ABU JUNDAL’S capture may appear exciting to many Indian analysts with him providing more information that links the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) with the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, but it has not impressed Pakistan’s security establishment, which seems committed to allow LeT to flourish in the country. In fact, the State is allowing greater space to LeT chief Hafiz Saeed and many others like him to legitimise their presence in the society. This is borne out by the way in which the LeT-led Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) is operating over the past few months, holding rallies in major cities and challenging the government’s authority to make foreign policy.
The one silver lining at the moment seems to be that the jihadis may have the security establishment behind them but none of this has materialised into mass support from the people. This was most obvious from the latest DPC event — the long march from Lahore to Islamabad on 8-9 July. Interestingly, despite managing to hold a seemingly well-attended meeting in Karachi a few months ago, the DPC could not succeed in taking out a rally from Pakistan’s largest commercial city this time. Eventually, it settled for Lahore. Despite the claims that there were around 50,000 people, intelligence bureau estimates indicate the crowd was not more than 15,000. The jihadi leadership could not even attract people from the Punjabi heartland that has increasingly become more socially and politically conservative. In fact, the rally had to be organised strategically to give an impact of being well-attended. There were more vehicles than people in them.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government was also careful in not letting the jihadis make a big show out of nothing by not provoking them needlessly. The DPC was allowed to come in front of the Parliament, make their speeches and disperse in a couple of hours. Intriguingly, the rally did not continue towards the Nato supply route that they were rallying hard to interrupt and stop. It was probably because the DPC did not get a nod from the top military leadership, which is involved up till its ears in cutting a deal with the US that allows for trucks to carry Nato supplies into Afghanistan.
But then, could the military not have stopped the DPC from holding the rally? The counter-argument is that why would the army stop the rally as anti-Nato propaganda tends to malign the government and not the armed forces, which would naturally benefit the latter in terms of positive image building in the right-wing dominated Punjab where the US has become increasingly unpopular? The political and social legitimacy gained in this fashion would help in the future when the army would want to strike again and control the State. Moreover, why would the army stop the non-State actors whose legitimacy it has been trying to build for long? Former ISI chief Lt Gen (retd) Asad Durrani calls such an argument fiction despite there being sufficient indicators to prove the link.
So, one conclusion that can be drawn from the recent anti-Nato rally is that the man on the street does not find it sufficient reason to gang-up against the government or join ranks with the jihadis. However, the rallies indicate a broader strategy of the non-State actors to gain legitimacy for expanding their influence in the society, not necessarily in politics. The LeT/JuD (Jamaat-ud-Dawa) seem to be in the forefront trying to establish itself as a legitimate social force if not a political force akin to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
There seems to be a pattern in this madness of DPC rallies or other public events and the involvement of various jihadi outfits. It’s now an open secret that the intelligence agencies are trying to draw some of the jihadi leaders and their outfits such as Malik Ishaq and his Lashkar-e-Jhangavi and Sipahe-Sahaba, and Saeed and his LeT/JuD towards greater political role, especially in Punjab. Some would argue that this might help dissipate violence in the country’s heartland. Presumably, the urge to seek popular elections may dissuade the jihadi leadership from violence.
On the other hand, the jihadi parties appear reluctant to jump into the political fray as they understand that they will not be able to challenge the established parties in elections. For now, the jihadis are happy to stand behind and endorse other political players such as Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf. Both parties are ideologically closer to the larger politics of the jihadis such as greater Islamisation of the State and society. However, the jihadi groups like to use the opportunity to expand their popularity in the society, which, in their minds, would be to capitalise in the process of recruitment for some bigger front.
The LeT/JuD being politically smarter than most seems to have engaged in a consistent and careful effort to legitimise itself in the eyes of the people. For instance, following the rather failed anti-Nato supply route rally, Saeed raised his voice against the VIP culture, criticising the huge mansions that the president and Punjab governor live in. Saeed has lodged a case in the Lahore High Court where he may hope to get a favourable hearing as the higher judiciary in Punjab has consistently shown signs of greater religious and social conservatism. In fact, in the past decade, the high court issued two orders pertaining to provision of stipends to the families of Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Masood Azhar and Saeed while the two men were incarcerated in jail. Intriguingly, while the prayer mentions the president and the governor — both PPP men — there seems to be no issue with the VIP culture exhibited by many others, including the PML-N leadership.
The LeT/JuD seems to have engaged in a careful effort to legitimise itself in the people’s eyes
Clearly, this is an effort to build political alignment and to increase popularity amongst the urban middle class, especially in Punjab, where the VIPs from PPP are generally under greater attack than others. In any case, a civil suit against a particular VIP culture is a distraction from a larger debate of the power elite that Saeed and his LeT are a part of.
Saeed’s above act may actually indicate a new but as yet nascent trend amongst the religious zealots to play the socio-economic class divide card to muster greater support. Similarly, a few months ago, Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) announced his plan to take away lands from big landlords and distribute it to the landless peasants. It seems that these jihadi outfits and religious parties are either taking a leaf from the Arab Spring or utilising the initial tactics of Pakistan Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah.
In any case, the LeT has been investing in generating friendly intellectual capital in the country and abroad. The pro-LeT scholarship in western universities is meant to legitimise and rationalise the jihadi discourse of the outfit and launch it at a higher social level than what it was a decade ago.
HOWEVER, THE LeT’s jihadi partners in the larger DPC continue to operate in the lower class and the lower middle class. The Deobandi jihadi outfits have greater ideological outreach than the LeT but they are relatively less organised and more provocative and emotional. Therefore, it is not surprising to see the negative fallout of encouraging the DPC and using it for political propaganda. The sudden proliferation of terrorist attacks in Punjab province seems to have coincided with the anti-Nato rally and expansion of DPC’s seemingly political activity. Between 8 and 11 July, there were two terrorist attacks in Punjab alone, which intelligence sources claim may increase.
But the worst fallout of such strategic use of militant non-State actors is they now have bloated egos, and ambition to expand internally, regionally and internationally. There is also an added confidence that the neo-Islamists and liberal-nationalists in the military and power circles, who feel threatened by the US, India and Israel, will provide greater patronage to jihad and jihadis.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc