ISLAMABAD: While the federal government wants the Punjab government to launch a massive crackdown on the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) and defunct Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is unlikely to oblige. The main reason is a seat-to-seat adjustment deal between the PML-N and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) for the upcoming elections.
Well-informed circles in the ASWJ (previously the SSP) confirmed that following extensive discussions, the two parties had agreed to have seat adjustments in the general election on at least 15 seats of the National Assembly from South Punjab where they would not field candidates against each other.
Two former key leaders of SSP, Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi and Malik Mohammad Ishaq, who are currently the president and vice president of the ASWJ respectively, are all set to run for two National Assembly seats from the South Punjab in the coming polls, with the support of the PML-N.
After being banned by the Musharraf regime as a terrorist group in 2002, the SSP was renamed as the ASWJ and it will be using the same platform to contest the election. Malik Ishaq, who has been commanding the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi since his July 14, 2011 release from a Lahore jail, was made vice president of the ASWJ on September 18, 2012 by Maulana Ludhianvi.
He was formally inducted into the ASWJ hardly a few days after Interior Minister Rehman Malik had written a letter to the chief secretary Punjab, asking him to arrest Ishaq for allegedly sponsoring sectarian terrorism. The letter was never responded to.
On the other hand, in September 2012 Ludhianvi said: “I deserve praise for making Ishaq throw away his weapons. Now the Interior Ministry should talk to a deweaponized Ishaq”. However, the federal government believes sectarian terrorism has multiplied, especially in Quetta against the Shia Hazaras, following the release of Ishaq.
Rehman Malik has only recently blamed the Punjab government for harbouring the Lashkar and Sipah, adding that it must take stern action against them to nip the evil of terrorism in the bud.
Giving a speech in the Senate on February 20, he said if the Punjab government won’t take action against these groups, he would himself raid their hideouts. “The central headquarters of these groups are in the Punjab, while their sub-headquarters are in Karachi”.
About the February 16 suicide hit in Quetta, he said, “Liquid explosives were used for the first time with the composition of diesel and potassium chloride. The tanker bomb was assembled in Lahore by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and transported to Quetta”.
But informed circles in the ASWJ believe the PML-N government in the Punjab would not risk jeopardising its recently concluded pact on seat adjustments by acting against the ASWJ leaders in a big way.
The ASWJ is an active component of Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), which is packed with the establishment’s favourites who dabble in extremist rhetoric. These circles added that the PML-N’s latest strategy of confronting the PPP in South Punjab is hinged on its understanding with the ASWJ. They conceded that the PML-N and ASWJ had reached a consensus on seat adjustments in the Punjab and National Assembly for the upcoming elections.
The understanding was reached after hectic parleys between Maulana Ludhianvi and the Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan. The ASWJ has a strong Sunni Deobandi vote bank in many constituencies of South Punjab and the PML-N obviously wants to take advantage of that in the coming general election.
According to the ASWJ insiders, the PML-N has agreed to support their candidates on four National Assembly seats from South Punjab. In return, the ASWJ will not field its candidates against the PML-N in 12 constituencies.
The five Punjab districts where the two parties will support each other’s candidates include Jhang, Faisalabad, Bahawalnagar, Rahim Yar Khan and Layyah. The ASWJ sources did not rule out the possibility of Malik Ishaq and Maulana Ludhianvi contesting the next general elections on two of the four National Assembly seats from South Punjab where the PML-N will support them.
To a question, the ASWJ sources said if Malik Ishaq was not allowed to contest the polls due to the pending cases against him, his son Malik Mohammad Usman will be their most likely candidate from NA-177 Muzaffargarh.
Ludhianvi is most likely to contest from NA-89 Jhang, which was previously won by Sheikh Waqas Akram of the PML-Q, who is all set to join the PPP to run for the same seat. To recall, the PML-N and ASWJ had jointly contested a by-election on a Punjab Assembly seat for Jhang in March 2010.
Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah chose to campaign for the PML-N candidate in PP-82 [on February 20, 2010] along with Ludhianvi, which was bitterly criticised by the then Governor Punjab Salman Taseer. The election was eventually won by Azam Chaila of PML-N with SSP’s crucial support.
Approached for comments, central secretary general of ASWJ Khadim Hussain Dhiloon said his party was open to talks with all the political and religious parties in connection with the upcoming polls.
Even during the 2008 elections, he said, almost all the major political parties including the PPP, PML-N, ANP, PML-Q and the JUI had sought the ASWJ’s support in the four provinces of the country and subsequently won their seats.
Dhiloon said Maulana Ludhianvi was already on record having produced to the media [in 2012] a list of 25 PPP leaders who won their seats in the 2008 polls because of the ASWJ’s support. Therefore, he said, the PPP had no moral justification to criticise the other parties if they want an election understanding with the ASWJ”.
Approached for comments, Siddiqueul Farooque, a central executive committee member of the PML-N, expressed ignorance about a seat adjustment agreement between his party and ASWJ. However, he claimed that many key leaders of the PPP had won the 2008 general elections with the support of the SSP, including Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Syed Khurshid Shah, Qamaruz Zaman Kaira, Jamshed Dasti and several others.
“It is totally moral and principled for the PPP to seek the support of these groups when they need their votes. But if any other party even thinks of getting their electoral support, it is lambasted by the PPP and declared pro-fascists”.
He then raised a few queries about the status of the “so-called” banned organisations, saying: “I want to know if allegations against these groups have already been established in any court; have these groups already been declared terrorist outfits by any court; has the Election Commission of Pakistan barred the leaders of these groups from casting their votes in the coming elections; have these leaders not been set free from jails?” The PML-N leader concluded: “If the government still believes all these groups are involved in terrorism and anti-state activities, it should approach the Supreme Court to get them banned”.