Street protests may compel Pakistan to expel French envoy

Never fully free from it, Pakistan is witnessing a recurrence of street violence unleashed by Sunni Muslim militants who want the Imran Khan Government to expel the French envoy posted in Islamabad over last year’s controversy about publication of cartoons in a French journal perceived in the Islamic world as maligning it faith.

A policeman was lynched by a mob, four persons have been killed in police firing and several were injured through two days of violence across the main cities that shows no sign of ebbing.

While the other Islamist groups do not figure in media reports on the violent protests, the principal protagonist is Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) whose cadres have blocked key roads in major cities after the detention of their young chief, Maulana Saad Husain Rizvi.

The arrest under the anti-terrorism law seems the only determined move by the government to curb the protests but has only ended up escalating them.

Besides the obvious diplomatic jam Islamabad finds itself in, there is even more serious problem of keeping protests under check as Pakistan, like the rest of world observes the holy month of Ramzan, even as the Khan Government combats an economy in dire stress and a rampaging Covid-19 pandemic.

The government has decided to table a resolution, regarding the TLP’s demands, “including the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan, in parliament before Eidul Fitr,” The Express Tribune newspaper reported on April 8, 2021.

Published a week ago, the report has neither been endorsed, nor contradicted by the government, nor corroborated by other media outlets.

According to the newspaper, quoting “official sources”, the decision was taken “in a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan and attended by Law Minister Farogh Naseem, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri and relevant senior officials.

“Sources said that the meeting discussed the strategy for implementing the agreement reached with the TLP. It was also decided that other parties would be contacted on issue of French ambassador’s deportation. The meeting decided to bring the resolution in parliament before Eid,” the report said.

This was before the TLP had announced a sit-in in Islamabad to press for its demands. “But on February 10, a government committee headed by Religious Affairs Minister Qadri assured the TLP that it would seek parliamentary approval on its demands by April 20.”

The TLP apparently chose to launch its protest without waiting for the government that has been buying time from it ever since the crisis began last November.

The approach to the TLP of the army that is widely seen as backing the Imran Khan Government remains unclear. In the past, when asked by the PML-N Government of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for assistance to end a violent protest, the army had ‘advised’ it to hold negotiations.

The TLP has been demanding expulsion of the French ambassador over publication of blasphemous caricatures. While the French President E. Macron has emphatic in supporting his country’s media’s right to express itself and is currently taking measures to ban the use of hijab (veil) by adult French Muslim women, the government has not reacted to the developments in Pakistan.

In November last year, the TLP staged a sit-in in Rawalpindi, which ended after an agreement with the government.

The TLP had then sought o pressurize the government with an announcement on November 17 that the government had accepted all its four demands. It had released a copy of the handwritten agreement, carrying signatures of Qadri, then interior minister Ijaz Shah and the deputy commissioner, Islamabad.

According to the Express Tribune report, the agreement said that the government would “take a decision from the parliament regarding expulsion of the French ambassador within three months, will not appoint its ambassador to France and release all the arrested workers of the TLP. The government will not register any case against the TLP leaders or workers even after it calls off the sit-in.”

The renewed protests have been sought to be played down by influential sections of the media. For instance, The News International (April 14, 2021) treated it as a problem of road traffic.

“Major sit-ins by a religious party which had bought life to a standstill in several cities across Pakistan a day earlier are continuing today (Tuesday), but have been confined to limited areas.” It listed specific localities in major cities that have been affected, more as a traffic advisory.

However, the report could not ignore “shortage of oxygen tanks for coronavirus patients.”

“In Lahore, there are fears of a shortage of oxygen tanks for coronavirus patients because of the traffic jams. Lahore hospitals almost out of oxygen supply amid rising coronavirus cases.”

Gujranwala, Gujrat and Sialkot had a day's supply of oxygen left, the Punjab health department said, adding that the situation could worsen if supply was not received today, the newspaper quoted Punjab Health Minister Dr Yasmeen Rashid.

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