The Imran Khan-led government in Pakistan is afraid to discipline, but is ready to talk, to various Islamist militant groups that, emboldened by the rise of a Taliban government in Afghanistan next door, are increasingly taking to the streets to force their demands.
Challenged from various quarters, the government's immediate threat comes from the banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) that has launched a 'Long March' to lay siege to the national capital.
The body of hardline Sunni activists demands that the government fight the perceived 'Islamophobia' in the Western world. More specifically, it wants the French envoy in Islamabad expelled for France's expulsion of Islamists at home and its role in the Charlie Hedbdo cartoons controversy.
The government that has banned the TLP has also been talking to its leaders, reportedly committed last November to the envoy's expulsion and ending of trade ties with France. This buying of time, or foot-dragging, has only emboldened other Islamist groups -- Pakistan has scores of them – to join the TLP protests.
The Long March, joined by thousands of its workers in major cities, has already caused the deaths of three policemen and two protesters as on October 22 with tensions rising.
"On Saturday (October 23), the relatively less-equipped and poorly trained workers of the proscribed TLP had managed to bulldoze all security layers of the Lahore and Sheikhupura police and entered Gujranwala while chanting slogans and calling other activists to join them," the Dawn newspaper said in a report.
The authorities have deployed para-military forces, including the Frontier Constabulary, the Rangers and Elite Commandos to deal with the marchers. They were, however, outnumbered as the marchers "pierced through" (as Dawn newspaper described) the authorities' multi-layered blockades and cordons, including placing of huge steel containers.
Going by past experience, such protests have the tendency of being prolonged, leading to violence and causing political instability and economic misery for the public.
Prime Minister Khan had himself led one when he was in the opposition and it had lasted several weeks. With the Internet snapped and roads blocked, they also affect economic activity and cause misery to the people.
As of last weekend, the TLP had issued what seemed to be a two-day ultimatum. It has lodged itself at Muridke and will not enter Islamabad, 368 km away, while talks are underway.
The announcement was made by Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed who claimed that the talks had "almost succeeded".
But the TLP declared that "nobody will go home" till demands are fully met. They include the release of their chief, Saad Hussain Rizvi.
Reflecting confusion over who would conduct the talks, Prime Minister Khan directed that a committee be formed with Noorul Haq Qadri, the religious affairs minister in charge, and left on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia.
Sensing greater seriousness, however, he directed Rasheed, who was in Dubai to watch India-Pakistan cricket match, to return home and head the negotiations team.
All issues are wide open at the end of the negotiations over the weekend. The Minister said that detained TLP workers, along with those banned and placed on the Fourth Schedule, would be released. He said under an agreement signed with the TLP earlier, the issue of expelling the French ambassador will be taken to parliament for debate.
"Qadri and I have signed agreements with the TLP. We will take the issue of the French ambassador's expulsion to the National Assembly and ask the speaker to form a committee."
He said the French ambassador was not present in the country at the moment, adding that the TLP's objection was justified as there had been no progress on the accords for six months.
Of the TLP leadership, the Minister said: "They are political people and they have the third-highest vote bank in Punjab. They reserve the right to make any statement."
Significantly, each time the TLP is mentioned, the media refers to it as a ‘proscribed' body. But the government has been talking to them, thus lending it a measure of legitimacy.
A media representative sought to point out the contradictions in the government's handling of the Islamists. Minister Rasheed's matter-of-fact reply was that the mention of the TLP being banned was a matter of record. He skirted the issue of the government holding talks with a banned body.
Situation remains critical. "For the government, it is a tightrope to walk," explained a Punjab government official, who did not want to be named, to Dawn newspaper.
"It could not offer anything to the TLP but intimidation, which, unfortunately, might not work due to the religious factor."
The newspaper said in its editorial on October 24 that "the TLP's ability to paralyse cities and bring life to a grinding halt is well known. It is also well known that the group has been indulged, emboldened and then struck down by various powers. While this makes for a multifaceted problem, the government's mishandling of the TLP has been a constant source of concern".
Placing the TLP protests in the overall context, it observed: "The TLP's ability to paralyse cities and bring life to a grinding halt is well known. It is also well known that the group has been indulged, emboldened and then struck down by various powers. While this makes for a multifaceted problem, the government's mishandling of the TLP has been a constant source of concern.