A few words that govern discrimination against minorities lie at the heart of the protests that have sought to paralyse Pakistan’s capital Islamabad for the last two weeks, turning violent this weekend when the government tried to evict the demonstrators. Late on Saturday, the Pakistan government ordered the Army into Islamabad to clear out protestors from the main highway leading into the capital, after a police operation to do the same led to six dead, hundreds injured and the protests getting larger.
The Army spent Sunday morning and afternoon negotiating terms with the government before it got involved in evicting the protestors, a sign of the tense nature of this religiously charged agitation that – at least on paper – was sparked off by a change in a few words on a government documents.
Who is protesting?
The agitators belong to a number of Islamist parties and outfits in Pakistan, including the Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan. The groups, which have been protesting for more than two weeks now, are mostly Sunni from the Barelvi school of Islam, which has not usually been as well organised politically as its counterparts from the Deobandi school. The Tehreek-i-Labaik’s leader, Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a firebrand cleric who is known to lace “his speeches with four-letter words and choicest Punjabi language abuses” is generally seen as the face of this protest, although there are several other leaders.
What do they want?
The protestors are ostensibly seeking the resignation of Zahid Hamid, Pakistan’s federal law minister. Hamid oversaw the introduction and passage of the Elections Amendment Bill 2017, which governs the electoral process for the country. In particular, Rizvi and other clerics took issue with a few changes in the bill.
First, the amendments altered the text of the form signed by candidates contesting elections in the section pertaining to the finality of Muhammad, the Muslim prophet. Candidates had earlier been expected to “solemnly swear” that they believe in the khatm-e-nabuwwat, which is the idea that Muhammad was Islam’s last prophet and there have not and will not be any more. Instead the form simply asked candidates to say that they “believe” in the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. This meant that the belief in finality would go from being an affidavit including a statement under oath to simply a declaration.
Additionally, the Bill also omitted two sections of the Conduct of General Elections Order, 2002, both pertaining to Ahmedis, a sect of Muslims who also believe in the prophethood of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded their sect in 1889. One of those sections had previously allowed any voter’s belief in the finality of prophethood to be challenged. If a person does not sign a declaration regarding this belief, their name will be added to the rolls as a non-Muslim. This clause was deleted.
Why do the protestors have a problem with this?
Pakistan’s political system discriminates against Ahmedis, who were first declared non-Muslims by constitutional amendment in 1974. In 1985, President Zia-ul-Haq introduced separate electorates, giving minorities only token opportunities to take part in elections. In 2002, President Pervez Musharraf restored the joint electorates, but retained the separate religious lists – keeping Ahmedis in the non-Muslim section. So even though they can technically vote and contest elections, they need to do so as non-Muslims, a clause that has prompted the Ahmedi community to boycott polls, saying they will not refute prophet Muhammad just to vote.
Though the government did not say so, the changes to the election law were seen as a relaxation of rules against Ahmedis, even though it was still skewed against the community and used the term Qadiani, which Ahmedis consider a pejorative. Pakistan’s large Sunni Islamist community, however, saw the change as an affront against their version of Islam and a way of appeasing Ahmedis, who are often portrayed as blasphemers.
Will the government change the law?
They already have. Both houses of Pakistan’s National Assembly restored the original text of the forms and brought back the deleted clauses on November 16.
The draft of the changed law had started being distributed online earlier in the year, inspiring plenty of push back. In particular, the Islamist Barelvi groups began building pressure on the government for attempting to appease Ahmedis and what they argued was a dilution of Islamic principles. Ultimately, the government claimed that the changes had been the result of a “clerical error”, promised to revert to the original language of the bill and said that it would inquire into how the changes came into the final text of the bill.
So why are they still protesting? Is there more to this?
It is Pakistan, of course, and that means there is plenty more going on. From the perspective of the Barelvi groups, the issue is yet another chance to help push the national discourse into even more Islamist territory. So they are continuing to demand the resignation of the law minister responsible for the now-rescinded changes, and have added other demands, from the release of extremist clerics to the execution of those accused of blasphemy.
But it is also a weak moment for the government, which not long ago saw its prime minister Nawaz Sharif being forced to step down after the Supreme Court said he was disqualified from office following a verdict in the Panama Papers corruption case. The amended laws actually were very important for Sharif because they included a rule allowing him to remain head of his political party, the Pakistan Muslim Leage (Nawaz), even though he was disqualified from public office.
As always with Pakistan, it is unclear who might also be supporting such an agitation to take advantage of the perceived weakness in government. Now the Army has itself been asked to end the agitation, following orders from the Supreme Court ordering the government to evict the protestors. But the Army is negotiating with the government on how exactly it will go about doing this, and has broadly tried to strike a neutral position on the issue. Writing in The Print, former Pakistan ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani wrote of rumours “about the prospect of the military acting, not to prop up the beleaguered government, but to replace it with a new experiment of technocrats setting the country right”.