Pakistan’s political discourse has always been marred by the close nexus between its dominant and all pervasive institution, the Army, and right wing religio-political groups. Seen from a sectarian prism, the Pakistani state has always centred its economic, political, and social opportunities and benefits on the hardline Sunni-Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith religio-political and militant groups to achieve its domestic and foreign policy imperatives with regard to India and Afghanistan.
In contrast to such austere, strict, and literal interpreters of Islam, the Sunni-Barelvis, known for their Sufi mystic and peace-loving practices, remained on the fringes of strategic importance for the Pakistani Army. Right-wing religio-political groups of different sectarian ideological dispensations have always claimed an independent political role for their supported militant outfits. The Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, a Sunni-Deobandi religio-political group, has kept a distant profile from Sunni-Deobandi militant outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, despite providing them with a well-established support base.
Such a marked distinction between Islamic political groups and their militant affiliates have transformed into an overt exhibition of the radicalised nature of the Islamist religio-political groups in alliance with the Army, making the political scene more radical and militant. This can be witnessed clearly in the recent phenomenon of rising Barelvi assertiveness in the form of radical activities carried out by an Islamist outfit under the banner of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah. (TLYRA).
This paradigm shift occurred with the dramatic shift both in the international and national scenarios, when Pakistan was forced to join the US-led war on terror and to take action against the militant protégés it had always nurtured and supported.
Considering it a “harsh” step against them led most of these players (mainly the Sunni-Deobandis), with different target theatres, to turn against the Pakistani state. To evade the wrath of the Sunni-Deobandi progeny of the Pakistani Army, the establishment sought an alternative by coming close to the Sunni-Barelvi militant groups. An extension to the state’s adoption of their ideological narrative by presenting Barelvis as peace- loving, promoters of a softer version of Islam as an antidote to the rising volume of Sunni-Deobandi violence. The Barelvis are now consolidating themselves by becoming more radical in the already radicalised socio-political landscape of Pakistan.
Militant Barelvi extremism came to the fore following the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri in Islamabad in July 2011. Qadri, a follower of the Barelvi proselytizing group Dawat-e-Islami, justified the murder by accusing Taseer of being a “blasphemer” for visiting a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was jailed on charges of blasphemy. Taseer’s murder provided an opportunity for some Barelvi parties to join hands and become more vocal and assertive as Ashiqan-e-Rasool (Lovers of Prophet) and their “duty” to stop blasphemy.
The Barelvi groups held massive demonstrations and protests to oppose Qadri’s trial, which they viewed as unfair. However, Qadri was executed in February 2016. Thereafter, Barelvi religious organisations coalesced into a politico-religious organisation TLYRA, intended to impose the Nizam-e-Mustafa (government system of the Prophet); and secure the Prophet’s sanctity by seeking death for blasphemers.
There was little resistance from the state to the spread of this radical outfit and its growing support base. Last year, TLYRA entered the political arena through its political arm, Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) under the leadership of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, one of the movement’s founders.
Astonishingly, it secured third position, with 7,130 votes in the NA-120 by-election, outnumbering the mainstream Pakistan’s Peoples Party. The same radical political outfit sent more than 2000 protestors against bringing in an amendment to the wording of the oath (Khatm-i-Nubuwwat or the finality of the Prophet) that lawmakers in parliament and the voters have to undertake.
Reduction of an oath into a “mere declaration” provided TLP a new direction to take the already rising Barelvi assertiveness to new heights by carrying out massive anti-blasphemy sit-in protests in Islamabad and Rawalpindi in November 2017, in which at least 6 people died and around 200 were injured. Unlike traditional Islamist political parties, violence has been overtly and aggressively projected by this far right group, contributing in furthering the religio-sectarian radicalisation of Pakistani society and polity. Such a virulent political crisis was silenced only after the Army intervened by bringing the civilian government and the protestors to the negotiating table.
The Army’s meddling in political affairs was appreciated with a thanksgiving note to the Chief of Army staff for “saving the nation from a big catastrophe,” ignoring harsh criticism by the Islamabad high court for its “extra-constitutional” interference.
With the Army’s tacit, unimpeded support to the radical Barelvi outfit as a counterpoise to the Sunni-Deobandi’s political, social, cultural, ideological, and militant influence, the TLP contested the recent general elections in July 2018. The TLP bagged 21,91,679 votes in the general elections, becoming the sixth largest party in terms of the number of votes garnered in polls. By supporting and allowing the radical Barelvi group to enter the political field and placating its rigid religious card, the Army has enabled religionisation of Pakistani society and polity, taking sectarian radicalisation and militantism to new heights.