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Smokers’ Corner: The ballot wars of Jhang

Smokers’ Corner: The ballot wars of Jhang

In a recent by-election for one of Jhang’s provincial assembly seats (PP-78), Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi defeated PML-N’s candidate. Interestingly, the latter was attempting to regain this constituency for his party after another PML-N candidate who won in 2013 was disqualified.

By-elections for provincial assembly seats are much smaller affairs compared to those held for the National Assembly constituencies. However, Masroor’s win triggered an uproar in the media mainly due to the fact that he is the son of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the fiery and controversial sectarian preacher who was a founding member of the banned outfit Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

In 1996 a faction emerged from SSP calling itself the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (Lj) which accused SSP of abandoning Haq Nawaz Jhangvi’s much sterner stance (against Shias). Even though LJ became far more militant than SSP and rejected electoral politics, it remained close to its party of origin.




LJ was banned in 2001 and a year later so was SSP. SSP has repeatedly re-merged under different names and outfits, but all of them have faced bans by the state and the government of Pakistan. Meanwhile, LJ continues to operate as a clandestine militant outfit. This is why Masroor contested the by-election as an ‘independent’.

His victory in this context was certainly news-worthy. He was able to defeat candidates from Pakistan’s three largest mainstream parties: The centrist PML-N, the left-liberal PPP and the centre-right Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI). However, it was surprising to see some media commentators treating Masroor’s victory as some freak electoral anomaly. It was anything but.

Ever since the late 1980s, the SSP has managed to build an imposing vote-bank in some constituencies of Jhang, especially after this region became the epicentre of the larger Sunni-Shia conflict in Pakistan. For centuries Jhang has had a hefty Shia population and much of the sectarian conflict here is correctly traced back to the emergence of reactionary Sunni groups in Pakistan in the 1980s and to the Shia outfits inspired by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Shia-dominated Iran.

Murray Titus in his book Islam in India & Pakistan informs us that when the 11th century ruler of Ghazna, Mahmud Ghazni, invaded India and reached Southern Punjab, he removed the Shia prince of the region. Claiming that the prince was a ‘heretic’, Mahmud put a Sunni prince in power, triggering perhaps the first ever Shia-Sunni riots in Jhang.

The Shias were in majority in Jhang at the time of the creation of Pakistan in 1947. They were prominent players in the area’s agrarian economy. The government of Pakistan depended heavily on the economic resources of the leading members of Jhang’s Shia community. This further elevated the economic, and, consequently, the political influence wielded by members of the community’s landed elite in the area.

But this demography changed soon after Partition. The population of Sunni Muslims in Jhang grew significantly due to the migration of Sunnis from Indian cities such as Rohtak, Hisar, Gorgaon and Panipat.

Hamza Hassan in From the Pulpit to AK-47, and talking about the situation from the 1970s onwards, writes that a majority of tenants and peasants working on lands owned by influential Shia families in Jhang were Sunni Muslims, but they were all ‘Barelvis’. ‘Sunni Barelvis’ are a Sunni sub-sect emerging in undivided India in the late 19th century as a fusion of Sufism and various strands of ‘folk Islam’ in the region. Hassan adds that till the early 1970s both Shias and Sunnis participated together in Muharram processions in Jhang.

Many of the migrants settled in the urban areas of Jhang and became traders and shop-owners. Hassan writes that most migrants had been influenced by puritanical religious movements in their places of origin, and, thus, in addition to being antagonistic towards Shias, they also looked down upon the area’s rural Sunnis.

The centuries-old social, economic and political arrangement between the Shias and Barelvi Sunnis in Jhang rejected the assertions of the urban migrants. For example, in the 1970 election, all three NA seats in Jhang were won by the Barelvi-dominated Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP).

Hassan writes that though the 1970 election also somewhat stirred up sectarian and sub-sectarian tensions that had been kept in check by the Shia-Barelvi arrangement, the tensions did not come to the fore mainly due to the 1974 anti-Ahmadiyya movement in Punjab.

Jhang became an important venue in the movement in which both Sunni and Shia groups protested together to oust the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam. Many Sunni preachers from among urban Jhang’s migrant population were radicalised by the commotion. One of them was Haq Nawaz Jhangvi.

During the 1977 elections, the PPP put up candidates belonging to Jhang’s prominent Shia families whereas the right-wing alliance, the PNA, backed influential members from Jhang’s migrant sections. The PPP won all five NA seats in the area.

Sajid Arjomand in Social Change and Movements of Revitalisation notes that in the 1970s when Jhang’s farms began being modernised through mechanisation, most Barelvi Sunnis working in the fields lost their jobs and began drifting towards Jhang’s urban areas for work. Displaced and resentful, they came under the influence of migrant preachers who convinced them that they had been following a ‘distorted version of the faith’.

This process saw the urban migrant preachers combine anti-Shia orotundity with anti-feudal rhetoric. Hassan writes that many former rural Barelvis began to buy into the notion that they were fallowing a distorted strand of the faith and had been victims of the oppression of Jhang’s landed elite (who also happened to be Shia). On the other hand, the 1979 revolution in Iran sparked a brand of Shiaism which, Hassan notes, was critical of the traditional practices of Jhang’s Shias.

Consequently, the revivalist trends among large portions of both Sunni and Shia communities of Jhang transformed their traditional dispositions. This transformation gave birth to militant organisations such as the SSP (formed in 1985) and the Shia Tehreek-i-Jafria (TJ) formed in 1988.

Noticing the rise in support for the SSP among the ‘reconverted’ former rural Sunnis in Jhang, Haq Nawaz contested the 1988 election but was defeated by Abida Hussain (NA-68). Haq Nawaz had contested the election on a Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) ticket. His son, Masroor, has also announced after his election that he is joining the JUI-F.

Vicious sectarian riots erupted in Jhang in the 1990s, further polarising the two sects. Haq Nawaz was assassinated and Azam Tariq became head of the SSP. During the 1993 election he became the first SSP man to be elected. He won from Jhang’s NA-68 constituency, bagging 55,004 votes. However, in 1997, he lost this seat to a PML-N candidate.

In the 2002 election, Tariq returned to the assembly by winning Jhang’s NA-89 constituency. He defeated Tahir-ul-Qadri, the chief of the Barelvi-dominated Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). A year later, Tariq was assassinated. SSP and TJ were banned and the turmoil in Jhang that had taken over 700 lives between 1990 and 2002, was brought under control.

SSP chief Ahmad Ludhianvi lost the 2013 election (NA-89) but managed to receive 71,598 votes. Though no major sectarian clash has occurred in Jhang ever since the early 2000s, sectarian tensions persist. Ever since the 1980s, elections in most constituencies in Jhang continue to be about two competing tendencies: vestiges of the area’s traditional Shia-Barelvi arrangement up against an urban reaction which explains this arrangement as hegemonic and deviant.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 11th, 2016

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