Published March 10, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Recently, when hundreds of workers belonging to the Deobandi Sunni Islamist party, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam–Fazal (JUI-F) — protesting against the alleged rigging in this year’s February 8 elections — clashed with police in Karachi, most political analysts and TV anchors seemed dumbfounded by the sight. 

The electoral support for the JUI-F is largely based in the Pakhtun-majority province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and along the ‘Pakhtun belt’ of Balochistan. So, what were JUI-F workers doing protesting in Sindh’s capital, Karachi, they wondered. 

They were protesting against ‘rigging’ in Sindh. This was confusing for various political analysts based in Punjab and Islamabad. Unfortunately, most of them are largely uninformed about the dynamics of Sindh’s electoral politics.

For decades, Sindh has been the electoral bastion of the left-liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). In the eleven party-based general elections held in the country from 1970 till 2024, the PPP has lost just three in Sindh. This year, the party formed its eighth — and its fourth consecutive — government in the province. 

Over the years, various political alliances of strange bedfellows have been formed to challenge PPP’s stranglehold in Sindh. The alliances have often been between conservative Sindh-based parties and secular Sindhi nationalist groups. The Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) is a case in point. 

The JUI-F’s brand of conservative politics might have given the party a foothold in northern Sindh, but it is unlikely to challenge PPP’s supremacy in the province

It was formed in 2017 and was headed by the Sindh-based Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F). For the 2018 elections, the party joined hands with certain secular Sindhi nationalist groups and agreed to support the populist Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in various Sindhi-majority constituencies of the province. The 2018 elections were still swept by the PPP in Sindh. 

For the 2024 polls, the GDA tried to expand its electoral reach by agreeing to ‘accommodate’ the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the JUI-F, and PTI-Independents in various constituencies of Sindh, in exchange for their support in the remaining constituencies of the province. The JUI-F was given the largest share of this support. The GDA and its allies agreed not to nominate their candidates in constituencies where it was believed that the JUI-F had the potential to effectively challenge the PPP. 

The JUI-F has been an active party in Sindh for decades. It has a healthy vote bank here, especially in northern Sindh. However, it is nowhere close to that of the PPP.  So, how did this Deobandi Islamist party, whose main leadership and support comes from conservative Pakhtun areas in KP, manage to find a foothold in Sindh? 

This is actually remarkable despite the fact that the province’s Sindhi-speaking majority largely belongs to the rival Barelvi Sunni subsect. But this majority hasn’t been radicalised the way segments of Barelvi Muslims in Punjab have, or for that matter, many Pakhtun Deobandis have been in KP from the 1980s onwards. Sindh also has thick pockets of Sindhi-speaking Hindus. 

Therefore, the JUI-F’s style of politics and rhetoric in Sindh has been slightly different compared to the party’s ideological disposition in KP and Balochistan. The JUI was formed in 1945. It was an off-shoot of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind. In 1962, the leadership of the party fell in the hands of a Pakhtun cleric, Mufti Mehmood.

The JUI supported a ‘theo-democracy’, instead of an outright theocracy. This gave its marginal leadership in Sindh enough space to adopt elements of Sindhi nationalism. In 1972, the JUI’s Sindh executive council passed a resolution, which Mufti Mehmood, sitting in Peshawar, found somewhat problematic. 

In a letter to JUI’s Sindh leader, Hafiz Muhammad Ismail, Mufti wrote that the resolution read as if it were authored by the Sindhi nationalist ideologue G.M. Syed. The resolution spoke of provincial autonomy and political rights of Sindhis. 

The JUI split in the early 1980s, when Mufti Mehmood’s son Fazlur Rehman decided to oppose the dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq (1977-88). Fazl’s JUI-F became the largest JUI faction. It joined the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) — an anti-Zia alliance formed in 1981 by the PPP. 

In 1983, the MRD movement turned violent, especially in Sindh. The JUI-F’s Sindh leadership was in the frontlines of the movement, along with the PPP, various Maoist outfits, and Sindhi nationalist groups. This is vividly documented in a 1985 book, Behind Bars, by JUI-F activist Javed Nomani. 

Sindhis detested Zia because he had sent a Sindhi prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to the gallows. The JUI-F’s involvement in anti-Zia movements helped strengthen its presence in Sindh and in countering the perception of it being a party of the Pakhtuns. 

In 1993, when PPP’s Benazir Bhutto became prime minister for the second time, the JUI-F became an ally. This, and JUI-F once again becoming a partner of the PPP-led coalition government in 2008, helped the party to establish madrassas, especially in northern Sindh. 

But from the late 2000s, even though the party’s leadership in Sindh remained in the hands of Deobandi Sindhis, it gradually began to use the madrassas to attract Sindhis in adopting the party’s theo-democratic outlook.

According to a 2015 survey and report by Huma Yousaf and Syed Shoaib Hasan, the students of these madrassas not only work to spread JUI-F’s ideology, but many also end up joining more militant Islamist outfits. 

The JUI-F is now a significant political force in northern Sindh. It does not find the need any more to appease the Sindhi nationalist groups, whose appeal has largely waned. But whereas JUI-F’s increasing turn towards Islamist politics in Sindh seems to have gained it electoral traction in northern Sindh, the overall disposition of Islam in Sindh remains rooted in the pluralistic Sindhi nationalist ethos. 

It is this ethos that the PPP successfully absorbed and then placed in the context of Pakistani federalism. Also, the economic interests of an emerging Sindhi middle class are closely tied to the political fortunes of the PPP. 

Another advantage that the PPP has had in Sindh is the overwhelming support that it’s been receiving from Sindhi women. According to a 2018 report by the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) — the independent civil society organisation that monitors elections — the PPP has increasingly been attracting the votes of a majority of Sindhi women. Very few of these are cast for other parties. The JUI-F votes in Sindh, on the other hand, are almost entirely cast by males. 

Without the women’s votes, which are often cast in large numbers in Sindh, the JUI-F is likely to remain a distant second to the PPP in elections, even though the growth of JUI-F’s madrassas continues to be a cause for concern. The JUI-F has repeatedly warned PPP against curtailing the influence of these madrassas.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 10th, 2024



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