Friday July 01, 2022

The mullah and the Pakhtun

June 30, 2017

Part - II

Khyber mail

Once a puzzled JUI leader, Mufti Mahmud, asked Wali Khan why he was so generous to his rival Zulfikar Bhutto in constitutional discussions. To this Wali Khan is said to have explained: “we are opponents and not enemies”.         

The veracity of it notwithstanding, perhaps it was this story that influenced the JUI of Mufti Mahmud. For the next three decades its relationship with the Pakistani state was defined by a competitive, occasionally at cross purposes but not adversarial, relationship.  It was in this post-1970 era that the ideological test of parties now excluded religio-political parties.

So by the 1970 election the JUI, while not being the clear favourite party, tapped into the same sentiments that worked so well in the 1946 elections and in the early 1950s’ disturbances in Punjab. One example of this was voters being told to vote for the ‘book’, implying that the party symbol was a vote for Islam. Other campaign tactics were more brazen, stating that the votes cast were being counted in heaven.

The end result was successful. While the largest number of votes was won by the PML of Qayyum Khan, it polled 22.6 percent of the votes compared to the JUI’s 25.4 percent and the National Awami Party’s 18.4 percent.

The JUI’s appeal was religious and did cross over into Punjab where it won two provincial seats compared to four in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and three in Balochistan. But the Pakhtuns of Fata remained cut off from this dynamic because of the Frontier Crimes Regulations.

An even bigger victory for Mufti Mahmud was his defeat of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in his home seat of D I Khan. It would be here where the NAP, in a desire to deny arch rival Qayyum Khan the chief ministry, supported Mufti to become the first religious leader chief minister of the province. The once despised ‘mullah’ had by a twist of fate become a force to reckon with.

Two events would follow this. As the NAP-JUI alliance solidified, the coalition agreed to a raft of conservative measures in the province and also declared Urdu and not Pashto the provincial language of the province. The NDP, successor to the NAP, would come to the weary conclusion after four decades of relentless crackdowns and persecution that it was best to play by the state’s rule book.

This alliance would also weaken the linkages of language across the Pashtun belt. Within a generation, written Pashto would only be widely taught in Deobandi madressahs.

Despite these breakthroughs it would take an event of global magnitude to break down those centuries old social barriers. Also known as ‘Brezhnev’s Christmas present’, on 24th of December, 1979 the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan. This era of militarisation would flood the region with small arms, with KP having, by conservative estimates, seven million firearms.

Post the Afghan war the growth in the madressah network also proved phenomenal. Although Deobandis only accounted for around 25 percent of Muslims, they accounted for over 60 percent of the growth. At the time of independence, there were about 250 madressahs. Their number grew from around 900 in 1971 to over 8,000 official and another 25,000 unofficial madressahs in 1988. The highest percentage of total enrolled students studying in madressahs were from Pakhtun-dominated districts.

This was complemented by the large-scale export of Pakistani workers to the Gulf States. The overall numbers of remittances went from $136 million per annum in 1973 to $6.45 billion in 2008. After 1980, Saudi Arabia’s share in this was as high as half, with some recent estimates recently suggesting that 30 percent of which went to KP. If this was not enough, there was the multi-billion dollars worth of foreign aid during the Afghan war and the corrupting influence of billions of dollars generated by the drug trade.

Despite all this, the JUI failed to capitalise on any major electoral breakthroughs in the 1988-1997 period. In both KP and Balochistan, it was on average polling between 10 and 20 percent of the vote, while its vote rapidly declined in Punjab and Sindh. In the Pakhtun belt the vote tended to be higher for NA seats than provincial seats. This reflected the voters’ preference, who voted for them on national politics but did not see them fit to solve their day to day issues. Even this had caveats when after an electoral rout in 1997, after being hit by allegations regarding diesel permits being sold out to the highest bidder, the JUI-F leader was defeated and the party only polled seven percent of the KP vote.

Despite this, the JUI influence transcended simple electoral politics. It proved especially useful in alliance with the PPP in the mid-1990s by mobilising madressah students for the Taliban.     It had developed strong trans-Durand Line networks and its impact on the broader Pakhtun society was becoming more noticeable. The Deoband-associated tabligh movement became heavily dominated by Pakhtuns and broader social conservatism was taking over. In the eyes of many at the time, this was another one of those periodic outbursts in Pakhtun history. The old class and tribal system was shaken but not overturned and still saw the political mullahs as mostly rural, occasionally useful, but not fit for real power.

To be continued


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Twitter: @qissakhwani