Pak Army Restructuring Political Agenda

The Pak Army holds its grip firmly on the state particularly the foreign policy and Kashmir Affairs.
Keywords: Army, pakistan, Politics, ISI, Agenda, Democracy, Military, Deep State, TLP, Deobandi, Blasphemy, Barelvi
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Those who think that one day Pakistan will have the windfall of worthwhile democratic governance are only day-dreaming. The ostensible law-makers in Pakistan are nothing more than pawns in the hands of adroit players of that country’s political game.

The Pak Army holds its grip firmly on the state particularly the foreign policy and Kashmir Affairs. But it appears that Pak Army feels the compulsion to react to the negative view taken of the existing situation by much of the civilian population. Some claim that the army is stepping far beyond its bonafide limits. There are subtle signs of a new strategy being evolved that can give the army a strong but imperceptible leverage over home affairs.  It is crafted to make the army pragmatically turn the government into a real ‘deep state’. As world powers see the Pakistan army assuming a role bigger than its size, the generals find that they have to answer some serious questions raised by the domestic law making institutions. The same difficulty is also faced by the global organisations providing mega loans to the country.

Tehreek-i-Labbek-i-Pakistan (TLP)is the political wing of Tehreek-i-Labbaik-i-Ya Rasul Allah. The Barelvis are concentrated in Punjab and Sindh Provinces while in KP and Balochistan, the Deobandis are to be found in larger numbers. Traditionally, the Deobandi faction in Punjab and KP has been maximally holding political and administrative power in Pakistan. The influence and position of the Barelvis was somewhat reduced by the Mohajirs and their Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz organisation in Karachi (Sind). In an overall power picture, the Barelvis stood sidelined.

Nevertheless, the Barelvis were pro-active and fiercely fanatical in terms of religious dogma and practices. They were outright supporters of the Muslim League in the 1930s. The Barelvis did not carry arms and did not advocate armed resistance as most of the political organisations in Pakistan would. However, they laid emphasis on street power and mass protests that would force the governments to bend to their demands. The first version of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik had concentrated on two main objectives. These were (a) strict enforcement of the blasphemy law (Namoos-e Rasul); in this context, the Barelvis demanded that the Ahmadiya faction be decalred non-Muslim and (b) introduction of sharia rule in Pakistan in accordance with the khatmi nabuwwat meaning the last of the Prophets and the code brought by him.

From the very creation of Pakistan a long see-saw argument has been raging between the two major schools of Islamic theology. Numerically, the Barelvis form almost one half of the population of Pakistan. In the course of time while other militant groups and sections of the population including various terrorist organizations, Ahle Hadith and the Wahhabis and Salafis threw their lot with the Deobandis, the Barelvis did not encourage any of them and stood fast in rejecting the use of violent means. Instead, they focused on street power, taking out mammoth public rallies and staging dharnas and road marches to force the regimes to come to terms with them. The Islamabad regime played  hide and seek with the new situation and used a carrot and stick policy to neutralise the growing influence of the TLP. However, the organisation, under the leadership of Sa’ad Rizwi the son of Khadim Husain Rizvi, lost no opportunity for staging a protest demonstration or a sit down strike whenever a contentious political issue came up.

After 2015 or even earlier, the power and influence of the Barelvis, especially the TLP grew by leaps and bounds. “It would be a mistake to assume TLP’s support base is limited to a small subset of bigots,” noted Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

In 2018, protests by the TLP brought the country to a standstill once more after Asiyah Bibi — a Christian woman accused of blasphemy — was acquitted. Earlier Saad Rizvi had observed a sit down strike demanding the freedom of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Mumtaz Qadri was a Barelvi and the TLP made it a point to obtain his freedom from imprisonment. In the 2018 general elections the TLP party won more than two million votes in a general election. But what boosted the popularity and influence of the TLP was its movement against the French satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine which had reprinted its objectionable cartoons, stirring outrage once again in Pakistan. TLP staged a massive protest rally and demanded the expulsion of the French Ambassador from Pakistan. By April 2021, the protests against France had become so dangerous that Paris warned its citizens to leave Pakistan. The group was banned by the Government.

The coup of General Zia ul Haq in 1977 was a watershed in the  evolution of Pakistan into a rabid Islamic State. Fortunately for him, the Mujahedeen war against the Soviets in which Pakistan and the United States both got involved, proved a great boost to the Jama’at-i-Islami and radical Islam, which was to overtake Pak polity under Zia’s leadership. The Ahle Hadith, Wahhabis, Salafis and the non-state actors all flocked to Jama’at and to the Deobandi faction. With official patronage plus the support of the Afghan Taliban as well as many locals, the Deobandis in Pakistan became all powerful and elbowed out Barelvis. Jihad was receiving ideological support of un-precedented magnitude in Pakistan.

The Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Islamic, though both originated in pre-partition India, have been active in the politics of the new state carved out for the Muslims of India. The Barelvis celebrate the birth day of the Prophet whereas the Deobandis do not. Barelvis visit the shrines of saints and Sufis to offer a fateha to the departed souls whereas the Deobandis do not. The Barelvis are reported to be forming one half of the population of Pakistan.

In the words of an analyst, “The November 1 agreement with the proscribed extremist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) demonstrates that the Army is using the group to keep in check the civilian government-led by Prime Minister Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The military’s kid-glove treatment of the TLP demonstrates the ‘military-mullah nexus,’ which has made Pakistan the epicentre of global terrorism.”

The Pakistan army has been assessing the possibility and the utility of using the popularity of the TLP for political outreach. Its primary objective in reviving ties with the TLP is that it is not a terrorist but an active political party and, if  catapulted in the seat of power it can have the credentials to pass for a popular political force that is not a handmaid of the army. The victory of the Taliban in Kabul has boosted Pak army’s activation of proxies.

It has to be remembered that the civilian government was unable to crush the street protests and thus referred the matter to the army. The army, however, considered it a good opportunity to establish sensible and workable relations with the TLP. The point to be brought home is that unlike the Tahreek-i-Taliban- Pakistan, the TLP is not an anti-state organisation nor is it armed to pose a challenge to the internal security of the State.

It has also to be remembered that recently the differences between Imran Khan and Army Chief Gen Bajwa became known to the public in the appointment of new ISI Chief for Pakistan.

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K N Pandita

K N Pandita has a PhD in Iranian Studies from the University of Teheran. He is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.

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