By TCA Raghavan
Dec 04, 2017
The resignation of Pakistan’s law minister was the final act in the three-week long drama of a determined and religiously charged agitation in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The demand of the protesters was that the law minister resign for an act that had eroded the truth of the finality of the Prophet. The government, embattled and weakened since Nawaz Sharif’s removal, repeatedly apologised for what it said was a clerical error. Prodded by the Supreme Court, an attempt was made to clear the demonstration that had paralysed the capital. The attempt failed and the protest showed signs of spreading to other parts of Pakistan. Instructions to the army that it step in to aid the civilian authority to restore order was responded to by a demurral from the chief of army staff that efforts be made to resolve the situation peacefully. The resignation of the law minister was the final act of capitulation by the government.
Multiple readings of this narrative are possible. The most benign is of a government and military paralysed by images of almost exactly a decade ago; when the Army stormed the Lal Masjid in Islamabad and the blow back that unleashed the furies of hell on Pakistan. Yet there are other readings. The government did not act and let the protest build up because it was unwilling to risk alienating its popular base on the right wing that is made up of religious groups involved in the protest or similar to them. The military, on the other hand, chose not to act in what it saw was a cat and mouse game orchestrated by the former prime minister and designed to earn it public ignominy which clearing the protest would have led to. Other theories will emerge in due course.
All these explanations have some substance to them; and the civil military equation corrodes all aspects of public life in Pakistan today. The protests in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, however, also have a broader context symptomatic of a deeper churning in Pakistan. From the 1980s Islamic radicalism and mobilisation has been the hall mark of the Wahabis, Deobandis and the Jamaat- i-Islami. Each of these developed strong links with the military and Pakistan’s political class; and many had their own favourite extremist militant outfit loosely attached.
The groups that led the recent protests and whose followers demonstrated considerable staying power come from a different persuasion — the Barelvis; so named because the movement originated in Bareilly in the mid 19th century. Their hall mark is popular Sufism, a cult of shrines and a deep veneration of the Prophet. They are therefore in contrast to the austere and literalist Wahhabis. The Barelvis are generally regarded as pluralistic and adherents of a softer, more moderate approach; although this image is gradually changing much like everything else in Pakistan. For the past decade or so there have been many signs of ferment among them. The Canadian Pakistani preacher Tahir ul Qadri is of this persuasion and in 2014, mobilised a large number of his followers to join Imran Khan’s agitation. He thus demonstrated a street power in Lahore and Islamabad which rivals that of the Jamat-i-Islami. The assassination of the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 saw a cult following developing around his killer Mumtaz Qadri whose grave now is a Barelvi shrine in its own right. Two other related sets of activities – often very violent – exemplify this activism amongst many Barelvis: A zeal to act against real or imagined blasphemy and a fresh intensity to older prejudices against Ahmadis for disputing the finality of the Prophet.
What explains the larger churning among the Barelvis? Since the 1980s they have felt excluded and disempowered, despite being numerically preponderant, from the attention and funds the Deobandis and Wahhabis have received and as the militant and terrorist groups associated acquired a swagger under the benign care of their handlers in the Pakistani intelligence agencies. Barelvi shrines were often the target also of these militants and perhaps this too contributes to the need to forge a broader and more powerful grouping. Many also point to the role of the Pakistan military establishment in explaining this Barelvi resurgence. As it battled the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and sectarian outfits, there was a need to create new countervailing forces and the hitherto ignored Barelvis seemed the best bet. In any event something new has stirred in Pakistan and this humiliation of the government and the standing aside of the army is an event of some importance in marking the movement of the Barelvis out of the shadows and acquiring political muscle of some magnitude.