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October 7, 2019

Use of ‘religious card’ in politics


October 7, 2019

‘Religious card’ has always been used in our politics since Independence and became part and parcel of our Constitution since 1956, and subsequently either used by the religious parties or they were used by some undemocratic forces to oust the democratic governments.

Pakistan’s political history is the best judge as how and why this ‘card’ was effectively used despite the failure of such parties and groups to muster electoral support.

This card was used twice against the election of a woman as head of the State and the government, first, when Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah contested elections against Ayub Khan in the presidential election in the 60s and then against former prime minister Benazir Bhutto during elections in 1988.

Even when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto launched his party in 1967, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the party despite some opposition from left wing leaders amended the slogan from ‘socialism to Islami socialism’ to make it more attractive for the masses. The religious parties could not win more than three NA seats.

However, despite making the Constitution of 1973, more Islamic than that of 1956 and 1962 and he himself emerged as strong leader of the Islamic world, the religious parties used the ‘religious card’ to oust him in 1977 elections after he was accused of rigging the elections on some seats. Initially, the move was launched for fresh elections under interim government but the anti-Bhutto movement turned into Tehreek-e-Nizam-e-Mustafa. Even Bhutto’s announcement like declaring Friday as public holiday instead of Sunday and banned liquor could not help him and resulted in another martial law on July 5, 1977.

Gen Zia then hijacked the ‘religious card’ from the religious parties and used it to prolong his rule. In an unprecedented move he held a referendum in which five questions linked to Islamisation were asked. Answer in affirmative means he would continue as president for five years. Only five percent people voted for him but official result showed 95 percent voted for him.

During the 1988 elections the then ISI chief late Gen Hameed Gul used the ‘religious card’ when he formed Islami Jamohori Ittehad (IJI) which campaigned against Benazir Bhutto and declared that they would not accept woman as prime minister.

Yet people voted for her and she became the first woman prime minister of the Islamic world. The religious card had also been used during the first Afghan war, which for the first time gave prominence to ‘madrassa students’ and the Islamic warriors fighting against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was during the 11 years of Gen Zia that hundreds and thousands of madrassas were established and at present there are around two million students studying there.

Since most of these seminaries are controlled by Deoband school of thought; JUI has firm control over it since long unlike those controlled by other sect or religious parties. After 9/11, when the State changed its policy the religious parties exploited the US-led coalition attack on Afghanistan in its favour and as a result Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) swept elections in KP and also emerged as second biggest party in urban Sindh.

It was for the first time religious parties won so many seats in the Parliament and for the first time formed the government in KP. Later, it was the PTI led by Imran Khan that won back-to-back elections in 2013 and 2018 and the one party which suffered most is the JUI-F followed by JI.

Dr Allama Tahirul Qadri, a prominent Islamic scholar, who recently quit politics and resigned as president of Pakistan Awami Tehreek, twice used ‘religious card’ once in 2012 against the PPP and more effectively in 2014 against the PML-N during which the tragedy of Model Town occurred when police used force against the PAT workers at its Minhajul Quran Academy in Lahore, which killed number of party workers. He too has his own schools and academies and much disciplined cadre.

But the rise of Allama Khadim Rizvi and his Tehreek-e-Labbaik Yah Rasul Allah set a new tone in our politics and massive use of ‘religious card’. Faizabad dharna and the way he used religious card in 2017 not only damaged the PML-N position in the general elections in 2018 but also the MQM-P in Karachi as TLP candidates polled 40,000 to 60,000 votes and though they did not won many seats they succeeded in damaging the PML-N and the MQM-P.

So the history of such movements or use of ‘religious card’ often go against the democratic setup or led to the overthrow of the elected government, something which have alerted the two mainstream Opposition parties the PPP and the PML-N, and they are still undecided to jump into Maulana’s march. Since both had been the victims of ‘religious card’. The PML-N because of ‘Khadim Rizvi’s episode’ has decided to give moral and political support against the advice of their jailed leadership of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman has far more political stakes than Allama Khadim Rizvi and would certainly try to show his presence felt even its a ‘solo flight’. He has certainly taken a risk of his lifetime. He had been waiting for this day since long and for the last six months his party had held some of the ‘million march’ as often been claimed.

He has announced his ‘Azadi March’ from October 27, and there are chances that other Opposition parties including the PPP, PML-N and ANP besides some nationalist parties may also join in the second stage, if not in the first stage but so far following the policy of ‘wait and see’.

Government is confident that Maulana’s politics would be over after this ‘march’ and was using all tactics to stop people joining this march particularly from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The JUI-F had already worked out its counter strategy and since it will now be all and all the JUI-F show even if the PPP and PML-N participate in it to show solidarity, they will use its ‘religious card’ and have already given the task to their leaders handling madrassas.

One of JUI-F veteran leader Qari Sher Afzal, who in the past had been part of many such movements from the days of PNA in 1977, said “our politics, programme and manifesto is religious so what is wrong in using it as a card”. Had it not been used by the others including non-democratic forces to oust the government, he added with a clear reference to the one used against the PML-N in Faizabad dharna.

“Who is using the slogan of Riasat-e-Madina and with what purpose we all know. So, if they used its alright and if we use its wrong,” Qari Afzal, who in the past went to prison many time said. So for all practical purposes it is Maulana Fazlur Rehman v Imran Khan, both using their own respective cards.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.