Hafiz Saeed petitions UN to delist self as terrorist: Virtual coup in Pakistan as army mainstreams extremists, India stares at spurt in jihadist violence

Terror organisation Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed's petition to the United Nations seeking the removal of his name from the list of "designated terrorists" has understandably added to India's outrage quotient. If New Delhi had been angered at Pakistan's move to release the Mumbai 26/11 mastermind from "house arrest", it is likely to interpret this latest development as further proof of Pakistan's perfidy.

As if a freed Saeed isn't bad enough, the prospect of the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief getting access to previously inaccessible funds through a successful appeal against the "designated terrorist" tag will deepen India's worries. It isn't comforting to note that most such cases since 2010 have reportedly been successful.

However, Saeed is only one part of India's worries on the north-western front. A chain of recent events point to an increasing volatility in Pakistan politics in the run up to the 2018 elections. The rise in volatility and democratic instability has been compounded by a commensurate rise in religious extremism with very real fears gaining ground of jihadists marching into the Pakistani Parliament.

On Monday, Pakistan's civilian government under pressure from the army was forced to sack law minister Zahid Hamid and cut a deal with radical Islamist protestors who had held the entire country to ransom through violent clashes for three weeks over some imagined insult to Prophet Muhammad.

To pacify the little-known Sunni extremist group called Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) headed by its abuse-spewing leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the civilian government agreed to, nearly, all its demands including firing the beleaguered minister, releasing all workers and members who had been arrested for violence, quashing the cases and paying up for the damaged public properties.

The formal agreement signed between the PML-N government and Rizvi's TLY also bears the signatures of Pakistan's COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Major General Faiz Hameed — indicating the extent to which the army has been influential in brokering the deal.

 Hafiz Saeed petitions UN to delist self as terrorist: Virtual coup in Pakistan as army mainstreams extremists, India stares at spurt in jihadist violence

JuD chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. Reuters

The "agreement" also requires the government to ensure that "no difficulty will be faced in registering blasphemy cases; no leniency will be given to those convicted by courts for blasphemy; no ban will be imposed on the use of loudspeakers" and two TLY representatives will sit in the panel to decide on changes in the school syllabus.

The fact that the "agreement" in its letter praises the role of the army (which had been watching from the sidelines as the civilian government was brought to its knees) was interpreted as proof of Rawalpindi's role behind the uprising. Video clip showing a purported Pakistani general distributing money in sealed envelopes to protestors and pledging the army's support added to the debate.

In an editorial titled Capitulation, Pakistan-based newspaper Dawn wrote: "Whether a decision made out of desperation or fear, the upshot is that the state has accepted that mobs and zealots have a right to issue religious edicts that can endanger lives and upend public order… Something profound changed in the country yesterday and the reverberations will be felt for a long time. How has such catastrophe befallen the nation?"

These developments are sure to have a deleterious effect on bilateral relationship with a concomitant rise in security concerns. We are likely looking at an upsurge in cross-border terrorism and protracted trouble in Kashmir even during the winter months.

The onset of this current crisis has links with the upstaging of Nawaz Sharif, who was deposed as the prime minister through a judicial decree in July. The former Pakistan prime minister — who had hedged his bets on an improved relationship with India and tried to take on the military-intelligence establishment over controlling the tools of jihadist violence — was considered by the army as too much of his own man.

In trying to establish the primacy of civilian authority in Pakistan's power structure, Sharif paid the price. His removal was a signal that the Pakistani 'establishment' — which Husain Haqqani describes as the "unique and permanent power structure" consisting of "the army, ISI, foreign office bureaucracy, and lately also the judiciary" — was getting impatient with "democracy".

Haqqani, director of Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute and the former Pakistan ambassador to the US, wrote in ThePrint, "Under Pakistan’s viceregal system, the purpose of elections is merely to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent state establishment… Pakistan’s chequered history shows that Pakistan’s Military-Judicial-Bureaucratic Elite has inherited a fear of democracy."

It is this "fear of democracy" that might be spurring the army to act behind the scenes, again, to further erode the authority of civilian government.

In Pakistan — which has been witness to several instances of coup d'état in its short history as a nation-state — the military periodically asserts its supremacy over politicians. It is believed that General Bajwa is in favour of non-interventionism but if the goal of undermining the political authority of an elected government can be achieved through a few tools, why take the trouble of another coup d'etat and invite international censure?

We should look at these two churns in Pakistan — the release of Hafiz Saeed and cutting of a deal with religious extremists — not in isolation but as signs of a larger trend to mainstream the jihadist elements in Pakistani politics. This mainstreaming is done by the army which wants to curb the political influence of Sharif's PML-N and eventually render the former prime minister powerless. The provocation seems to be the assessment that Sharif has refused to walk into the sunset after being deposed and plans to contest the 2018 elections with renewed vigour.

Now, if the jihadist elements such as TLY or Saeed's Mili Muslim League are fielded into the political ring, they may eat into the right-wing voter base of Sharif's party. This has the double benefit of diminishing PML-N's influence over the polity and installing extremists in Pakistani Parliament who can well serve the army's strategic interests.

Kunwar Khuldune Rashid, The Diplomat, arguethat "in the NA-120 by-election in September, Mili Muslim candidate Yaqoob Sheikh won 5,822 votes, which was instrumental in the 14,000 vote drop the ruling PML-N saw in its electoral hub." Both these parties, he added, "have witnessed immediate electoral success in two high profile by-elections."

This arc is complete with the release of Saeed who will now be able to simultaneously keep the Kashmir agenda alive as well as cut Sharif into size through active participation in politics. It is to be noted that in an YouTube video just after his release, the Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief had identified both India and Sharif as his enemies.

There could be increased heat from India and the US as Rawalpindi GHq implements its devious plan, but as Firstpost argued in this column, American influence has dwindled rapidly over Pakistan to the extent that Washington now needs Islamabad more than the other way round, as Ayesha Siddiqa of SOAS South Asia Institute has noted in The Indian Express.

In the new power equation between US and Pakistan, the latter (boosted by the Chinese insurance) can afford to cock a snook at Washington and absorb the jibes because it knows the barks from Trump administration will be devoid of any teeth. This gives the Pakistan army a free hand in devising its policy of using terror to achieve territorial goals, putting Indian borders at greater risk than before.

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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2017 18:17:41 IST