The Imran Khan government has formally pressed sedition and terrorism charges against the leaders of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) for staging violent protests, attempting to provoke an uprising in the armed forces and ridiculing the judiciary.

Senior leaders of the TLP have been taken into “protective custody” and several thousand supporters detained in a nationwide sweep last week timed to prevent the capital from being shut down by yet another major protest.

Some political analysts have reacted cynically to the clampdown, saying the TLP was “mainstreamed” – nurtured and supported for political objectives – but was now being destroyed because those “objectives”, notably winning power from the Sharif Nawaz government, had been achieved.

Human rights activists, meanwhile, fear that the government might face a backlash over its firm action against the TLP, but advised that they should stay firm – to try to separate religion from politics.

‘Inflammatory speeches’

The clampdown follows violent demonstrations last month which saw TLP’s radical leaders make fiery speeches after the Supreme Court’s acquittal in late October of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been on death row since 2010 for contentious charges of blasphemy.

TLP leaders urged army men to revolt against the military’s top brass including commander-in-chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for having an affiliation with “heretics” and helping Bibi be released. They also called for the personal staff of the Supreme Court judges to kill them for overturning the blasphemy charges that Bibi faced.

The protests spread and the mobs of supporters wielding clubs started vandalizing public property, setting public buses on fire and harassing citizens.

The TLP finally agreed to end the nationwide protests on November 2, after inking a five-point deal with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government, which included initiating a legal process to put Bibi’s name on the exit control list to prevent her leaving the country.

The country’s new prime minister appealed to TLP’s hardline leaders, in a message aired on state-run Pakistan Television, not to clash with the state, or the state would exercise its power available under the constitution.

But the TLP, sensing that the government was not sincere about implementing their agreement, called on its supporters last week to go to the capital Islamabad for a sit-in on November 25.

However, police and paramilitary forces took Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the firebrand preacher and head of TLP, into “protective custody” on November 23 along with at least three other regional leaders. Authorities also detained several thousand party supporters in a countrywide clampdown on the radical Islamist party.

‘Why now, not 2017?’

Zahid Khan, spokesperson of Awami National Party (ANP), said: “Why did they [the military hierarchy] not allow such a drastic step against the TLP in November 2017 when the federal capital [Islamabad] was paralyzed for well over three weeks? Why did they distribute compensation money among the protesters and force the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government to sign a humiliating agreement with the TLP?”

He said Imran Khan and the establishment should apologize for using the card of religion to weaken the previous government and divide its vote bank during the elections.

“We believe in non-violence and do not approve of vigilantism. In that sense, we support the government’s move against the TLP but at the same time we want similar punishment for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leadership who brought the federal capital to a standstill for 126 days in 2014, vandalized democratic institutions, called for a civil disobedience and refused to pay taxes and bills. What this government has done during its sit-in in Islamabad warrants institution of seditious charges against them.”

Dr Mehdi Hasan, a left-wing journalist, historian and longtime rights activist, told Asia Times: “Politics should not be intermixed with the religion. The parties, which are doing politics in the name of religion, always end up in total chaos and turmoil. The nation has paid a heavy price for these religious-political entities since independence and now the time is ripe for a change in our outlook.”

Religious turbulence

He said one million people had died in the post-independence period, with 50,000 girls abducted and 10 million people migrated to safer places to avoid death and humiliation in the time of religious turbulence.

The media, he said, could play a role in educating people and discouraging religious extremism. “Arrests and coercive steps are against the democratic norms and civilized society. These elements should be de-radicalized through sustained counselling and advocacy,” he added.

IA Rehman, secretary-general of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said the government did not take the people into confidence on issues relating to minority rights and crowd politics.

“Sometimes they [state] show leniency, and sometimes they go berserk on these issues. We want the law to take its course and no one should face unlawful treatment,” Rehman said.

Federal Information Minister Fawad Choudhri addressed a press conference on Saturday, at which he revealed that besides Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the government had also charged TLP’s patron-in-chief Pir Afzal Qadri, Inayatul Haq Shah and Hafiz Farooqul Hassan with sedition and terrorism.

If convicted by the courts, the suspects could face life in prison under these charges, he said.

Chaudhry also revealed that 2,899 people have been taken into custody from Punjab, along with 139 from Sindh and 126 from Islamabad both during the protests early last month and in the crackdown last week. But he said a good number of detainees would eventually be released if they were found not to have been involved in the violence.