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NA-120: The by-election belonged to Hafiz Saeed

September 18, 2017 2:26 PM
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The Pakistan Muslims League-Nawaz (PML-N) is occupied with its win and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf appears satisfied with its performance. However, none of the two mainstream political parties battling to control Punjab in 2018 are worried that Milli Muslim League (MML), new political front of UN Sanctioned Terrorist Group, Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawah (LeT/JuD), stood third in this by-election. As the MML is still pending clearance from the Ministry of Interior, its candidate Sheikh Yaqoob stood as an independent. However, his election banners showcasing pictures of LeT/JuD Chief, Hafiz Saeed, left no doubt about the support he enjoyed.

This election did little to absolve PML-N after the Panama Judgment which disqualified former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and more to legitimise LeT/JuD and bring it in the mainstream as a political force. In 1970 most of #NA120 came under the constituency NW-60 which Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won with more than 78,000 votes. He defeated Allama Iqbal's son, Dr Javed Iqbal, in that campaign. Today PPP was never in the running with PML-N and PTI given how the latter two have occupied political discourse, media headlines and also respectively shown far better performance in Punjab and KPK than PPP's Sindh. However, one was still hopeful that Bhutto's Jiyala's will come out to vote. It was sad to see that #NA120, once a stronghold of PPP, now has far more Hafiz Saeed faithfuls than the Jiyalas.

In many ways it cannot be denied that "Roti Kapra aur Makaan" is nothing more than a mere slogan for PPP. It is not the party's ideology anymore. And PPP under Asif Ali Zardari has even lost the moral authority to use this slogan. Those wanting to refute this claim may benefit from a drive from Karachi to Jacobabad.

On the other hand LeT/JuD has built a soft image and operates massive relief operations through its Charity front the FIF which is also sanctioned under the UNSCR 1267 and listed as under observation by the interior minister since January of this year. Even JuD is not proscribed under the Anti-Terrorism Act and rests comfortably the 2nd Schedule of the ATA which means it is only kept under observation. A convenient stop gap arrangement for the Pakistan government and establishment as it allows JuD not to be subjected to sanctions faced by a proscribed organisation and at the same time has allowed the government in the past to save face before the international community by not appearing complete unwary of JuD's operations.

Only LeT has been proscribed under Pakistan's Terrorism Laws and JuD tries hard to draw a distinction between itself and LeT though still openly advocates ideological support for same. It is important to note that UNSCR 1267 does not distinguish between LeT, JuD and FIF and sees them as one network and demand equal sanctions on all of them. UNSCR 1267 is a binding resolution on all UN members and demands member states to freeze assets, impose a travel ban and ensure an arms embargo for all outfits and individuals listed under the resolution.

LeT/JuD has not only benefited from the establishment's omissions but has in fact enjoyed State Patronage. The same cannot be more obvious than seeing the operations of Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF). FIF not only enjoys complete freedom to raise funds but is also issued NoC from intelligence agencies and Interior Ministry to work across Pakistan even in disasters in border areas like Awaran, Chital and Thar where most other NGOs would have wait for weeks to get clearance. It is not just areas in Pakisan but FIF as per its own claims it allowed to operate relief operations for Syria, Somalia, Gaza, Yemen, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, East Timor and Burma as well.

These operations of FIF have allowed LeT/JuD to build goodwill among masses, recruit members and preach it's ideology across the country. Hence it was no surprise that when Hafiz Saeed was put under house arrest earlier this year one saw the Hindu Community of Thar protesting outside the Karachi Press Club for his release. Unfortunately, some influential media personalities have also recently tried their best in recent past to paint him as a Saint.

Hindu Community of Thar protesting against Hafiz Saeed’s house arrest.

However, support for FIF is still nowhere near the resources and authority PPP enjoyed in the Federal Government between 2008-13 and is still enjoying in Sindh since 2008.

As regards State Patronage for Hafiz Saeed, his ascend began when he became a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology under Dictator Ziaul Haq and later with the support of military and subsequent governments formed and expanded operations of Lashkar-e-Taiba. How LeT and JuD have been seen by the establishment can be judged by Senator Mushahid Hussain's interview in April 1998's Friday Times. Hussain was then the Minister for Information under Nawaz Sharif and visited LeT/JuD's headquarters in Muridke. He was quoted in FT as saying about LeT/JuD, "It is not a sectarian organisation and is not a source of domestic destabilisation".

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The statement highlights how the establishment has come to describe and view terrorism. It has not considered acts of violence and 'destabilisation' on foreign lands as terrorism. This view of 1998 was recently echoed and supported with much more vigour by another Dictator Pervez Musharraf in an interview given to Karen Shahid in February this year.

Besides State Patronage and relief works what has also benefited JuD is propagating the Ahle Hadis School of thought and hence attracting voters belonging to the said school on religious grounds. This also proves that the view about LeT/JuD not being sectarian is partially incorrect. However, it must be understood that LeT/JuD does not represent all followers of Ahle Hadis nor do all followers of Ahle Hadis agree with Saeed's ideology.

With regards to sectarianism it is also important to highlight LeT/JuD's open support for Pakistan's biggest and perhaps most ruthless sectarian terror outfits the Sippah-e-Sahaba/Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (SSP/ASWJ). A bold testament to their alliance is the Difah-e-Pakistan Council (DPC). The DPC was curated by former Director General ISI, Lt. General Hamid Gul and supported by mainstream Political parties and leaders like Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq and Sheikh Rasheed. It catapulted the public visibility of LeT/JuD and allowed the resurgence of SSP/ASWJ to the extent of providing it a seat on the negotiation table with federal ministers and even governors.

Our media, political commentators and even activists have a tendency to question the intellect of the voters when they see them rallying for terror outfits. But when the state allows a terrorist group to hold rallies, open offices, recruit members, preach it's ideology and re-brand itself a philanthropic and political force it makes little sense to put the onus on the common man not to vote for it.

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The recent US Policy under Trump, China and Russia support for the BRICS declaration which demands action against LeT saw some positive response from the Pakistan Government. The interior minister under the recently appointed Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal published a list of all outfits which were prohibited from collecting animal hides during Eidul-Azha. The list mentioned all three; LeT, JuD and FIF. It was the first time after the National Action Plan which was formulated in December 2014 that the interior minister publicised the list for awareness of the masses. Some camps of FIF were also shutdown and bulldozed in Lahore. However, support for LeT/JuD/FIF from the establishment became evident as some districts in Punjab in violation of the ministry's directions issued written permission to FIF to collect animal hides which translates into a massive funding source.

In this backdrop of international pressure and Pakistan government's own claims of working to "put our house in order" as express by Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif one would expect mature analysts, politicians and anchors to be more concerned about the 4000 or so votes which MML (LeT/JuD political front) got as opposed PML-N winning after Panama judgement. Unfortunately maturity and farsightedness is a very scarce commodity.

According to news report, around 55 people who appear on the proscribed list under ATA for being suspected terrorists or members of terror outfits were allowed to contest elections in 2013. The list included terror suspects belonging to outfits identifying themselves with both Sunni and Shia schools of thought. The most worrying outcome was in Karachi PS-178 where SSP/ASWJ President Aurangzed Farooqi, lost only by a little over 2,000 votes, a margin which he reduced to a little over 200 votes in the by-election in 2015.

In November 2016 an election tribunal comprising of two judges from the Lahore High Court in a case challenging SSP/ASWJ chief Ahmed Ludhinavis's nomination for the PP-78 by-election in Jhang held that mere inclusion of the person on the 4th Schedule under ATA as a terror suspect did not bar him or her from contesting elections. In December 2016, Masroor Jhangvi, son of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, SSP/ASWJ's founder, was elected to the Punjab Assembly after recording the biggest win in PP-78's electoral history. Masroor's name was and still is listed on the fourth schedule yet that did not appear to have any impact on the voters as Masroor got more votes than the combined votes of all 24 opponents which included members from PMLN, PTI and PPP. Masroor now acts a parliamentary leader of JUI-F in Punjab Assembly and is a part of the Committee on Industries, Commerce and Investment.

Masroor's win in Jhang and MML's rise in Lahore is nothing short of alarm bells for the 2018 general elections. Farooqi has already announced his election campaign for NA-18 Abbottabad and has already conducted several rallies in Hazara Division.

Various activists, commentators and journalists in Pakistan have also been divided and selective in its condemnation of allowing proscribed persons to be a part of the electoral basis on sectarian grounds. Many have expressed reservations that the proscribed outfits identifying themselves with the Shia school of thought have been a victim of arbitrary and executive action by the government which has tried to play a balancing act between outfits from different sects. Ironically, this is the same argument used by supporters of anti-shia militant outfits. As a result, we have failed to develop a consensus and convincing narrative internally to push the government to bring activities of banned outfits to a halt and the establishment and government benefits from same. However, it is the state and not the citizen who carried the primary responsibility of developing the country’s internal and external security policy.

Forcing the establishment and government to change its ways will take effort. In the current scenario foreign pressure is proving more effective. However, we must bear in mind that a peaceful and long standing solution to this problem will only be possible through a change in domestic policies ushered in by local actors and will require some honest self reflection from the establishment and the government themselves.

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