The sit-ins in the capital by an extreme Barelvi group hint at the possibility of Barelvis trying to reclaim political space. Analysts believe this is being engineered to weaken the vote bank of PML-N
The specter of another sit-in haunted the federal capital again on November 8 and 9. But this time it was not the middle classes from posh areas but a Barelvi group called Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah that threw its blanket support behind Mumtaz Qadri. The group’s political wing Tehreek Labaik Pakistan stunned the world by securing more votes (7130) than the PPP and Jamaat-e Islami in Lahore’s NA-120 by polls besides making its presence felt by obtaining 9935 votes in the recently held by polls in Peshawar’s NA-4.
The group is known for employing incendiary language to muster political support. Its leaders have been accused of hurling abuses at ex-army chief General Raheel Sharif and ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a demonstration in March last year in front of the parliament house.
The leader of the group, Khadim Hussain Rizvi may be considered a demagogue by many liberals but for his supporters he is a charismatic leader. The group was established more than a year ago. Rizvi, originally from Rawalpindi district, is based in Lahore. He openly defends Qadri and is known for spreading religious hatred against minorities. He even hurled abuses at Abdus Sattar Edhi, accusing him of "taking care of illegitimate children".
The sit-in followed another protest by a pro-Qadri group – Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Al Alami – in Islamabad that ended on November 3. This group parted ways with Rizvi last year but subscribes to the same ideology.
Those who thought the Rizvi group will evaporate after a few months were startled to see its big public gathering in Karachi a few months ago. The story does not end here. They have held rallies in Gujranwala, Kasur, Lahore and Faisalabad in recent months. Now, they are eyeing Islamabad not only for protests and demonstrations, but for capturing power through the ballot.
This has prompted many analysts to conclude that the Barelvi sect that constitutes a majority in Pakistan is trying to claim political space.
Barelvi leaders corroborate this. Maulana Tahir Iqbal Chishti, leader of Sunni Tehreek Pakistan, a Karachi-based Barelvi outfit, says "there is a sense of frustration among the Sunnis because they have no political representation in the parliament despite being the majority sect in the country. All Sunni parties are forging a unity and we will make it to the parliament".
Mufti Waqar of Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Al Alami tells TNS that his group would contest polls and may make an alliance with other Barelvi parties. For him the biggest fear is what he calls "the onslaught of liberal and secular-minded people who are against the Islamic character of the Pakistani constitution. If we don’t stop them by entering into electoral politics, they will destroy the country".
Some analysts believe the establishment is launching the Barelvi factions to weaken the vote bank of PML-N. "A large section of voters in Punjab is from the Barelvi sect that has traditionally supported the PML-N. The establishment does not want the PML-N to win the 2018 polls so it is patronising the Barelvi groups. These groups may not be able to win many seats but they can undermine Nawaz’s votes," says Prof. Aman Memon of Preston University, Islamabad.
Defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa partially agrees. "The establishment may want to achieve different purposes through this sit-in. They might want to pressure Nawaz Sharif into abdicating politics and handing over the party leadership to Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar.
"Another purpose may be to provoke the government into taking some action against the protesters which might lead to a situation where the government is forced to call early polls. If that happens, the PML-N may not be able to get a majority in the Senate."
Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah that contested the recently held by polls in Lahore and Peshawar under the banner of Tehreek Labaik Pakistan has been working to expand its organisational structure across Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan. "We have announced our organisational bodies for almost all divisions, districts, cities, towns and tehsils," says Pir Ejaz Shah, the spokesperson of Tehreek.
Some other Barelvi parties are making silent efforts to forge unity among the Sunni groups. The faction of Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) led by Awais Ahmed Noorani, the son of ex-Senator Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani recently held a meeting in Karachi to unite various Barelvi groups and organisations on one platform. "The JUP also had many factions before 1970, but then my late father united all those groups. This unity helped us to get representation in parliament," says Awais Noorani. "Now, I am uniting all Sunni groups so that we can contest the upcoming polls from a united platform. All Brailvi parties, including the one led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi have been invited to attend consultations for such a platform. I am hopeful about the possibility of this united platform."
Noorani accuses the establishment of having kicked out the Barelvis by following the policy of divide and rule. His rival Qari Zawawar Bahadur, the chief of his own faction of JUP, agrees with him on this claim. "There are around 35,000 registered seminaries in Pakistan, half of them are affiliated with the Deobandi school of thought because America and Saudi Arabia pumped billions of dollars into them. General Zia, himself a Deobandi, patronised our rivals.
"The boycott of 1985 polls also harmed us politically. But now efforts are underway to unite Barelvi groups, and reclaim lost political space."
Political analyst and public intellectual Pervez Hoodbhoy says "the groups inspired by Mumtaz Qadri are politically ambitious. So far Pakistanis have refused to vote in large numbers for religious parties but this could change for two reasons. First, Pakistanis today are much more overtly religious than they have been in the past. Second, the mainstreaming of groups that were once considered extreme is being done with support from parts of the establishment, both military and civil".
"What else can explain the fact that the military cracks down on the first expression of provincial rights in Balochistan or Sindh, but remains unmoved by those who close down Islamabad day after day?" asks Hoodbhoy.
Hoodbhoy is concerned about the impact of groups like the Labaik. "It will further splinter Pakistan along religious lines, and array one set of people against another. The already shrunken space for non-Muslims will shrink further, blasphemy allegations will be used to silence liberals and minorities, and mob violence will become yet more common," he concludes.