Recently a number of non-religious political parties have come into focus for having electoral links with certain banned sectarian outfits.
This is a disturbing thought on two counts. First, in a democracy, mainstream political parties are expected to use the national and provincial parliaments to enact laws that can guarantee the smooth activation of the country’s security agencies and outlets. So as to be able to take direct action against violent acts of sectarian and religious hatred and as well as crack down on all possible triggers that generate or encourage this nature of violence.
Secondly, if some political parties are striking electoral deals with the banned organisations, does this mean that the bigoted ideologies that these outfits propagate actually have voter support from certain sections of the society?
This question becomes all the more important to ponder, considering the fact that religious parties have almost always fared badly in elections in Pakistan.
When parties like the centre-right PML-N enter into electoral deals with banned militant outfits, are they not openly acknowledging the fact that these organisations have enough number of votes to cut deals with?
Yes, equally disturbing is the fact that some members of the centre-left PPP and recently, the overtly secular MQM, too were embarrassed by the liberal sections of the media for trying to cultivate electoral links with banned outfits, but their move in this respect pales in comparison with what the PML-N’s provincial regime in the Punjab was up to in this respect.
If the outgoing PPP-led coalition government was all at sea in controlling rapid spats of extremist violence in the country, the PML-N regime in Punjab was equally bamboozled by rising cases of mob violence against Christians and perceived ‘blasphemers’ in the province.
However, whereas the PPP regime at the centre was clearly incompetent to manage the extremist menace, was not the PML-N regime in Punjab actually allowing banned militant outfits and their front organisations to create havoc in the lives of Pakistani Christians, Ahmadis, and as well as those Muslims whom these outfits accuse of being heretical and apostate?
The final decision to take action against outfits responsible for encouraging and organising violence against the minorities and Shias in the Punjab lay with the Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. Not the police alone.
The CM hardly moved during the many episodes of this magnitude.
That’s why PML-N critics convincingly claim that this was mainly due to the Punjab regime’s ‘understanding’ with banned outfits. An understanding that saw the Punjab regime looking the other way as long as the banned outfits carried out their violent activities in other provinces and only touched non-Muslim sections of the population in the Punjab.
So often we have heard apologists maintain that Pakistan is mostly a country of moderate Muslims. If so, then what are moderate centre-right parties like PML-N doing bending over to accommodate banned sectarian organisations? And/or those voters who are inclined to vote for the banned outfits’ crooked line of thinking?
How many votes do radical sectarian groups actually have in ‘moderate Pakistan’?
A close look at the voting trends and stats of elections in Pakistan between 1970 and 2008 is one way of extracting an answer.
And when one does that, the following points emerge:
— The radical Sunni Muslim vote bank is (comparatively) a recent phenomenon. It was largely missing from the 1970 and 1977 elections.
— The radical Sunni Muslim vote bank began emerging from the mid-1980s (especially in Punjab) during Ziaul Haq’s reactionary dictatorship when, to facilitate ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan and neutralise the impact of the ‘Shia Iranian Revolution’ in Pakistan, the regime encouraged the formation of extreme Sunni Islamist groups.
— The radical Sunni Muslim vote bank has largely remained within certain areas of the Punjab, especially in Jhang.
This does not mean that Pakistan’s main radical sectarian organisations like Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) — now Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) — have managed to sweep these areas in an election.
But what it does mean is that this party generates enough votes to attract the accommodating interests of centre-right parties; especially the PML-N being in the best position to bag these votes (through electoral deals with Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and maintain its electoral hold in the Punjab.
Let’s see exactly how many votes does ASWJ has in its main area of influence, Jhang, ever since the mid-1980s.
In the 1988 election, Jhang had 5 NA seats. NA 68 in Jhang constituted areas that the then called SSP had the strongest influence in.
Here Syeda Abida Hussain contesting as an independent, defeated SSP’s Haq Nawaz Jhangvi.
Abida received 47,374 votes whereas Jhangvi received 38,995 votes. Jhangvi was contesting the election on a JUI-F ticket, even though he had formed the SSP in 1985.
Jhangvi was assassinated in 1990, allegedly by Shia militants incensed by his anti-shia rhetoric.
In the 1990 election, SSP’s Maulana Israrul Qasmi was persuaded by establishmentarian elements that had helped form the PML-led right-wing alliance, the IJI, to contest for Jhang’s NA 68 seat on an IJI ticket.
He won the seat by bagging 62,486 votes, defeating the PPP’s candidate who garnered 33,031 votes. A year later, Qasmi too was assassinated.
In the 1993 election, SSP’s new chief, Hafiz Azam Tariq, took SSP into the extreme right-wing Deobandi alliance, the Muttahida Deeni Mahaz (MDM). He won the NA 68 seat in Jhang (on MDM ticket) with 55,004 votes.
However, in the 1997 election, Tariq lost the seat to PML-N’s Amanullah Khan who bagged 60,490 votes to Tariq’s 44,796.
It should be mentioned that the PML-N regimes at the centre and the Punjab that came into being after the 1997 election led a drastic police operation against the SSP and its more militant expression, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ).
In the 2002 election, Jhang’s NA 68 and 69 constituencies became NA 89. SSP had been banned by the Musharraf regime so Azam Tariq contested the election as an independent here.
He re-won the seat by receiving 41,425 votes, defeating the head of the moderate Barelvi Sunni party, Tahirul Qadri, who bagged 34,183 votes.
A year later, Tariq Azam was assassinated near Islamabad in 2003. In the 2008 election, the NA 89 seat was wrested away from SSP by PML-Q’s Shiekh Waqas who got 51,976 votes. He defeated the new SSP chief, Ahmed Ludhianvi who received 42,216 votes.
Shiekh Waqas recently joined the PML-N and he is expected to contest the forthcoming election from the same constituency against Ludhianvi. Though Ludhianvi has reacted negatively to the news and has accused the PML-N of hoodwinking him (because he had helped the party get votes in Jhang and Bhakkar), many observers believe the PML-N accepted Waqas into the party to dispel the view that PML-N continues to have links with ASWJ. It is interesting to note that the PML-N chief, Mian Nawaz Sharif simply responded by saying that the decision to take Waqas into the party was not his but of other party members.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
He tweets @NadeemfParacha
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.