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Critical Event Assessment: Islamabad and Rawalpinidi brace for TLP protest

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  • The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) resumed its long march towards Islamabad on October 27 after negotiations with the Pakistani government collapsed.
  • The resumption of the march led to a resurgence in violence, with violent clashes in the town of Sadhoke. Previously, violence clashes had been reported from Lahore on October 22.
  • Law enforcement agencies have instituted blockades and entry restrictions at various points in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, besides several towns on the protest route (i.e. the Grand Trunk Road), which has disrupted normal traffic.
  • The threat of continued violence remains high as authorities have refused to give the TLP leeway, while the TLP has rejected attempts at a negotiated settlement.
  • The risk of disruptions to daily life and business operations in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and other cities in Punjab is deemed high due to the likelihood of violence and restrictions enforced to curb this violence. Given TLP’s profile and reach, other cities in Pakistan too may be affected.

EVENT BRIEF

  • The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) leadership stated on October 27 that its supporters had resumed their long march to Islamabad after talks with the Pakistani government failed. The talks were initiated by the Pakistani government in an effort to address TLP’s demands, including release of its chief and expulsion of the French ambassador, through negotiations (see details in next section).
  • Preempting TLP’s march, the administrations in Islamabad and Rawalpindi began sealing off major roads and intersections in these cities, including the key Faizabad intersection, using shipping containers and barbed wire from the evening of October 26 onwards. Over 220 local TLP leaders have also been arrested.
  • The Punjab police has reinforced its strength in Rawalpindi and other towns along the protest route by deploying personnel from districts such as Bhakkar, Khushab, Sargodha, Mianwali and Chakwal. Additionally, the government has also invoked a provision to deploy the paramilitary Punjab Rangers in the province for a period of 60 days.

Areas in Islamabad and Rawalpindi that are blocked or where entry is restricted

Islamabad and Rawalpinidi brace for TLP protest Img1

Areas, roads or intersections that are blocked or where entry is restricted

  • TLP supporters had begun their long march from Lahore on October 22 via the Grand Trunk (GT) Road, but halted in the town of Muridke (~51 kms north of Lahore) the next evening pending talks between the TLP leadership and Pakistani government.
  • The TLP supporters had continued their protest as a sit-in in Muridke between October 23 and October 27. Sources pegged the number of TLP supporters gathered in Muridke at ~8,000-10,000.
  • The resumption of TLP’s long march on October 27 also led to a resurgence in violent clashes. At least 4 police personnel and 2 TLP supporters were killed during clashes in the town of Sadhoke in Gujranwala district; over 250 persons have been injured. Police have stated that TLP supporters fired upon police personnel with automatic rifles and pistols.
  • Road diversions and blockades are in place at Gujranwala and Gujrat, the next major towns on GT Road, as of the early morning hours of October 28.
  • Reports indicate that law enforcement agencies are preparing for a confrontation with TLP supporters in the town of Jhelum, where the crucial Jhelum Bridge has been completely blocked with containers. Additionally, blockades are in place at at least 4 places between Jhelum and Dina towns, and at the town of Gujar Khan.

Route map of TLP’s long march

Islamabad and Rawalpinidi brace for TLP protest Img2

Towns along GT Road where disruptions have been reported

  • Notably, violent clashes broke out between TLP supporters and the police in Lahore on October 22 as the police tried to halt TLP’s march. 3 police personnels were killed in these clashes; TLP claims at least 7 of its supporters were also killed.
  • The Punjab Inspector General of Police has reportedly initiated inquiries against certain officials for the police’s failure to stop the TLP march in Lahore.
  • On October 22 and October 23, the Lahore administration had blocked major roads and suspended public transport, besides suspending internet services, in a bid to disrupt TLP’s ability to organise.
  • Tensions between the TLP and the Pakistani administration had been simmering since October 1, when the Lahore High Court declared TLP chief Saad Rizvi’s detention illegal.
  • Sporadic protests were organised in Lahore and other parts of Punjab through October as a prelude to the long march. These culminated in a sit-in in Lahore on October 21, where participation in the low thousands was witnessed.

Negotiations and failure to reach an agreement

  • The TLP leadership and Pakistani government, represented by Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, began their latest round of talks on October 23. TLP’s major demands include:       
    • Release of TLP chief Saad Rizvi, who has been in preventative custody in Lahore since April 12, 2021.
    • Lifting of the ban on TLP; TLP was banned by the Pakistani government under the Anti-terrorism Act of 1997 on April 14, 2021.
    • Release of all TLP activists who were arrested for the violent protests in April, 2021.
    • Expulsion of the French ambassador. TLP has been demanding the French ambassador’s expulsion since November, 2020 after French President Emmanuel Macron stated that freedom of expression superseded any community’s religious sentiments. The freedom of expression issue in France came into focus following the murder of a French teacher who showed his class caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.
  • Rashid had stated on October 26 that TLP would be withdrawing its protest after an assurance that all its demands, except expelling the French ambassador, would be met.
  • Earlier, in an announcement on October 24, Rashid had said that 350 TLP supporters would be released and all charges against Saad Rizvi would be dropped. On the other hand, Rashid has repeatedly stated that expelling the French ambassador is not an option since this would lead to a deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with France and the European Union.
  • However, on October 27, the TLP accused Rashid of lying and said that no agreement to withdraw the protest had been reached. TLP further stated that expelling the French ambassador is a non-negotiable demand. TLP also gave a new deadline (November 2) for the government to expel the French ambassador.
  • Subsequently, the Pakistani government conceded that the talks had collapsed and no understanding had been reached. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan stated on October 27 that TLP’s attack on police personnel constitutes an act of terrorism. He added that stringent action would be taken against any person who tried to degrade law and order.

TLP’s profile

  • TLP is a far right Islamist political party (currently banned). Its supporters mainly belong to the Barelvi movement and follow the Hanafi school of jurisprudence.
  • TLP was founded by religious scholar and preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi in 2015.
  • TLP mainly draws its supporter base from Punjab province, but also enjoys substantial support in Sindh and other provinces. During its best ever election performance in 2018, TLP polled ~2.2 million votes across Pakistan.
  • TLP shot to fame in 2017 with the Faizabad sit-in protest against changes to the Elections bill. The protest, which lasted for over a month, spread across the country and resulted in at least 6 confirmed casualties. TLP achieved its objectives of reversing changes to the Election Bill and forcing the law minister to step down.
  • TLP is a defender of the blasphemy law; retaining the law’s stringency has traditionally been TLP’s main election plank. It protested against the release of Asia Bibi in 2018. Reports suggest involvement of TLP members in murders of persons suspected to have committed blasphemy. TLP has organised protests over various issues and activities that the organisation deems un-Islamic.
  • TLP led the nation-wide anti-France protests in Pakistan in November, 2020. The protest began over French president Emmanuel Macron’s aforementioned comments on freedom of expression.
  • Khadim Hussain Rizvi was replaced by his son Saad Rizvi as head of TLP following the former’s death on November 20, 2020.

Trends observed in TLP’s April, 2021 protest

  • Protests and violent clashes between TLP supporters and the police were witnessed in April, 2021 over the issue of expulsion of the French ambassador. These protests resulted in at least 4 deaths and over 2,000 arrests.
  • The protests began on April 11 after Saad Rizvi called for a long march to Islamabad in a live address broadcast on social media. He was taken into preventive custody the next day, following which the protests and clashes intensified. By April 15, the French embassy asked French nationals and companies to temporarily leave the country.
  • Though the protests were centered in and around Punjab, several cities in other provinces too witnessed protests and violent clashes. These included major cities such as Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar and Hyderabad.

TLP protest sites in April, 2021

Islamabad and Rawalpinidi brace for TLP protest Img2Cities and towns where TLP protested in April, 2021

  • A salient feature of the protests was that several of the TLP protest sites were key road intersections. This enabled the TLP to disrupt inter-city and inter-province connectivity throughout Pakistan for the duration of the protest.
  • There were also multiple instances of protesters taking police personnel hostage. These personnel were released after negotiations. Additionally, it was alleged that protesters had fired upon unarmed police personnel.

ASSESSMENT

  • TLP’s position during the recent round of negotiations is an indicator that a negotiated settlement is not TLP’s preferred course of action. This is since it is unlikely that the government will accept the demand to expel the French ambassador.
  • Thus, the TLP may be leveraging the protest to strengthen itself politically in the long-term. As a result, it is deemed unlikely that the TLP will withdraw its protest as long as it finds favourable momentum.
  • The likelihood of continued violence due to TLP’s protest in the coming days is deemed high. The likelihood of violence is highest in towns and cities in close proximity of TLP’s long march route. However, past precedence indicates that the violence may spread to other cities in Pakistan as well.
  • Additionally, those operating in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and other cities in Punjab are also likely to face disruptions due to road closures, suspension of public transport and suspension of internet services.
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