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Sleeping With Sectarianism: How Militants Are Becoming a Political Force in Pakistan - Part 1

By Mohammad Jibran Nasir

November 08, 2016

As per a study by Never Forget Pakistan, at least 4,707 Pakistanis have been killed in sectarian violence between January 2001 and August 2016. The killing of Shias has been systematic in terms of targeting places of worship, religious gatherings and community leaders such as doctors, lawyers and clerics. A case for Shia genocide in Pakistan is indeed undeniable.

Raids are taking place all across Karachi in what the Sindh Government claims is to arrest those responsible for sectarian violence. This of course is said to be part of the implementation of the National Action Plan.

But what if those militants, to combat whom NAP was designed, end up sitting in our Parliament attending official security briefings and reviewing performance of our government and security agencies under NAP. We may not have to wait much longer for this to become a haunting reality.

On 1st December by-elections are taking place in PP-78 Jhang IV. Jhang is no ordinary district to contest elections in. It is home to Pakistan’s biggest and most organized militant sectarian outfit, Sippah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). However, the biggest threat is not that one of these outfits will carry on a terror attack on Election Day but it is the possibility that the head of the SSP, Ahmed Ludhianvi, may get elected to the Punjab Legislative Assembly.

Ludhianvi is not contesting alone. He has a cover or back up candidate in Masroor Nawaz, son of the founder of SSP, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi.

It is not that Pakistan doesn’t have laws to keep a check on the activities of people like Ludhianvi and Masroor. Both of these men have been proscribed which means their activities are banned under Section 11EE (1) of the Anti Terrorism Act 1997 and feature on its fourth schedule through Home Department Notification No. SO(IS-I)4-10-2011.

Their organization has also been banned repeatedly as it continued to resurface under different names. The SSP was proscribed on 29th January 2002 via S.R.O 71(1)/2002. It reappeared as Millat-e-Islamia Pakistan (MIP) and was again banned on 15th November 2013 via S.R.O 1037(1)/2003. Its current and most known manifestation is in the form of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) which was also banned via S.R.O. 257(1)/2012 on 15th February 2012.

Proscribed persons, such as Ludhianvi, require prior written approval from the local police station of their designated area to move outside that area or go to any public place or enter any educational institutions where people under the age of 21 years are studying or training. As active members of a banned outfit the government is required to seize their passports and prevent them from travelling abroad. The inference drawn here is that the government deems people like Ludhianvi a threat to peace and public order and clearly a bad influence on young minds.

Since a banned outfit cannot register with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), Ludhianvi filed his nomination papers as an independent candidate. Rejection of Ludhianvi’s nomination papers due to him being a proscribed person would appear a natural consequence but only the contrary is true.

There are no clear and specific instructions from the Ministry of Interior or the ECP which would declare nomination of a proscribed person void by default. Hence it comes down to either the Returning Officer being proactive or for a voter of the constituency or a contesting candidate to file objections to such a nomination. In a place like Jhang and against a man like Ludhianvi, both filing an objection and rejecting the nomination means putting your life in grave danger. So the state has put its entire machinery to rest and is expecting a R.O. with inadequate protection and ordinary citizens to prevent militants from contesting elections and reducing the legal system to a joke.

Hence, it was no surprise that it took a candidate like Sheikh Sheraz Akram to come forward and file objections in front of the Returning Officer (R.O.), Tanveer-ul-Hasan. Sheraz is the son of the area’s MNA, PML-N member Sheikh Mohammad Akram, who carries considerable political clout in Jhang and is an old rival of ASWJ. Sheraz’s application not only notified the R.O. that Ludhianvi is a proscribed person and head of a banned outfit but also lists up to 11 FIRs in which Ludhianvi has been nominated which included charges ranging from murder to terrorism. It has been reported that in three of those cases, Ludhianvi has been declared a proclaimed offender by Court.

However, the R.O. disappointingly, but not surprisingly, dismissed Sheraz’s application claiming it to have “no merit” and in violation of Section 14(4) of the Representation of Peoples Act 1976 did not even give reasons for same. The actions of the R.O. though deplorable are understandable. In 2013, Ludhianvi contested NA-89 against Sheraz’s father. According, to Sheraz’s brother Sheikh Waqas who is a former MNA himself, the R.O. serving at that time wrote a letter to the Lahore High Court’s Registrar demanding more security as he claimed that he was getting threatening calls from Afghanistan and Waziristan asking him to announce the election results in favour of Ludhianvi.

After having his application dismissed by the R.O., Sheraz was scheduled to argue his appeal in the Lahore High Court before Justice Muhammad Qasim Khan and Justice Shahid Waheed. However, due to unknown reasons Justice Shahid Waheed excused himself from the tribunal creating a more alarming and uncertain situation. As per the election schedule the tribunal had to decide appeals latest by 8th November (today) but the tribunal needs to be constituted of two judges for it to proceed.

Here it is important to highlight that radicals like Ludhianvi may need to terrorize election officials but they don’t necessarily need to scare voters to vote. Ludhianvi is not a delusional fool nor is he running just to make a statement. Ludhianvi got more than 45,000 votes when he contested NA-89 in 2013. For those who may think the NAP would have dented Ludhianvi’s hopes can view his speech on 28th October at ASWJ’s rally in Islamabad which was live streamed on Facebook by the outfit. Section 144 was in place that day, the authorities were cracking down on workers of legitimate political parties like the PTI and AML but ASWJ’s rally went ahead uninterrupted attended by thousands and all facilitated by the local police in a shameless and gross violation of the ATA.

Last year ASWJ in order to get its demands met laid siege on the Supreme Court in Islamabad and the Sindh Chief Minister’s House in Karachi but not a single one of their members were arrested for doing so. How did ASWJ gather this much clout?

ASWJ/SSP has had political aims since its inception in 1985. Haq Nawaz contested NA-89 Jhang in 1988. He lost the elections but since then several members of the ASWJ/SSP have been elected to the National and Provincial assembly with two of them, Riaz Hashmat and Sheikh Hakim Ali, even becoming provincial ministers in Punjab in the mid 90s under the Government of Muslim League – Junejo.

SSP claims to follow the Sunni Deoband school of thought and is engaged in targeting of Shia Muslims, indulging in hate speech, fanning sectarianism and has also been involved in killing of Shias. The reason SSP has contested elections is not just to give their workers political cover but because it has a publicly declared manifesto of amending the Constitution of Pakistan to declare Shias as infidels under same.

The government’s inaction against the activities of SSP gave birth to a Shia militant organization in 1993, the Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP), formed by Ghulam Raza Naqvi, who till then served as the Jhang President of Tehreek-e-Jafaria Pakistan. The clashes between SSP and SMP resulted in hundreds of deaths.

The most hardened and known terrorists from SSP, whose association with the outfit appeared to hinder its political ambitions, formed a separate but affiliated entity in 1994, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). As LeJ’s former head Malik Ishaq once commented “LeJ was a party of proclaimed offenders.” LeJ named after the founder of SSP is by far the most lethal terrorist outfit which has carried out massive attacks on citizens, politicians and military personnel but has primarily targeting Shias.

The SMP for most part was made defunct in 1996 when a heavy contingent of police raided its headquarters in Thokar Niaz Baig, Lahore and Naqvi was sent to jail. According to ARY News, Naqvi who was released in 2014 was killed in March this year on Taftaan border by firing of Irani border forces.

The only reason police was able to penetrate Thokar was because Naqvi had been accused of killing a prominent fellow Shia leader, Murad Abbas Yazdani, resulting in him losing popular support. An earlier Police raid in Thokar in December 1994 was thwarted by the ordinary residents of the area. The residents' resistance spoke of how unprotected the Shias in Thokar felt in the face of government inaction against SSP and LeJ and had seen SMP as some sort of a defence mechanism. That sense of insecurity continues till today and with good reason. It has led to ghettoization of Shias in form of Alamdar Road and Hazara Town in Quetta and House Societies like Rizvia 1, 2 and 3 in Karachi.

Jibran Nasir is a lawyer, independent politician and civil rights activist.