May 2, 2021
By Munizae Jahangir
Pakistan’s top officials recently indicated that the state would like to ‘mainstream’ the religio-political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). But it is still unclear if the ban imposed on it, under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997, will remain.
High officials in the country’s power corridors have hinted that the proscribed organization will not in fact be dissolved as a political party – which means it will continue to contest elections.
“They have a vote bank and these religious sentiments need a constructive output,” says a high-level source.
Despite allowing them to contest elections, though, the top brass has warned that they will be keeping a ‘close watch on the party to check on violent extremists within, to ensure they don’t become a menace.’
The TLP was banned by the federal government on April 15, 2021, after days of violent clashes with the police and other law enforcement agencies. The riots took the lives of three policemen, while 26 suffered acid attacks and over 1,000 personnel were injured.
The ban was imposed under Section 11B (1) of the ATA by the Ministry of Interior. However, the TLP recently filed a review application to the Interior Ministry to lift the ban, pleading that the party has no connection with any terrorist activities.
On its part, the Interior Ministry has constituted a three-member committee to review the ban.
However, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry says there are no guarantees that the party will not resort to violence again and it is imperative that they should be prosecuted in the courts. Yet Chaudhry also insists that the government will not approach the Supreme Court to dissolve the party, till the Interior Ministry comes to a final decision on the ban after hearing TLP’s appeal.
Dubious Sources of Funding
Despite the recent ban imposed on the TLP by the PTI government, there is still very little information on where the organization actually receives its funding from.
Only recently Fawad Chaudhry disclosed that “those funding TLP had been arrested, while others are being closely watched.” He warned that those funding banned militant outfits should beware that they would also be slapped with terrorism charges.
But when asked where this extremist party gets its funding from, the minister was vague in his response. “They are funded by four or five big sources,” he said. “A lot of their funding is coming from outside the country and some from the west.”
This brings to mind, suspicious circumstances where an unknown person from outside Pakistan had the TLP registered. This mysterious person turned out to be a UAE national, as pointed out by the Supreme Court.
Around three years ago, the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) asked the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) about who was funding the party, but there was no response. The SC had also expressed its dismay over how the registration of the TLP had been allowed by ‘a person residing in the United Arab Emirates, who had a National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP).’
When Fawad Chaudhry was recently asked about whether he knew the identity of this person, he said that it should be the “ECP who should be asked as to who registered the party.”
As a follow-up, Voicepk.net even approached the ECP to try and find out about the source of TLP’s funding, but that information is yet to be provided.
When the SC had asked the Election Commission the same question in 2018, the ECP Director General (Law), Mohammad Arshad, could not even tell whether the person who had applied for the TLP registration actually possessed a Pakistani passport, or whether he was a dual national or foreign citizen.
This aspect was specified in the famous Faizabad judgement authored by Justice Qazi Faez Isa. In this 2018 verdict, the Supreme Court observed that according to the Political Parties Order 2002 and the Elections Act 2017, political parties are prohibited to be formed or convened as a foreign aided political party, which included “any portion of their funds from foreign nationals.” The Supreme Court in its judgement regretted that the intelligence agencies were unable to ‘disclose the source of livelihood, place of work, address, funding of their organisations, et cetera of the TLP leadership.”
The court had also inquired ‘whether they paid income tax or had bank accounts.’ It observed that the ISI responded by stating that it did not have the mandate to gather such information and therefore was unable to provide answers to the queries.
The judgement concluded that the “ISI states that it cannot monitor the financials of those advocating violence and carrying out violent acts. However, in the context of terrorism, the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 does envisage a role for the intelligence agencies, armed forces and civil armed forces. Intelligence agencies should not ignore those who promote violence and hate. Those who resort to abuse, hate and violence should never be pampered, instead, they should fear the State, its police and intelligence agencies.”
Distribution of money surprised military top brass
The Supreme Court judgement came soon after the Faizabad dharna had ended, and after an agreement was brokered by the army between the PML-N government and the TLP. What caused shock within the entire nation, which had been witnessing violent protests and a complete disregard for the law of the land, was when they saw a certain General Azhar distributing money to those part of the violent protests. A video of him distributing thousand rupee notes among the miscreants was recorded and later went viral on social media.
But sources close to the military say that its leadership had not planned this and had been surprised to see the General distributing money. The same high-level sources also insist that the agreement with the TLP was brokered with the consent of the Prime Minister of the time, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. Abbasi has been consistently demanding that a truth commission be formed to probe the Faizabad dharna held by the TLP.
Later in 2018, the ECP gave notice to the TLP over prohibited funds, but the notice was withdrawn in July 2019, after the Ministry of Interior gave the party a clean chit in its report submitted to the Election Commission. The report stated that the leaders and office-bearers were not included in the ‘dysfunctional list’ of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).
Mainstreaming a banned organization
According to the ATA, the Federal Government has to take the following steps against a proscribed organization: seal its offices, freeze its bank accounts, seize all literature, posters, banners or printed, electronic, digital or other material and stop the dissemination of their content or narrative through the press.
The proscribed organization is required to submit all accounts of its income and expenditure for its political and social welfare activities, and disclose all funding sources to the competent authority designated by the Federal Government.
Given all these limitations, it becomes very difficult for a political party to grow and operate freely. Most banned parties prefer to shun their previous identity and rebrand themselves. In the past when Lashkar-e-Taiba was banned after being accused of the Mumbai attacks, it floated a political party, the Milli Muslim League, to contest the 2018 elections. But the party was not allowed to be registered by the ECP, and its members ended up contesting the elections as independent candidates.
Banned but not out
Pakistan’s ATA does not explicitly stop banned outfits from contesting elections. However, in order to register a political party, the Election Commission of Pakistan requires a no-objection certificate from the Interior Ministry, that the relevant party is not involved in terrorist activities in any capacity.
Security analyst Mubashir Bukhari says that Pakistan has a long history of mainstreaming banned outfits, by relaunching them under new names and slogans.
“Creating an organisation is easy, but controlling them is challenging,” explains Bukhari and cites the example of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which was proscribed in 2001 for its involvement in terrorist activities, mainly against Pakistan’s Shia community. The group later re-emerged as the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ).
The ASWJ was again banned in 2012, but some of its leaders made another political party called the Rah-e-Haq party and contested the 2018 elections, winning a seat in Punjab’s provincial assembly.
In this context, therefore, it would not be surprising if TLP went the same way, says Bukhari. “Given past trends, the reemergence of the TLP as a new party is very likely,” he says.
But there is a dangerous precedent for keeping extremist religious parties involved in the mainstream political arena, despite the ban imposed by the state.
Operating Despite a Ban: The case of Islam-i-Tehreek Pakistan
Currently, 79 groups are banned by the government under the ATA. But only two of them are registered as political parties with the ECP. Among these is the TLP and the Islam-i-Tehreek Pakistan (ITP).
The banned ITP was first registered as Tehreek-e-Jaffria Pakistan (TJP) which was proscribed in 2002. The leader of the TJP, Allama Sajid Naqvi then founded the ITP, which was promptly banned by the Musharraf government in 2003.
“The Musharraf government also filed a reference in the Supreme Court to dissolve the ITP, but the reference remained pending in the court for 13 years. In 2014 the apex court finally quashed the reference,” Sikandar Gillani, Secretary-General of the ITP told Voicepk.net.
After the Supreme Court’s decision, the ITP moved an application to the Interior Ministry to have its name removed from the official list of proscribed organisations, but the Ministry has refused to do so. The matter is still pending in the Lahore High Court since the last six years.
But that since 2003 nothing has stopped the ITP taking part in every local government and general election in Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). It also remained a part of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a political alliance of religious parties.
After the 2013 general election, the banned ITP filed an application in the ECP to change their election symbol from a lock to double swords, which the commission accepted without any objections.
“The Election Commission of GB refused to register the ITP as a political party, saying that we are a proscribed organization. But when we told them that we were a registered party in Election Commission of Pakistan, they also registered us as a party in GB,” Gillani explained.
Despite being banned, the ITP had four seats in the last tenure of the GB assembly and also held the position of opposition leader.
The Secretary-General of the ITP, Gillani complains though, that it is very difficult to run an election campaign, as authorities have tried to stop them from organizing public meetings and rallies and harass their workers.
After recent briefings from top officials, it is clear that the state wants to mainstream the TLP by allowing it to contest elections. But it is not clear exactly how it intends to tackle the violent elements within the party.
The question is whether allowing the TLP more political power, will unleash it further, and make it more confident of protesting violently or will it in fact emasculate it?