Banning Mr. Rizvi

Published in Dawn

This past week, Islamabad took the bit between the teeth – an expression favoured by the late, great Cowasjee in these pages – and banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. The announcement came from interior boss Sheikh Rasheed, that same gent that intel agencies once dubbed a TLP supporter.

Though the Sheikh may contain multitudes, few were surprised. The religious right had run riot before. The state had banned political parties before.

And yet this is tricky legal territory. The precedents are mixed – it was the Ayub regime that banned the Jamaat-e-Islami in the ‘60s as ‘an unlawful association’. Quoting a crony in his diaries, Ayub wrote, ‘Mullahs can do (people) no good other than marrying and burying them.’

Chief Justice Cornelius disagreed; the Supreme Court held in Maududi v. Government of Pakistan that the right to freedom of association had been violated. The ban was thrown out. The JI survived.

The left wasn’t as lucky. As the ‘70s wore on, Zulfi Bhutto declared the largest opposition party, the National Awami Party, unlawful. For context, Article 17(2) of our Constitution provides that the government can declare parties to be ‘prejudicial to the sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan,’ and refer the matter to the Supreme Court for a final decision. 

It was a sophisticated move, led by then-Attorney-General Yahya Bakhtiar; a reference to the Court would lend permanency to the ban. ‘We have tolerated Congress and Afghan agents for several years,’ Mr. Bhutto said in Faisalabad, ‘…If the Supreme Court gives a decision to the contrary…and if in consequence of that decision, anything happened, the responsibility will be the responsibility of the Supreme Court.’

Persuaded or not, the Court upheld the ban in Pakistan v. Abdul Wali Khan. It was a wrenching hearing – Chief Justice Hamood called it one of the most difficult cases he’d ever heard. The NAP was destroyed, and never recovered nationally.

That brings us to the present day: the third-ever ban on a specific, major political party. Given the terror years in the middle, Islamabad’s weapon of choice is Section 11-B of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, which banishes TLP to the Act’s First Schedule, a laundry list of proscribed groups.

That means the party’s offices will be sealed, its speech silenced, its bank accounts frozen, its members liable to arrest. But the PTI government is also going for the two-punch: after banning the TLP in the first phase, Imran will send a reference to the Supreme Court urging its dissolution in the second phase – just as Bhutto, Bakhtiar & Co. did over half a century ago.

The TLP is, after all, an Election Commission-approved political party, its members sit in the Sindh Assembly, and it secured 2.2 million votes in the previous polls – the fifth-highest.

Once again, all roads lead to the Supreme Court; only time will tell if the verdict is a Wali or a Maududi.

Legal hurdles out of the way, we now come to the core problem, made clear by the elder Rizvi’s mammoth funeral in Lahore.

Already, much of what we’re seeing is back-to-front. The tragic lessons of Justice Isa’s judgment have faded from view. The PTI, which smirked at Rizvi’s dharna in 2017, is resorting to riot gear. The PML-N, which accused the military establishment of birthing the TLP, is now accusing them of banning it. As for the establishment, it’s traded in cash envelopes for concertina wire.

And though the TLP’s methods are splattered with blood – bludgeoning policemen to death, threatening judges, persecuting minorities, and leaving Covid patients to die – some voices still call for its continued freedoms. These mostly belong to the same powdered classes that Rizvi’s men would like nothing better than to beat with sticks. 

In all this finger-pointing, the core problem remains the same: class. Far removed from the buttoned-down Jamaat, Maulana Fazl’s wheeler-dealers, and the Sunni Tehreek’s murdered leadership, TLP has struck a chord with poor people that the religious right hasn’t in years.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi was an appallingly effective speaker in Punjabi, besides being fluent in Iqbal, Sultan Bahu, and Sufi poetry. His men not only filled the void of a Barelvi mass movement – to the dismay of their Deobandi rivals – they also emerged as the party of the young, the angry, and the very, very poor.

For similar reasons, banning TLP may only be the start. The state must hold firm, as it did with Asia’s acquittal (enabled by Justice Khosa’s fearless concurrence). And it must learn the crushing lesson of our insurgency: sooner than later, fanatics start to pull their own strings.

Turning the page will take longer. To his last day, Mr. Rizvi enjoyed reveling in his poverty, calling himself a fakir in a wheelchair. ‘Tenu aakhir itna ta dard zaroor hai na,’ he’d laugh at his critics. Until this country’s forgotten are guaranteed a life of dignity, Pakistan is in for a lot more pain.

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