SITUATIONER: THE FIGHT WITHINArchive
Multan Road, the highway that leads from Lahore to Multan, is lined with many villages along both sides of the road. Every now and then, wall-chalking emerges in one village or the other in praise of the proscribed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). And with the formation of the Milli Muslim League (MML), chalkings now venerate party chief Saif Khalid and ideologue Hafiz Saeed. Registered or not, the MML has introduced a new culture to electoral politics: the gun-toting ‘mujahid’ Hafiz Saeed is the new face on mainstream political posters.
Formed on August 7 this year, the MML jumped into the by-elections for NA-120 after former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was de-seated by the Supreme Court. It had thrown its support behind an independent candidate since the registration of the MML as a political party with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was being awaited at that time.
Although voters’ response in the NA-120 by-polls was not of outright rejection but it was not too encouraging either.
Unity and loyalty are already being stretched as (former) militants mull whether entering mainstream politics is ‘Islamic’ or not
“We bagged fourth position with hardly four weeks of campaigning but we were succeeded in conveying our message to hundreds of thousands of voters, which is a big achievement,” argues MML Information Secretary Tabish Qayyum.
Undeterred by the first setback, the party decided to contest another by-election, in NA-4 (Peshawar) this time round, where the MML supported independent candidate Liaquat Ali.
“The results of the NA-120 by-elections were very encouraging for us,” says Qayyum. “We are confident that the candidate who is being backed by the party in NA-4 will get more votes as compared to the candidate in NA-120.”
And yet, even in its short lifespan, the challenges for the MML on the road to becoming a mainstream political party are many. Not only is the party being squeezed by democratic actors — the MML’s registration being turned down by the ECP at the behest of the interior ministry, for example — but there is also a heavily contested debate on whether politics is ‘Islamic’ or not. More than the pressure from the outside, it is the internal debate that needs some resolution for the MML to forge ahead.
“Unity in the ranks of the JuD is fast eroding after the leadership decided to enter politics,” says one Multan-based JuD activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He distanced himself from the organisational activities being carried out by the MML. “Democratic politics was ‘kufr’ in the past; how has it suddenly become Islamic?”
The JuD activist traced the outfit’s abhorrence with politics back to 1987, when Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad was founded by Hafiz Saeed. Back then, not only were democratic politics deemed un-Islamic but so were things such as video cameras, films, snapping photographs of living things, television sets and so on. In fact campaigns were conducted in almost all cities of the country to publicly destroy cameras and television sets.
Such was the ideological hold of Saeed that prominent scholars such as Allama Ehsan Zaheer were declared infidels for not supporting jihad. “These religious scholars were of the view that only the state can initiate jihad and if someone was interested in that, they needed to join the army,” explains the JuD activist.
This dichotomy is being echoed in the lower ranks of the JuD as many lower-ranked JuD workers are not happy with the decision of their leadership to enter mainstream politics.
“Many workers have disassociated and distanced themselves from the activities of the MML and prefer to focus on their business or jobs,” says the activist.
While higher-ranked officials of the MML deny such notions, what is undeniable is that many former activists have left the JuD and entered the Markaz-i-Jamiat Ahle Hadith (MJAH) instead.
“Lahore and Kasur are two districts where the Ahle Hadith sect has a sizeable vote bank,” argues MJAH’s central information secretary, Maulana Abdul Rahim Gujjar. “But despite receiving support in NA-120 from some Difa-i-Pakistan Council parties, particularly Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam–Sami, the MML candidate obtained less than 6000 votes. In this particular constituency alone, the vote bank of the Ahle Hadith school of thought is believed to vary between 35,000 and 40,000 votes.”
According to the MJAH spokesman, the JuD’s decision to form a new political party has gone in favour of the MJAH, which has a more organic presence in many districts of Punjab.
“Both the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and JuD were established on the instructions of the military establishment and the MML has also been formed on their will,” says Maulana Gujjar. “How can those people that could not do jihad as per their wishes now do politics by themselves?”
SECURITY ASSET OR RISK?
On October 11, a four-member panel of the ECP headed by its Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Muhammad Raza rejected the application of the MML to register itself as a political party. The ECP asked the party leadership to obtain clearance from the interior ministry first.
In turn, the interior ministry responded that the registration of the MML “would breed violence and extremism in politics.” One of the ministry’s security agencies quoted in the letter even went on to state: “Given the clamour, philosophy, outreach and modus operandi to operate, it is difficult to believe that MML will tread its own path, completely at variance with its mother organisation.”
Although both the foreign and interior ministries opposed the registration of the MML, the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, in a press conference on October 5, seemed not to endorse the decision of both ministries. He claimed ambiguously in a press conference that, “every Pakistani has the right to participate in the polling process.”
“The [military] establishment is stuck between two opposite stacks,” argues political analyst, intellectual and scholar Mehmood Nizami. “On the one hand, there is security. On the other is larger national requirements and foreign relations. Both are at odds with each other. If you say, how can we ban a party or a person who is an anti-India hero, you will ultimately lose two things: democracy and foreign relations.”
The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @shakeelbaluch
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 29th, 2017