The leopard changes its spots, quietly

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THE AJMAL KASAB story seems to be the flavour of the week in the Indian media. What attracts attention in Pakistan, however, is its sheer absence from both the print and electronic media. Kasab almost seems like a ghost that no one wants to remember and most want to put behind them. Barring initial reports of his hanging, there was not much in the Pakistani media. Some reporters claimed this was due to specific instructions from certain quarters to downplay the event. Consequently, there was no real exhibition of how people felt, including from Kasab’s parent organisations — the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and its subsidiary Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). Actually, there was a statement from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the LeT leadership. While the TTP threatened to avenge Kasab’s death, some unidentified LeT leaders talked about his death inspiring others. The statement did not attract much attention as the organisation’s top leaders such as Zakiur-Rehman Lakhvi are in jail.

Bread and butter JuD chief Hafiz Saeed is working overtime to rebrand his organisation’s image; the methods include opening bakeries in Pakistan’s urban centres
Bread and butter JuD chief Hafiz Saeed is working overtime to rebrand his organisation’s image; the methods include opening bakeries in Pakistan’s urban centres Photo: AFP

Kasab’s hanging did draw some national and international media to his village, Faridkot. But they were shooed away by the villagers; some even saying that Kasab did not belong to Faridkot and the entire media effort was indeed to malign their village. Kasab as a conspiracy continues to be a popular myth among ordinary Pakistanis. In the wake of Kasab’s hanging, I had a chance to discuss the matter with a 27-year-old man from a Sufi family in Okara, who was of the view that the dead Kasab was someone’s conspiracy since the real Kasab was alive and lived happily in Faridkot. The youth switched off completely when told that the first one to discover Kasab was the local media, hence, there was no international conspiracy to it.

Given the complete blackout of the incident, it is certainly hard to assess the real thinking among many, including the LeT/JuD. The local media reported that LeT founder Hafiz Saeed had performed Kasab’s ghaibana namaz-e-janaza (funeral prayers in absentia). However, this was denied by the JuD’s official tweets, which argued that people could see the footage of the congregation at Muridke, which was one of the biggest in many years. But there are reports that a funeral prayer was said for Kasab in Faridkot, though quietly and not under anyone’s pressure. This doesn’t make the villagers terrorists because they have been fed the same myth as the young Kasab about the LeT having greater moral authority to wage war against other States. So, in their minds, the deceased is not a sinner but a martyr. Moreover, as far as the TTP’s threat to avenge his death is concerned, a majority of the people don’t consider them as heroes.

The LeT/JuD is on a major drive to legitimise itself and thus its radical ideas as well

For many in Pakistan, including the military and the JuD, Kasab’s death seems to have solved a major problem — now they are not haunted by the idea of a pawn embarrassing them anymore. The legal case in the superior court in Islamabad has been dragging on due to the interrogators from Pakistan being unable to cross-examine Kasab. Since the law makes it almost a pre-requisite for Kasab to physically identify the people who trained him or instigated him during cross-examination, the threat is over. The case will probably die a quiet death or at least the expectation is that the Indian government will not make a lot of fuss and try to embarrass Pakistan by putting greater pressure to pursue the court case diligently. The Pakistan government would like to see the 2008 Mumbai attacks behind its back and move on with improving relations

HOWEVER, THE more intriguing aspect does not relate to the government, but to the LeT/JuD network. Ordinarily, the militant network performs ghaibana namaz-e-janaza and uses the occasion to recruit more people. This would be just the right opportunity, unless they are doing it cautiously and secretly. The fact that the JuD has gone around advertising on social media that a prayer was not held for Kasab indicates that they are pursuing different plans. One wonders if this silence is, in fact, part of the bigger strategy to mainstream Saeed and the entire network. Already, several methods are being adopted for increasing the JuD’s visibility in society and promoting a good image, such as opening bakeries in urban centres, especially in elite areas, or engaging in other businesses. (A friend to whom I confided about the bakery venture wondered if they would sell bum-cakes.)

Interestingly, Saeed now has a very peaceful image, which is being created both in Pakistan and in the West. He now claims to be a manager and leader of relief work — a new ‘smiling Buddha’ in the making. Sources claim that this is indeed a considered strategy of rebranding Pakistan. The idea is basically to feed the militant leadership with rich financial resources and opportunities, bring them into politics, create permanent stakes for them in the power system and, thus, take away the incentive to get violent. If that were indeed the case, then it raises an important question about who really controls these militant outfits. When the military argued that it didn’t have any control over these militants, and stories were being told about LeT warriors quitting the organisation and joining the TTP, was it lying then? Or is it lying now when it says that a real transformation of the militant outfit is taking place? If the jihadis are high on the religious rhetoric about jihad, then they would remain uncontrollable, as was partly suggested at the time of the Mumbai attacks.

The conspicuous silence on Kasab’s hanging is indeed welcome, but it is also troubling for what is hidden behind it. It’s also important to note that the rebranding of the LeT is a conscientiously designed plan, which had probably started soon after the Mumbai attacks. The stories that were spread around varied from the suggestion that the LeT had been hijacked by the al Qaeda, which was the real force behind the Mumbai attacks, to the idea that the militant organisation is better than others and has evolved intelligently, challenged certain beliefs and shed some others, such as its initial anti-Shiite bias. Some have even suggested that the LeT has a ‘secularising’ influence over society. This idea about the LeT, like Saeed being a man of peace, is again one of the new constructs meant to change the negative image of the organisation.

So, what can Alice see as she goes down the hole into the wonderland? The LeT/JuD network has not stopped its massive public relations exercise. There is more wall-chalking all over the country by the LeT/JuD than ever before and as compared to any other outfit. This means that it has not stopped calling upon people to join its mission of jihad. But if it has gone silent and is keenly exhibiting its welfare activities without any fear of losing its ‘boys’ to other outfits, then it means that it is possibly saving up for another day or some other front.

Perhaps, this silence and rebranding denotes some agreement with the US, or that Pakistan’s ‘Deep State’ doesn’t want to get too much attention or raise concerns before the US forces leave Afghanistan in 2014? Or maybe this is in response to some coercion by Washington? But whatever the LeT/JuD and their handlers are trying to hide, they cannot hide the fact that the outfit is on a major drive to legitimise itself and thus its radical ideas as well. Sadly, this repackaging is deadly because very soon even the seemingly non-religious or liberal folk will begin to argue for “leaving the LeT/JuD alone” as it is not engaged in any visible acts of terrorism. This is where the real danger lies because this will allow it to penetrate the society and change its face faster than one can imagine. Then we may have more to mourn than just Ajmal Kasab.

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of  Military Inc

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