Government crackdown on Hafiz Saeed polarises Pakistan

Pakistan’s Bin Laden is trying to game the system by putting up independent candidates in elections

Photo courtesy: PTI
Photo courtesy: PTI
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Mohsin Saleem Ullah

For the world, he is the most wanted man, the founder and chief of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a frontal charity organisation to conceal LeT’s militant activities. The LeT is accused of organising mass killing of hundreds in the deadly Mumbai attacks in 2008 and is responsible for carrying out terrorist activities in India.

Pakistan’s recent policy shift in passing a decree banning the operations of religious seminaries and outlets under LeT’s banner has surfaced to preclude the threat of international sanctions ahead of a Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting due this week in Paris. The organisers of FATF have coerced the home government to issue an Anti-terrorism Ordinance 2018; none other than President Mamnoon Hussain issued it as he introduced an amendment to the Anti-terrorism Act, 1977. However, it’s been nearly 10 years since the US Treasury Department declared Hafiz Saeed as a global terrorist. After a long delay, Islamabad designated him the same at home this month.

“I wish the recent State action against a few of the extremist entities—the self-styled religio-political groups, along with their seminaries and charity foundations—had been taken much earlier; and not as a self-serving expedient move just before the FATF meeting. Let us hope it is not a case of too little too late,” Tahira Abdullah, a Pakistani human rights defender and peace activist, told National Herald.

“Since Pakistan is so fragmented over definitions of religious violent extremism and jihadism, it is not at all surprising to see the mixed reaction to the state action,”Abdullah added.

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed has spent much of the last decade facing home detention imposed by the government, nearly 10 months after Mumbai attacks. But he was proven innocent through Lahore High Court’s full-release verdict in 2017. Despite having a $10 million American bounty on his head, he remains free to move within the country. And to many, he is a hero and an acclaimed leader, who has campaigned against Indian presence in Kashmir. He is the first face of Islam that comes to mind in Pakistan. His followers love how he has mocked multiple US efforts which have failed to capture him and the sheer audacity with which he continues to hold large public gatherings. However, to others, he remains an Islamist militant and a contemporary to Osama bin Laden’s ideology, thus earning him the title of “Pakistan’s bin Laden.”

During Hafiz’s detention, JuD’s move to step into politics by forming political party Muslim Milli League (MML), and the subsequent court verdict which set him free of all terrorism charges, had raised eyebrows across the world. Things couldn’t have been more dramatic, with Saeed gearing to contest elections to gain political strength in the 2018 election, at a time when the US is asking Pakistan “to do more” to curb extremist voices and in the light of Donald Trump’s New Year “Lies and Deceit” tweet and overt threats to cut aid.

And to many, he is a hero and an acclaimed leader, who has campaigned against Indian presence in Kashmir. He is the first face of Islam that comes to mind in Pakistan. His followers love how he has mocked multiple US efforts which have failed to capture him and the sheer audacity with which he continues to hold large public gatherings.

Back in 2017, the Election Commission of Pakistan had rejected MML’s application to enlist as a political party on the summary forwarded by the interior ministry, upon the recommendation received from intelligence agencies and the foreign office. Notwithstanding, MML candidates contested by-elections in National Assembly—120 (Lahore) and National Assembly—4 (Peshawar) in September 2017, as independents. The home constituency of former PM Nawaz Sharif saw Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N)’s vote-share significantly dropping in favour of the MML candidate.

“We are happy to see the drop in religious votes of PML-N in NA-120 (Sharif’s constituency) and our independent candidate garnering a significant number, despite government’s best efforts at upsetting our plans by not registering our political party because the ousted Prime Minister has got his personal and political interest vested in India. He has strong ties with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has been involved in barbaric persecution against Muslims in India. These forces will never want to see us in power,” Nadeem Awan, JuD spokesperson told National Herald.

In recent months, Islamist political groups have been more vocal in mainstream politics. The MML and Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) staged a protest in Islamabad to demand death sentences for PML-N ministers and complete dismissal of Parliament on pretext of change in words of oath taken by the legislators on the finality of prophethood, a development which has worried major political parties in Pakistan. The PML-N had continued to enjoy the Islamist vote , prior to the advent of MML and TLY. Its support from right-wing conservatives is waning.

“Political history tells us that religious parties don’t have much of a vote bank. In the national elections, people love to vote for moderate political parties such as PML-N. I believe that it is the democratic right of every person to contest elections. Majority of Pakistani people are tolerant and they reject extremist ideologies. Our focus must be to promote tolerance and positive values in the society. In this regard, I would like to mention Mahatma Gandhi’s Ahimsa vision. He was a true friend of humanity who sacrificed his life,” said Dr Ramesh Kumar, Member of National Assembly and patron-in-chief of Pakistan Hindu Council.

If candidates from such Jihadist groups end up in Parliament, there will be no chance to redress relations with India, because all efforts will go in vain. Pakistan has already suffered due to missed economic opportunities and the condition will only worsen.

He added “Although, political parties of Pakistan differ from each other on various issues, I think that is true for every democratic society. To ensure a peaceful, progressive and prosperous Pakistan, we need to focus on real issues that affect people.”

If candidates from such Jihadist groups end up in Parliament, there will be no chance to redress relations with India, because all efforts will go in vain. Pakistan has already suffered due to missed economic opportunities and the condition will only worsen. These Jihadists don’t limit themselves to Kashmir but collaborate with militant groups to foment insurgency all over and blatantly target minorities in Pakistan.

Furthermore, once in Parliament, Jihadists like Hafiz Saeed will be able to streamline their militant activities targeting India, thus isolating Pakistan more internationally. Militant organisations, swearing allegiance to Hafiz Saeed, have multiple times admitted to supporting jihad to unify Kashmir with the rest of Pakistan. This refutes the very notion of holding bilateral talks to settle the dispute.

(The article first appeared in this week’s print edition of National Herald on Sunday).

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