The assassination attempt at Ahsan Iqbal is ominous and hints at the difficult times to come for politicians as they gear up for the forthcoming elections
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal escaped an assassination attempt after a corner meeting in his constituency in Narowal district last Sunday. His attacker Abid Hussain fired at the minister with a 30-bore pistol.
A video statement of Hussain, circulated in the media and confirmed by a representative of the Punjab government, shows the attacker’s links with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), a hardline religious group opposing the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) for executing Mumtaz Qadri, assassin of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, and recent changes in the oath of parliamentarians believing in the finality of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
The attack, ahead of general elections, is considered an attempt to spread fear among ranks of the ruling PML-N ahead of electoral campaign, making religion an excuse. It is considered an attempt to restrict political activities of PML-N members.
"In general elections 2013, Awami National Party and Pakistan Peoples Party faced threats from religious extremists and obstructed their campaign activities. Today, we are seeing the same happen to PML-N," ANP senior leader and human rights activist Afrasiab Khattak says, adding, "The role of non-state actors has expanded. They are using religion as a weapon in politics. Nawaz Sharif and his aides are prime focus of this campaign. The message is loud and clear. They have succeeded in creating fear." Khattak warns this trend can be dangerous and this "snowballing may have unforeseen consequences".
In his confessional statement, Hussain claimed he hit Iqbal for "hurting his religious sentiments". In a video statement, later circulated in the media, he says, he had a dream in which saints ordered him to kill Ahsan Iqbal.
A preliminary investigation report says the accused became a member of Tehreek-e-Labbaik after the Faizabad sit-in, and was made a representative of the TLYRA youth wing. The speeches of TLYRA leaders Khadim Husain Rizvi and Asif Ashraf Jalali motivated him.
However, TLYRA denies links with Hussain.
"First Information Report of the incident indicates the accused was inspired by religious groups," Ali Anan Qamar, senior official of Narowal district administration tells TNS. "Further probe will be made by a joint investigation team."
PML-N leadership believes the party won’t get a level-playing field for electoral campaign and such attempts are designed to create panic in its ranks. "This is the result of the distribution of Rs1,000 to the protesters. Had they not been given money, perhaps this day would not have come," PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif said while talking to the media after the attack on Iqbal.
He was referring to a video aired on some channels wherein a high official of Pakistan Rangers handed out Rs1,000 to protesters following the TLYRA sit-in at Faizabad near the country’s capital in Nov 2017.
TLYRA staged protest for more than 20 days at Islamabad’s Faizabad Interchange to have changes made to the Khatam-i-Nabuwwat oath in the Elections Act 2017 reversed. The forced end of the sit-in, with Ahsan Iqbal heading Interior Ministry, faced a serious backlash across the country. No less than seven people were killed. Houses of many PML-N politicians, including Iqbal’s house in Narowal, were attacked. Ultimately, the government made a compromise agreement with the protestors.
He feels the PML-N will be restricted in the election campaign around religious issues and its vote bank may face further damage.
As Interior Minister, Ahsan Iqbal had strongly criticised the TLYRA sit-in and its hidden agenda, and had decided to deal with the protestors with an iron hand.
There have been reports of protests in Narowal, home district of Interior Minister, since the end of the dharna against the ruling PML-N and the minister in Nov 2017. During the protests in Narowal, district police and administrative authorities were also seen enchanting slogans of "Labbaik Ya Rasulallah" and announcing that the police cases against the TLYRA protestors have been quashed.
On February 24, a man hurled a shoe on Iqbal while he was addressing a public rally in his home district.
TLYRA, through its political faction registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), has been campaigning against the PML-N since last year. In the last by-election on a Punjab Assembly seat in Chakwal, its candidate secured around 26,000 votes.
"This campaign around religion is creating a significant impact on the PML-N vote bank, and if it continues it will affect its candidates too," says political analyst Tahir Mehdi.
He adds in some previous by-elections TLYRA has already divided the PML-N vote bank. "Labbaik people have gotten sizeable number of votes in the past few by-polls posing big challenge to the PML-N already and the situation may worsen in days to come."