comment went viral and has surprised many. However, it is not an isolated statement. News agency Reuters claimed on Wednesday that under its deal with the government, the TLP has been allowed to contest elections and the ban against it would be lifted.

Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi address a press conference along with National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Mohammad Khan and others in Islamabad. ONLINE PHOTO
Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi address a press conference along with National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Mohammad Khan and others in Islamabad. ONLINE PHOTO

The news agency claimed that in return, the TLP has agreed to withdraw its longstanding demand to have France’s ambassador expelled over the publication of blasphemous caricatures by a French satirical magazine. It said more than 2,000 TLP activists would be set free. SAMAA TV reported on Tuesday that at least 840 have already been released.

The deal between the TLP and the government has not been made public. But he point that the government plans to lift the ban has been confirmed by officials. Speaking on Geo News's show Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Sath Ali Mohammad Khan said the PTI would welcome TLP into the mainstream.

Citing local sources, Agency France Press, too, reported that the government has agreed to lift a ban on the TLP and not create legal hurdles in the release of its leader Saad Rizvi. "In return, the TLP has given up the demand for the French ambassador's expulsion," it said.

However, Mufti Munibur Rehman and analyst Orya Maqbool Jan claim the TLP did not demand the expulsion of the French ambassador in the first place. The TLP demands were for Saad Rizvi to be released, the cases to be ended and the ban lifted, it was not about the French ambassador this time, Jan told Nadeem Malik on Thursday.

The TLP protesters were still at a park in Wazirabad on Wednesday. They say they would return home after the agreement is fully implemented.

Meanwhile, Fawad Chaudhry would not be hushed. In his tweet above, Chaudry points out a bitter possibility for his party and the country: alliance with "such party" means international isolation.

The story was originally published on November 3, 2021 and updated later to reflect the subsequent developments.

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