Hobnobbing with terror
What are the irresistible compulsions of power politics that forced the PML-N to jump into bed with the proscribed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and its head Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi to win the provincial assembly seat in Jhang this week? Is this simply a case of reprehensible electoral politics with the PML-N stooping low to mix with hate-mongers in order to defeat the PPP in a heated election contest?
Is this a reflection of the PML-N’s political ideology that has traditionally pandered to the politics of the religious right that nurtures bigotry, intolerance, hate, obscurantism and paranoia to garner public support? Does it not raise serious questions about the ability and willingness of this mainstream party to attack the menace of terrorism that is rooted in an ideology of religion-inspired intolerance and violence that organisations such as the SSP and Jamaat-ud-Daawa stand for?
It is hard to determine what is worst: that Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah chose to campaign for the PML-N candidate in PP-82 along with the SSP head, that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif threw his support behind this informal alliance between the PML-N and the SSP, that the PML-N candidate won with the SSP’s support, or that the PML-N leadership exhibits an utter inability to comprehend and acknowledge the gravity of this misstep.
The joint campaign of Rana Sanaullah and Ahmad Ludhianvi — when viewed together with (i) the fact that Shaikh Yaqoob who won during the last election from the Jhang area on a PML-Q ticket (by virtue of his informal alliance with the SSP) later defected and joined the PML-N, and (ii) the decision of the Punjab government to allow another banned organization, Jamaat-ud-Daawa, to convene public rallies and give sermons on Kashmir Day — raises alarming legal, political, ideological and security-related concerns.
Pakistan already suffers from an inadequate legal framework to grapple with the scourge of terrorism. Successive governments have failed to take effective measures to confront the ideology of religion-inspired violence that lies at the heart of our problem of terror, and the organisations and so-called madrasas that preach this ideology of hate and intolerance. Some changes were introduced within the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) in 2002, which have created a mechanism to ban terrorist organisations, monitor the activities of their members, acquire control over their funds, and ensure that the message of such organisations is not disseminated to the public. But such mechanism has proved insufficient and ineffectual.
But instead of strengthening this moth-eaten legal framework that doesn’t produce adequate penal consequences for banned terrorist organisations and their members, the Punjab law minister has rendered this entire framework meaningless by electing to participate in an election campaign alongside the SSP chief and then stubbornly defending this reprehensible act.
Let us first revisit the facts and the related law. One, the SSP has been notified as a proscribed organisation under Section 11B of the ATA and its name is included in Schedule 1 that lists such banned organizations. Two, Ahmad Ludhianvi, the alleged head of the SSP, has been notified as a member of a terrorism organisation under Section 11E of the ATA by virtue of the inclusion of his name in Schedule 4. Three, under Section 11EE of the ATA, the federal and the provincial governments have to determine the checks to be imposed on the day-to-day activities of the individuals so listed under Schedule 4, depending on the danger they pose to the society; and in this regard Rana Sanaullah has a key role on behalf of the Punjab government. And, four, promoting a banned organisation, its message or its members by any means is in itself an offence under Section 11W of the ATA that can result in a five-year jail term.
By seeking the support of Ahmad Ludhianvi in the PP-82 by-election and by campaigning and addressing public rallies alongside this notified member of a terrorist organisation in full public eye, the Punjab law minister has (i) brought the SSP into mainstream politics, and (ii) indirectly legitimised and promoted the SSP’s ideology and message.
Who, then, will file a criminal complaint against the law minister under Section 11W of the ATA for disseminating the message of a banned terrorist organisation? Will the law enforcement agencies dare prevent Ahmad Ludhianvi from spreading his message, now that the law minister has himself taken him to the bully pulpit? And more disturbingly, how will Rana Sanaullah objectively determine the level of threat posed by the SSP and Ahmad Ludhianvi for purposes of restraining and regulating his public exposure and activities for purposes of Section 11EE of the ATA?
The justification proffered by the Punjab law minister for his tango with Ahmad Ludhianvi has been threefold. One, he had been allowed by the PCO Lahore High Court to contest elections in 2008 (he lost but bagged over 40,000 votes), which somehow gives him a clean chit of health for all purposes. Two, all other parties, including the PPP, woo proscribed organisations and their members during elections. And, three, members of banned organisations should be brought into mainstream politics as a way to cure their terrorist propensities.
The problem with these explanations is that they defy law (and reason). The PML-N, and Rana Sanaullah, publicly decried and rejected the PCO courts and their decisions. How can they now use one such a decision as certification of Ahmad Ludhianvi’s character and integrity? And if other parties indulge in rotten acts, is that reason enough for the PML-N to jump into the muck?
Further, if Rana Sanaullah wishes to bring terror suspects into mainstream politics, should he not try and introduce amendments in the law to offer some kind of amnesty scheme for those who acknowledge their horrid acts and promise to desist in the future? How can a law minister whimsically decide to simply disregard the law and wipe off the stigma attached to a notified terror suspect such as Ahmad Ludhianvi, especially when he publicly justifies the SSP’s ideology and activities and his association with the organisation? After Rana Sanaullah’s public embrace of Ahmad Ludhianvi, should Schedule 4 of the ATA simply not be scrapped?
Other than the legal implications of the Punjab law minister’s indiscretion, this ugly episode raises searching questions about the PML-N’s politics and ideology. Do considerations of electoral success justify all kinds of compromises? Will ends continue to justify means for the PML-N that otherwise makes loud noises about introducing politics of issues and principles to Pakistan? But more disturbing than the question of ethics is that of ideology and its implications on the fight against religion-inspired violence and terror.
There can be at least two divergent visions for the future of our country that can be pursued by political parties. The first is that we need to reform our polity urgently: within the political arena we need to foster an electoral culture that focuses on issues, and not alliances based on bigoted sectarian, tribal and ethnic identities; as a society we must shun obscurantism and intolerance preached and practiced in the name of religion; and as a state we must develop an effective security policy that is grounded in our indigenous economic and military strength and promotes our strategic interests without relying on jihadists and mercenaries.
The other is that we will continue business as usual. Politics will continue to be defined by opportunism, where winning by any means, fair and foul, will be the norm. Our social ethic will remain rooted in hypocrisy and we will allow self-appointed protectors of our faith to inspire intolerance and hatred, and consequently divide us further. And as a state, we will continue to breed and protect jihadists, while putting them on various national terror lists to pay lip service to the concerns of the international community till the temporary focus on terrorism subsides.
Unfortunately, the electoral strategy of the PML-N vis-à-vis the Jhang by-election and its larger approach towards militant organisations still thriving in Punjab betrays obliviousness to our urgent need to rehabilitate our state and society.
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
Source: The News