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Anatomy of a movement

Assessing the strength of TLP which is now the fifth largest political party in terms of votes, after having contested by-election for the first time less than a year ago and obtaining a party symbol even later

Anatomy of a movement
The wheel chair-bound Rizvi, addressing the rally at Bhati Gate. — Photo by Rahat Dar

An emotionally charged Muhammad Nadeem chanted full-throated slogan ‘Tajdar-e Khatam-e Nabuwat Zindabad’ in a sizeable rally of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) on Lahore’s Mall Road on Monday Aug 6, to protest against the alleged rigging in recent general election. The TLP Chief Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi who was leading the rally charged up his followers to raise slogans.

It was drizzling when thousands of TLP’s activists took out the rally from Bhati Gate to Mall Road. Nadeem, a 46-year old fruit-seller from nearby Mozang area, says, “I supported Pakistan People’s Party till 2008. In 2013, I voted for PML-N and this time I voted for TLP.”

To a question about the motivation behind the change in his political ideology from left to right, he responds, “As a Muslim, I could not compromise on the issue of Khatam-e Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) when the PML-N Government tried to change the parliamentarians’ oath.” He said he went to Islamabad to participate in the sit-in by TLP at Faizabad, Rawalpindi in Nov 2017. “There, I heard the sermons of Hazrat Sahib (respectfully referring to Rizvi) and felt the warmth of faith in my heart.”

Nadeem is not the only staunch supporter; there might be thousands or hundreds of thousands of others who have together brought TLP into the political limelight. They are mostly working classes but also students from Central Punjab. The students have come to know about Rizvi through social media. Otherwise, Barelvi mosques and their prayer leaders have been instrumental in Rizvi’s popularity. Imams of mosques in a city like Lahore have been praising him and calling him ‘Ameerul Mujahideen’. This support might grow in future owing to various factors.

The wheel chair-bound Rizvi, addressing the rally, shouted: “Our mandate has been stolen. Still, our spirits are high because we are not losers. We are the winners. Those, who won the majority seats look disturbed.” He pledged to continue the political struggle till “we establish rule of the Prophet’s (PBUH) Shariah” and announced “TLP would field candidates in by-elections in all vacated constituencies”.

Khadim Rizvi, called ‘Hazrat Sahib’ by his supporters, is known for his firebrand oratory, harsh language against opponents and elephant’s memory. Born in 1966 in Attock to a farmer’s family, Rizvi got religious education and landed a job in Punjab Auqaf Department where he served as a prayer leader at Pir Makki Mosque in Lahore till 2011. He was terminated from his job after Mumtaz Qadri, a security guard, assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. Rizvi not only declared the act justified but also started efforts for the release of Qadri. This made him prominent amongst Barelvi supporters.

It bagged only two provincial seats from Karachi for Sindh Assembly but is said to be instrumental in PML-N’s defeat on 12 seats for NA, costing PTI five seats and MQM-Pakistan two seats (the margin of the victory is less than the votes bagged by TLP).

Rizvi is on wheelchair since 2006 when he suffered injuries in a car accident near Gujranwala while coming from Rawalpindi. A dedicated follower of Imam Ahmed Raza Brelvi and fan of poet Allama Iqbal, Rizvi is also a Hafiz-e Quran and Sheikhul Hadith.

Close aides say that Rizvi was not at all perturbed over the termination of his job. “Instead he was happy as if he had got his freedom. Despite being on wheelchair, he started visiting various places to muster support for his cause — protection and implementation of blasphemy laws and release of Qadri. And, he succeeded,” says an aide who joined him after leaving Dawat-e-Islami, a non-political Barelvi organization founded in early 1980s.

On Feb 29 2016, the government hanged Mumtaz Qadri on the orders of the Supreme Court which had upheld his conviction. Various Barelvi leaders and thousands of followers and supporters gathered in Islamabad. After several negotiations, a truce was signed between the government and the leaders following which they dispersed. But, Rizvi announced he would counter the PML-N in every constituency. The TLP cadres blame PML-N for Qadri’s hanging.

In 2017, after the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his home seat NA-120 (now NA 125) got vacant, Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool (TLYR) supported an independent candidate Shaikh Yaqoob in the by-elections, as it was not registered as a party with Election Commission of Pakistan. Yaqoob got over 7000 votes, reducing the margin of victory of Begum Kalsoom Nawaz against Dr Yasmeen Rashid.

Later, the Tehrik got registered with ECP as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. “TLP is the political wing of TLYR,” says Ejaz Ashrafi, Lahore-based spokesperson of TLP.

 

TLP fielded 566 candidates across Pakistan out of which 178 were contesting for National Assembly seats. It bagged only two provincial seats from Karachi for Sindh Assembly but is said to be instrumental in PML-N’s defeat on 12 seats for NA, costing PTI five seats and MQM-Pakistan two seats (the margin of the victory is less than the votes bagged by TLP).

“We will sit on the opposition benches in Sindh Assembly,” says Ashrafi, adding TLP contested the election without entering into any alliance or seat adjustment with any party or individual.

According to Ashrafi, “The Returning Officers (ROs) have robbed us of our mandate. They hatched a conspiracy to deprive us of various seats where our candidates were winning.

“TLP’s polling agents were not given Form 45, they were not included in the counting process at a majority of polling stations across Pakistan and till date we haven’t got Form 45.”

When asked about elements behind the rigging, he replies, “It is Election Commission’s responsibility to bring facts before the nation.”

About the perception that TLP was being supported by hidden hands, Ashrafi says, “It is altogether a wrong impression. We demand a probe into the rigging allegations and if anybody including the hidden hands are involved, they should be treated according to law.” He claims the TLP got far more than 2.2 million votes but the negligence or conspiracy of the ECP reduced their original number of votes.

Analyst Khaled Ahmed says, “The elements which had been promoting jihadi groups in Pakistan this time tried TLP, though it is not a jihadi outfit. Their support gave a sudden rise to the party. It is different from other Barelvi groups as well. Rizvi took a rigid stand on blasphemy law and showed his muscles to the PML-N government on various occasions. Traditionally, most of the barelvi voters and parties had tilt towards PML-N. TLP has broken this myth in Punjab.”

The Tehreek is now adopting the face of a regular organisation. With a proper headquarters at Lahore’s Multan Road and several sub-offices in various mosques of Lahore, TLP has opened up provincial and district offices in all four provinces. About the financial sources of the organisation, Ashrafi says, “TLP is a wall to protect the ideology of finality of Prophethood and ideology of Pakistan. People support us because of our ideology and donate money to us.”

He adds TLP did not receive a single penny as party fund or fee for the party ticket from even a single candidate out of 566. “All of them ran their campaigns from their own pockets. We don’t have any foreign funding. The only source is Pakistani people.”

Khaled Ahmed says, “People from central Punjab, in the past, supported PML-N physically and financially. Now, they have started sponsoring TLP. It would stay as long as, people keep donating money to it.”

Condemning extremism and terrorism, Ashrafi says, “TLP believes all banned groups should be treated according to law. They are the enemies of Pakistan and Islam who are misusing religion for their nefarious designs. They should be handled with iron hand. But, we also condemn the conspiracies against blasphemy laws and will foil them.”

This scribe had a chance to attend the media talks of Khadim Rizvi a couple of times, and observed that the followers around him try to pressurise journalists when they pose hard questions by interfering verbally or gazing at them.

A bunch of Rizvi supporters had, allegedly, attacked a vigil, organised by civil society at Liberty Chowk in January 2015 to mark the death anniversary of Salmaan Taseer. A bunch of youth armed with batons had beaten female activists as well.

Analysts are variously predicting the future of the movement. Maulana Masoodur Rehman, a Barelvi scholar, based in Lahore, previously associated with Dawat-e-Islami, says that TLP has emerged as a vibrant and powerful representative of the Barelvi sect in Pakistan. “I personally know several Barelvi leaders from other groups who want to join TLP and will soon. I also joined because of TLP’s ideology and stance; otherwise I don’t have any interest in politics.”

Rehman says TLP has given hope to the Barelvi sect in Pakistan which was being targeted by terrorist groups. “Shrines were being bombed and leaders attacked. The brave stand of TLP has also given courage to oppressed Barelvi people in various parts of Pakistan. TLP will expand in the coming days.”

Political analyst Wajahat Masood says, “It is strange that TLP emerged as the fifth biggest political party in terms of votes but could not get even a single National Assembly seat. It indicates the party is establishing its roots amongst people, and might become a major challenger to other parties in the future.”

Mubasher Bukhari

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Mubasher Bukhari is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and researcher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

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