AT Darul Uloom Haqqania’s sprawling campus in Akora Khattak located on the main G.T. Road, some students are having a takeaway lunch. They appear unimpressed by the electoral preferences of their teacher Maulana Samiul Haq — also known as the father of the Taliban.

Over roti and pakoras, the students say that their teachers have no influence on them as far as the upcoming elections are concerned. They care little for the millions of rupees doled out to their seminary by the PTI government — a move, critics say, was designed to win over the religious vote.

“Our teachers preach that our vote is a sacred trust and we should vote for those struggling for the implementation of Sharia,” the students say, implying that ulema contesting from different constituencies should rightfully be voted for.

“The vote is a trust and I will cast my vote in favour of Sirajul Haq Sahab,” says Haqqania student Muhammad Saifullah, who belongs to Lower Dir. From this area (NA-7), Maulana Sirajul Haq of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), senior partner of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (an alliance of five religious parties), is contesting against the PTI and other parties.

“After the revival of the MMA, I can’t even think about voting for another party’s candidate,” the student says.

Our teachers preach that our vote is a sacred trust and we should vote for those struggling for the implementation of Sharia.

Students

His classmate Abdur Rashid, who belongs to North Waziristan, has same views: “Whether Maulana Samiul Haq is in an electoral alliance with the PTI or not, my vote is for the JUI-F,” he says. “Yes, I am a student of Haqqania and have great respect for Maulana [Samiul Haq] Sahab, but politically and ideologically I support the JUI-F.”

Often accused of favouring the Taliban, Imran Khan’s PTI-led coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa allocated Rs577 million from the provincial kitty to Darul Uloom Haqqania.

The speculation is that the PTI had two main objectives behind allocating millions to a single seminary: first, to win the electoral blessings of hardcore leaders like Maulana Samiul Haq, and second, to counter the onslaught against Imran Khan by religious parties such as Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F, who often accuse the PTI leader of being a Western stooge.

On the surface, the move was successful in that it dented religious parties’ unity. Not only did Maulana Samiul Haq refuse to join the MMA, he entered into a shaky electoral alliance with the PTI. He also announced the formation of an electoral alliance of hardcore religious and extremist groups to counter the MMA, which is led by the JUI-F.

The scheme of pouring money into Darul Uloom Haqqania under the pretext of reforming the syllabus was reportedly orchestrated by former chief minister Pervez Khattak, who is contesting polls from NA-25 — within which Akora Khattak lies.

But the PTI’s dream of winning the support of hardcore groups in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has shattered. Its electoral alliance with Maulana Samiul Haq has collapsed, and resultantly construction work on new buildings for the Akora Khattak seminary has also ground to halt because of the shortage of funds.

The PTI now seems isolated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, contesting against religious, rightist and nationalist parties simultaneously. Even its five-year coalition partner, the JI, has joined the MMA. Meanwhile, MMA campaigners also claim that Imran Khan’s strategy has failed, offering as evidence the fact that Maulana Samiul Haq’s son Maulana Hamidul Haq has withdrawn in favour of MMA candidate Pir Zulfiqar Bacha, who is contesting against Pervez Khattak on NA-25.

MMA candidates’ supporters say that allocation of funds for Haqqania was a political stunt, and have launched a campaign against the PTI accusing it of ‘Westernising’ society. One major grievance is that the PTI government had rainbows painted on the gates of schools. MMA supporters say that this ‘gay pride flag’ was used to promote immorality amongst the youth.

“Look at this image, what kind of culture was the PTI promoting in our schools?” asks Basit Bacha who is in charge of the MMA election office in Akora Khattak. On his mobile phone, he shows the image painted on the main gate of a government-run school. “The PTI’s plan to pit the ulema against each other has been exposed,” he says, adding that the party deceived Maulana Samiul Haq in the Senate elections.

Religion has remained a dominating factor in politics as well as in state affairs in Pakistan. Even parties such as the ANP and PPP have used taxpayers’ money to achieve political goals. In Mardan district alone, during its tenure the ANP-PPP coalition government spent over 1bn on mosques and seminaries.

Syed Fareedullah Shah, who is in charge of the PTI central election office in Akora Khattak, admits that the allocation of funds for Darul Uloom Haqqania was aimed at blocking the JUI-F propaganda against Imran Khan. “It was an attempt to stop the onslaught of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and build Imran’s pro-religion image among the masses,” he says, though conceding that the provision of funds will give only a small advantage to the PTI in the elections.

Social activist Ijaz Rehman says that despite the investment, the Haqqania religious circles’ vote will not go to the PTI in and outside Nowshera. He says that on the one hand, the PTI government released funds to the seminary, but on the other, its leaders ridicule the ulema in public meetings and through the social media.

“The PTI leadership, particularly Pervez Khattak, have been bad-mouthing the ulema, and this constitutes a major dilemma for the party in the elections,” Rehman says. He adds that there is resentment against the PTI locally for not having done anything significant for the district or town during its five-year rule.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2018