Despite all the support that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) government got from political parties in the situation that ensued after Supreme Court’s judgment on Aasia bibi’s case on Oct 31, its response was meek, to say the least.
Was it primarily because of PTI’s past politics? During the Nawaz Sharif’s government, Imran Khan and many party members close to him gave a tacit support to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan’s (TLP) protests. Back then, Imran Khan was reported to have even advised his party activists to join the protests when Khadim Hussain Rizvi and company blocked roads in Islamabad in November 2017. It was natural that Rizvi’s mobilised workers were taken aback when Prime Minister Khan issued a threat to TLP protestors, warning them not to challenge the writ of the state.
Political parties’ response to the Supreme Court’s decision was calculated and careful, especially after the court reserved its ruling over Aasia Bibi’s plea against her conviction on October 8. On October 31, when the decision was finally announced followed by TLP threats to the judges, it was Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari who first issued the statement that all state institutions must stand firm with the Supreme Court. By the evening, the prime minister was forced to address the nation on television.
When the incarcerated President of PML-N, Shahbaz Sharif told members of his parliamentary party meeting on Nov 5 that they should support the PTI government in dealing with TLP-led countrywide protests, everyone agreed that this was the right move.
Government’s committee led by Defense Minister Pervez Khattak consulted both Shahbaz Sharif and PPP leader, Khursheed Shah, inside the parliament building on November 5, 2018. Both the parties supported the PTI government in dealing with protestors but both were reluctant to agree with the government on the issue of use of force against the protestors.
“Establishing the writ of the state was our policy when we were in government and Imran Khan is basically repeating the PML-N government’s policy at that time,” says Ahsan Iqbal, former interior minister, while talking to TNS.
Similarly, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in his speech in the National Assembly expressed his support for the prime minister. However, both the parties were reluctant to openly support the use of force against protestors.
The only secular party which clearly supported police operation against the protestors to prevent violence from spreading was Awami National Party (ANP). The party was highly critical of the way the government handled the protestors and the way they were given a free hand to continue with violent protests. “A political activist was sent to jail for criticising the judgment of the Supreme Court and here we have a mullah issuing a fatwa for killing Supreme Court judges and army chief,” says Senator Zahid Khan, ANP leader, talking to TNS. “We also faced a somewhat similar situation in Swat when we were in power in KP. First we negotiated with the militants but when they did not stop the violence we launched an operation against them.”
All the religious parties, on the other hand, seemed eager to prove themselves more radical than the other. This probably showed the desire to attract more religious votes. The street protests against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi were being spearheaded by the Barelvis so it became impossible for the Deobandis to remain bystanders. Both the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Jamaat-e-Islami launched protest movements of their own.
“We have launched a protest movement of our own. It will continue as long as we achieve our objectives,” says Ameer-ul-Azeem, spokesman Jamaat-e-Islami. “This is an issue about the identity of Islam. This is not about one woman. When the IMF, Pope and European Union come in support of someone, it is not based on the principles of justice.”
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The JI spokesman criticised the government’s handling of the TLP protest, “The government tried to establish the writ of the state through deceit. It gravely mishandled the protests. It should have taken the political parties into confidence when the judgment on Aasia’s case was reserved by the SC.”
In the first week of November, JUI-F launched a protest movement from Peshawar against the acquittal. Rejecting the decision of the SC in the blasphemy case, JUI chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, warned of a more violent agitation across the country until the decision is reversed.