Nawaz’s Muslim League vs Pak state machinery: Who will win?

While militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba can help eliminate the nexus of foreign groups like Daesh, their entry into Pakistan's mainstream politics can also promote violence in the country.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
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There is a very strong move from within the state machinery in the Pakistani capital to pave way for the mainstreaming of banned militant groups, despite opposition from the governing Muslim League (Nawaz) whose leadership has recently started demonstrating the new-found inclination to oppose the right-wing extremist groups.

Pakistani state machinery has been working on a plan to bring the cadre and the central leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant groups that were banned in 2002, after military tensions with India, into the mainstream through a deradicalisation programme since 2014.

The programme to deradicalise Lashkar-e-Taiba cadres was initiated in 2014 with the help of the Punjab government. Under this programme, hundreds of activists of the group have been deradicalised so far.

Only a few months back, the military-led intelligence agencies presented a plan to the Muslim League government to bring these militant groups into mainstream politics by allowing them to participate in regular political activities such as electioneering, rallies and processions.

However, this plan was rejected by the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, before he was ousted through a court order. Sharif’s rejection found its way into Pakistani newspapers’ front pages after he launched his political campaign to hold military establishment responsible for his ouster.

“This plan was rejected by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif after it was presented to him,” an unnamed Muslim League leader was quoted as saying by the local media. Analysts say that Sharif’s rejection story was an afterthought that surfaced because of political expediency.

Despite the former prime minister’s rejection of the plan, leading militant groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and its parent organisation,  Jamaat-ud-Dawa launched a political party, Milli Muslim League and announced its participation in the by-elections for a parliamentary seat from Lahore.

Following in the footsteps of Lashkar-e-Taiba, another militant leader, Fazlur Rehman Khalil announced that he would be launching his political party soon. Subsequently, another political party, Tehreek-e-Labaik, was formed with the agenda to support the murderer of slain governor Salman Taseer who was killed by his police guard under the allegation of blasphemy.

Meanwhile, Milli Muslim League applied for registration as a political party with the Election Commission of Pakistan. 

However, both the Interior Ministry and Foreign Ministry in their written response to the Election Commission opposed the Milli Muslim League’s registration on the grounds that this would not only violate Pakistani law but would also vitiate Pakistan’s relations with the neighbouring countries and important capitals of the world.

After listening to the arguments of both the Interior Ministry and the Milli Muslim League lawyers’, the Election Commission of Pakistan rejected the Milli Muslim League’s application for registration. Though it has not given any reasons for rejection in the short order, it is generally believed that the rejection order is based on the Interior Ministry’s letter.

This, however, doesn’t seem to be the end of the campaign to mainstream the militant groups who seem to have assumed strength from a section of the state machinery’s desire to bring these groups into mainstream politics.

“We are not a truck or a car which needs registration to hit the road,” is the response of Milli Muslim League’s office bearers.

The opposition of Interior Ministry and Foreign Ministry to the possible registration of Milli Muslim League with the Election Commission of Pakistan was in line with the new-found inclination of the governing party to oppose militant and extremist groups.

The Interior Ministry in its written response to the Election Commission of Pakistan has specifically raised the point that the entry of these militant groups into mainstream politics would promote violence in the country’s politics.

The Foreign Ministry has opposed the registration on the ground that militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa are not only banned by the Pakistani state but are also under UN and American sanctions.

Eminent counter-terrorism expert, Khurram Iqbal, however, toldNewslaundry that governing Muslim League’s opposition to the mainstreaming is simply not understandable as only four years ago they backed and helped launch a rehabilitation programme for the cadres of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Punjab. Under this programme, hundreds of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa activists were rehabilitated back into the society, Iqbal said. This programme was started in 2014 and is still operational.

Officials said that the willingness within the state machinery to mainstream groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba was based on the fact that such groups helped Pakistani intelligence services in destroying the network of foreign groups like Daesh (ISIS) inside Pakistani territory.

“Daesh has been trying to make inroads into the Pakistani territory since 2014 and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba have specifically helped Pakistan intelligence services in identifying the Daesh network in Pakistani cities,” said an Islamabad-based counter-terrorism expert.

In the past, Pakistani media has reported that activists of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa have joined foreign groups like Daesh (ISIS) in droves, creating new security challenges for the Pakistani security forces.

There is a strong body within the Pakistani state machinery which advocates that Pakistani security forces should be more focused on dealing with the emerging threats from groups like Daesh and in this it should seek the help of local groups.

This cooperation has apparently qualified these groups for the luxury of mainstreaming them into the politics of Pakistani society. The central leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba and  Jamaat-ud-Dawa has been engaging in mainstream politics since 2011 when Hafiz Saeed and their other leaders started sharing the stage with the leaders of mainstream political and religious parties.

A month ago, a candidate of the Milli Muslim League contested by-elections against Kulsoom Nawaz, Sharif’s wife, from Lahore city and secured the third largest number of votes from the urban constituency, which is considered the stronghold of the governing party.

Political analysts say that one of the reasons behind the governing party’s opposition to mainstreaming of militant and religious groups is the fact that these groups have the potential to divide the conservative vote bank of the governing party.

A major chunk of the governing party vote bank consists of conservative middle classes of the urban Punjab, which used to support and vote for religious groups before Sharif’s emergence as a political leader in early 1990s.

According to Iqbal, the governing party is also opposing the mainstreaming of these groups because they have started cultivating western liberal lobbies in the period Sharif’s ouster, and have started to portray military and judiciary as the villains.

The reaction of the mainstream political parties to this process of mainstreaming of these groups has up till now been highly negative. Both the left of centre and right of centre parties have opposed the move to bring these groups into the political mainstream.

One of the mainstream political leaders told Newslaundry, on condition of anonymity, that the role of these groups in mainstream politics would be no different from the traditional religious groups “and there is a possibility that these groups will use violence as a tool to make their presence felt especially when they will fail to get sizeable number of votes in the elections”.

With the leaders of the Milli Muslim League telling the local media that they would be championing the cause of Kashmir in national politics, there are indications that these groups would use their political clout to pressure the political system on a taking hardline stance on causes such as Kashmir and situation in Afghanistan. 


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