Rally in Lahore sends alarm bells ringing
IT was an extraordinary spectacle in Minto Park at the foot of the Minar-i-Pakistan on Sunday: jihadists, sectarian warriors, orthodox mullahs, Islamic revivalists, all banding together under the banner of the Difaa-i-Pakistan Council (Pakistan Defence Council) and vowing to ‘defend’ Pakistan against external aggression.
Headlined by Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Jamaatud Dawa, widely perceived as a front for the banned Lashkar-i-Taiba, Sunday’s event was a massive show of right-wing strength and has come in the wake of a heightened public profile by the JuD in recent months.
Was the PDC rally, then, meant to signify the entry of Hafiz Saeed into national politics, though perhaps not of the electoral variety?
More broadly, does the PDC event suggest that the security establishment is once again lashing together reactionary and millenarian forces in pursuit of narrow institutional interests without heed to the dangers to state and society of such a move?
The Difaa-i-Pakistan (PDC), an umbrella group of 44 right-wing entities and personalities, has been reactivated in the wake of the Mohmand killings, suggesting an external agenda.
But critics also see a thinly veiled domestic political agenda behind the creation of the PDC, an attempt to create a right-wing grouping from which an MMA-style or perhaps even an IJI-style political front will emerge ahead of the next general election.
“We’re seeing a replay of 10 years ago. After 9/11, we saw the creation of the Pak-Afghan Defence Council. From there, the politicians in the group created the MMA while the hardcore jihadis went their own way,” said Nusrat Javeed, a veteran journalist.
According to Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council and a moderate cleric, “the main focus of the PDC is the defence of Pakistan. All of this stuff that’s going on with the US, their meddling and interference, we want that to end. We have no interest in doing politics.”
But Ashrafi, who is perceived as close to the security establishment, added that the efforts to create the PDC had been going on for the last couple of years: “Ever since the break-up of the MMA, we have been trying to put together a new alliance.”
The external dimension
While suspicions about the PDC’s reactivation have centred around the security establishment’s evolving domestic electoral and political strategy, deteriorating ties between the army and the US also appear to have played a significant role.
The thrust of the PDC’s demands at the Sunday rally was ostensibly external:
withdrawing Pakistan from the so-called ‘war on terror’; revamping ties with the US to satisfy a muscular and Islamic Pakistani nationalism; and an anti-India campaign that emphasised the centrality of Kashmir and water disputes and rejected the granting of MFN trading status to India.
“It’s about showing to the outside world that the army is under a great deal of pressure at home, that the religious parties are active and agitating and so the space for Pakistan to do what the US wants has been reduced,” said Suhail Waraich, a senior journalist.
A time-worn tactic it may be, but analysts warn about the dangers of stirring anti-US, anti-India sentiments. “There’s a conflict between goals and strategy,” said Imtiaz Alam, secretary general of Safma. “They build up this jingoism but then become hostage to it because they don’t know how to control it.”
Arif Nizami, editor of Pakistan Today, said, “The problem is that the army can’t sustain this radical anti-American policy. If it has to compromise eventually, then these measures (like the PDC) actually make it more difficult to compromise.”
Beyond the immediate purpose of cultivating the PDC as a buffer against American demands, analysts believe the right-wing alliance has a deeper political purpose.
“What do they need the PDC for? The army, the government, the Foreign Office, everyone is on the same page about taking a tough line with the Americans. There has to be something more to it,” said Rana Jawad, an Islamabad-based journalist.
“Like you have many windows open on the computer, the establishment has many windows open too,” Arif Nizami said. “So they have Imran Khan to collect all the establishment political types and now you have the PDC to gather together all the ultra-right types.”
“The ISI has unleashed its jihadis,” said Amir Mir, an expert on Islamic militancy in the region, adding, “Before Sunday’s rally, there had already been five rallies in November alone on the Mall (Lahore).”
The link between the PDC and the security establishment, according to Mir and other analysts, was as clear as anything can be in the otherwise murky nexus between the establishment and jihadi groups.
“Samiul Haq (of JUI-S), Hafiz Saeed, Ijazul Haq, Sheikh Rashid, all these people come from the agency circles,” Mir argued. “And look at their views on foreign policy, they’re nothing more than mouthpieces of the intelligence establishment.”
“See who is involved (in the PDC) and look at their past: they’ve never gone against the ISI and some of them are quite frank about it,” Suhail Waraich said. “Their platform is anti-US, anti-India, anti-present government, who does that suit?”
According to Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, however, the move may be less about cobbling together a winning electoral alliance than to put pressure on the mainstream parties: “These guys don’t have much of a vote bank but they can act as a break on the policies of the mainstream parties. There’s 40 of them on one side with media coverage to boot, that’s something the national political parties will have to keep in mind while taking public positions on certain policies.”
Other analysts conjectured that the blocks of an electoral strategy to shut out from power the two major parties, the PPP and the PML-N, were being laid by the shadowy but powerful army-run intelligence apparatus.
“The revival of the military-mullah alliance could be to squeeze the space for Zardari and the PPP, the N-League and the other nationalist parties in the provinces,” said Imtiaz Alam.
“Instead of putting all their eggs in the Imran Khan basket, they’re activating various fronts in preparation for a hung parliament, where they will have choices then.”
The next stage
For its part, the PDC is determined to press ahead with its rallies and formalise its leadership structure in the days ahead.
“In a few days there will be a leadership meeting to determine how to proceed with membership and organisational issues. Then on Jan 13, we will hold a rally at Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi and another one on Feb 5 in Karachi. We are here to stay,” said Tahir Ashrafi, one of the PDC’s leaders.
Inevitably for such an unwieldy group, rifts and other complications also lie ahead. The Jamaat-i-Islami and the JUI-F in particular have not evinced much interest in the PDC.
“The JI wants to deal directly with the PTI or the PML-N rather than carry political lightweights in the PDC along,” Suhail Waraich said. He added: “Fazlur Rehman believes he has been attacked by the Taliban, who are close to Samiul Haq (a key PDC leader). Fazlur Rehman at some level also believes in constitutional and electoral politics, but most of these PDC guys believe in nothing, they’re just close to the Taliban and the ISI.”
Meanwhile, a PDC insider said that Hamid Gul, Sheikh Rashid and Ijazul Haq would be “welcome as guests but not as members of the leadership council”, hinting at disagreements within the PDC.
Still, with the PDC expected to plod ahead, some political analysts wonder if regime change is really what’s in the offing.
“What if another ‘My dear countrymen’ speech becomes necessary in the months ahead?” asked Rana Qaisar, an Islamabad-based journalist. “At that point, it would be useful to have PDC-types ready to swing into action to defend the army.”