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Asfandyar Wali Khan, head of the Awami National Party, talks to media representatives. — Photo by AP/File

PESHAWAR: The Friday after Ghulam Ahmad Bilour made the extraordinary offer of a $100,000 bounty for the murder of the producer of the Innocence of Muslims, the federal railways minister was invited to the historic Mohabbat Khan mosque in the heart of the provincial capital.

There, after the Friday prayers concluded, Bilour once again pledged to reward the killers of the film producer, and even of future blasphemers. For his efforts Bilour was showered with rose petals and garlanded by the cheering congregation. The second time round, however, Bilour did not extend his offer to the Taliban or Al Qaeda — whom he had earlier referred to as to as ‘brothers’. While Bilour’s statement, particularly his call to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, has dismayed many within the ANP, the party has yet to initiate formal proceedings against its errant senior leader, triggering speculation that electoral considerations and divisions within the party are behind the party’s silence.

To analysts who have known Ghulam Bilour for many years, however, the explanation is more prosaic. According to Rahimullah Yousufzai, the doyen of journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Bilour was being his usual mercurial self when the septuagenarian made the bounty offer.

“He is an old man, suffering from many diseases and unlikely to contest elections again. The family will hold on to the national assembly ticket (NA-1) but the party would have liked him to stand down from politics a long time ago. Haji sahib is a religious man and his emotions often get the better of him,” Yousufzai said.

Yousufzai added that the ANP is likely to take some action against Bilour eventually. “When Asfandyar (Wali) returns (to Pakistan), something is likely to be done. Whatever support Bilour has in the party, if Asfandyar takes a stand, the party will fall in line behind him, particularly with elections so close and party tickets at stake,” Yousufzai said.

That sentiment was echoed by a senior ANP leader. “If we had done something immediately, then people would have said we were punishing someone who had spoken against blasphemy and his (Bilour’s) popularity would have risen. Why should we give him that advantage?” the senior ANP leader said.

Electoral politics

Others, however, have interpreted Bilour’s statement as a shrewd political move in a tough electoral climate. According to Khadim Hussain, director of the Bacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation, Bilour had acted to shore up support for his family in Peshawar, a stronghold of the Bilour family, one of the most prominent families in the ANP clan.

“There were three reasons for saying what he said. Number one, the PPP had earned an advantage by declaring Friday (Sept 21) a holiday. Zahir Shah (a PPP leader) was out leading the protests with the religious groups in the city. The PPP is the main challenger on that seat,” Hussain said.

“Number two, after the violence and destruction on Friday, people were talking about the police being unavailable to protect the public’s property because they were allegedly busy protecting the Bilour family that day. Number three, the ANP has a growing conservative faction and the statement was meant to appease them,” Hussain concluded.

The electoral map and history of NA-1 do suggest that even if not a conscious political move by Bilour, his bounty offer may reap political dividends.

In 2008, Bilour defeated the PPP candidate Ayub Shah by less than seven thousand votes with a turnout of under 25 per cent. In 2002, a Jamaat-i-Islami candidate won the seat from the MMA platform.

Despite being together in government at the centre and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the ANP and PPP are bitter electoral rivals in Peshawar. In NA-1, the rivalry is intensified by a blood feud involving the death of Ghulam Bilour’s only son in a 1997 gunfight and the murder of an influential PPP rival in 2007 in what is alleged to be a reprisal killing.

“What’s happening is, the ANP is worried it may lose votes to Jamaat-i-Islami, while the PPP is worried that it will lose votes to the PTI,” according to senior ANP figure in Peshawar.

Complicating the equation is the attempt by the provincial PTI leadership to have Imran Khan contest from NA-1, a candidacy that would turbocharge the contest in the constituency.

Conservatism in ANP

Whatever the electoral map in Peshawar, the inaction against Bilour tells its own tale about internal ANP dynamics. While calling for the death of an alleged blasphemer is probably unpunishable in present-day politics regardless of how officially secular or liberal a party is, Bilour’s appeal to the Taliban and Al Qaeda was an astonishing indiscretion for a leader of a party that has lost hundreds of workers and leaders to militant violence.

In years past, the Bilour family’s special position within the ANP as the main party financiers ensured an untouchable status for them. But as other party leaders have grown wealthy and Asfandyar Wali himself is believed to have amassed a sizeable fortune, the Bilour chequebook has lost some of its value.

To some within the ANP, Bilour’s statement and the party’s supine response reflects a deeper malaise. “When I first heard about Bilour’s statement, I was shocked. But when I saw that many in the core committee actually sided with Bilour and agreed with what he had said, I was depressed. There weren’t even five of us who wanted to do something about it,” a veteran ANP party member from Peshawar said.

According to Rahimullah Yousufzai, the ANP is caught between the ideals of its leadership and the beliefs of its rank and file. “At the grassroots, the party isn’t secular. It is very religious and very conservative. In this culture, people join parties not necessarily because of what it stands for but because they have enemies in the other parties. Yes, there is loyalty to the party but they also have beards and pray five times a day.”Bushra Gohar, an outspoken ANP MNA, traces a historical reason for the rise of conservatism within the party.

“It started with Zia and the depoliticisation of society through the education curriculum. Society is changing and internal problems within the party, with the leadership, with party workers, are inevitable,” Gohar said.

Still, ANP leaders privately maintain that Ghulam Bilour’s latest indiscretion is likely to result in some kind of punitive action. If not for reasons of ideology, then for reasons of politics.

As Yousufzai explained, “They can’t do nothing. Else indiscipline in the party will grow, others will stray from the party line, and the party can’t afford that on the eve of an election.”