The Pakistan Muslims League-Nawaz (PML-N) is occupied with its win in the NA-120 by-election and the runner-up Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) appears satisfied with its performance. However, none of the two mainstream political parties battling to control Punjab in 2018 are worried that a movement which glorifies a convicted terrorist stood third and a UN Sanction Terrorist Group came fourth.

Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi, candidate for Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TPL), a political front for Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLR) which glorifies a convicted terrorist Mumtaz Qadri and has weaponised the Blasphemy law, got 7,130 votes. Whereas, Yaqoob Sheikh of the Milli Muslim League (MML), new political front of UN Sanctioned Terrorist Group, Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawah (LeT/JuD), secured 5,822 votes. Together the two secured 11% of the total votes caste.

This election did little to absolve PML-N after the Panama judgment which disqualified former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and more to legitimize terrorist sympathizers like TPL and terror outfits like LeT/JuD and bring them in the mainstream as political forces. In 1970 most of  NA-120 came under the constituency NW-60 which Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won with more than 78,000 votes. He defeated Allama Iqbal's son, Dr Javed Iqbal, in that campaign. Today PPP was never in the running with PML-N and PTI given how the latter two have occupied political discourse, media headlines and also respectively shown far better performance in Punjab and KPK than PPP's Sindh. However, one was still hopeful that Bhutto's Jiyala's will come out to vote. It was sad to see that NA-120, once a stronghold of the left leaning PPP, now has far more Mumtaz Qadri and Hafiz Saeed faithfuls than the Jiyalas as the party stood fifth with just 1,414 votes. Losing to TLP/TLR was more tragic as its poster boy Mumtaz Qadri was convicted for killing senior PPP leader and former Punjab governor Salman Taseer.

As both TPL and MML are pending clearance from the Ministry of Interior, its respective candidates contested the elections independently. However, their election banners showcasing pictures Mumtaz Qadri and LeT/JuD chief Hafiz Saeed , respectively left no doubt about the support he enjoyed.

ECP and Punjab police’s role was highly questionable through this election process. Glorifying terrorists, terrorism, a proscribed outfit or even an outfit which is under observation for suspicion of terrorism is an offence under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 (ATA) and Punjab Maintenance of Public Order (Amendment) Ordinance, 2015. Yet no action was taken to stop the TLP and MML candidates from glorifying Mumtaz Qadri and Hafiz Saeed respectively on their campaign banners, posters and in their speeches. There are also provision in the Political Parties Order 2002 which prohibits political parties from indulging in terrorism and promote sectarian hatred. What is not known is that did candidates of PML-N, PTI and PPP as responsible politicians exercised their rights and filed objections before the returning officer against candidates of TLP and MML for glorification of terrorism or not?

TLP/TLR’s campaigns primarily focus on opposing any amendments to the blasphemy law as presents itself a preservation force for the said law. However, that does not set them apart from as several political parties and movements which openly support the blasphemy law. TLP/TLR has gained momentum through its open support for vigilantism against those accused of blasphemy. Its strongest show of strength was the gathering at Mumtaz Qadri’s funeral after he was executed for being found guilty of terrorism and murder by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The crowds gathered at the funeral later laid siege to the capital Islamabad, which lasted several hours.

An election poster of Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan featuring NA-120 candidate Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi, Tehreek Labbaik YaRasool Allah leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi along with Mumtaz Qadri and Tanveer Ahmed

TLP/TLR’s electoral weight was evident much before the NA-120 by-elections when members of mainstream political forces like PML-N, PTI, JI and AML started pandering to their demands and condemned Mumtaz Qadri’s execution to secure their support. Sheikh Rasheed, leader of the AML and considered by many to be very close to the military establishment, has repeatedly referred to TLP/TLR as a strong political force in his own constituency in Rawalpindi and the need for him to seek their favour. He recently used the stage at a PTI rally where Imran Khan was also seated to call Mumtaz Qadri a martyr.

Amongst PML-N the strongest supporter of TLP/TLR is Captian (R) Safdar who is president of the Party’s youth wing and husband of Maryam Nawaz Sharif who was leading the PML-N campaign in the by-election. Support of TLP/TLR from mainstream elements has played an important role in acknowledgment of the movement as a legitimate political force. Whether these leaders genuinely believe in vigilantism and the ideology propagated by TLP/TLR’s or are they just scared of TLP/TLR’s potential to exploit religious sentiments can only be confirmed by these leaders themselves.

TLP/TLR is led by Pir Afzal Qadri and Khadim Hussain Rizvi who have captured imagination of considerable amount of barelvisunnis specially youth by eulogizing Mumtaz Qadri and making him appear as a Saint who in their narrative was personally blessed by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) for killing Salman Taseer. TLP/TLR primarily appeals followers of the Barelvi school of thought. Hence as part of their necessary strategy to gain space they have continued to discredit other relatively peaceful and older Barelvi religious and political forces like Dawat-e-Islami, Jamaat-e-Ulema Pakistan and Pakistan Awami Tehreek by using vigilantism as the defining threshold of faith. TLP/TLR has propagated using any means possible whether legal or not to punish a blasphemy accused as a mark for a “Sacha Ashiq-e-Rasool” (sincere lover of the Holy Prophet PBUH).

An open letter by Pir Afzal Qadri to PTI Chief Imran Khan asking him to apologize for his selection of words or face blasphemy charges

Accordingly, acts of vigilantism continue to fuel their movement. After Mumtaz Qadri, they found another poster boy in the form of Tanveer Ahmed who is in Jail in Scotland for killing an Ahmadi in Glasglow based on the popular belief amongst group that Ahmadis do not believe in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. TLP/TLR also came out in support of the mob which lynched university student Mashal Khan in Mardan on what later were proved to be false charges of blasphemy.

Bigotry, blasphemy allegations, takfir (arbitrarily declaring a Muslim as non-Muslim) and death threats are common features of speeches of TLP/TLR. The fiery speeches even target members of the government and even the military. At Mumtaz Qadri’s funeral, Pir Afzal Qadri had made an open threat to the then Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif telling him that his own guards will kill him making a reference to actions of Mumtaz Qadri who was part of Salman Taseer’s security detail. TLP/TLR are also aided by smaller groups like Tehreek-e-Tahafuz-e-Islam (TTI) and Tehreek Siraat-e-Mustaqeem (TSM) which keep the movement alive by registering cases of blasphemy. Given the serious nature of charges police tends to take caution and conduct a preliminary investigation before nominating an accused. However, TLR, TTI and TSM have introduced the concept of laying siege to Police Stations and harassing officers with threats of violence forcing them to swiftly register cases against whomsoever they nominate.

The bravado has certainly managed to appeal to a growing number of followers as evident from the TLP’s performance in the by-election. What has been most worrying is that they have managed to lure these votes through solely propagating their religious ideology as opposed to offering any comprehensive plan for development and welfare of the voters. The disastrous extent to which such an emotional voter base can be manipulated and exploited should be a scary thought for any society.

An election poster of Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh of Milli Muslim League

The reasons for LeT/JuD securing votes are different. In many ways it cannot be denied that "Roti Kapra aur Makaan" is nothing more than a mere slogan for PPP. It is not the party's ideology anymore. And PPP under Asif Ali Zardari has even lost the moral authority to use this slogan. Those wanting to refute this claim may benefit from a drive from Karachi to Jacobabad.

On the other hand, LeT/JuD has built a soft image and operates massive relief operations through its charity front the FIF which is also sanctioned under the UNSCR 1267 and listed as under observation by the interior ministry since January this year. Even JuD is not proscribed under the ATA and rests comfortably the 2nd Schedule of the ATA which means it is only kept under observation. A convenient stop gap arrangement for the Pakistan Government and establishment as it allows JuD not to be subjected to sanctions faced by a proscribed organisation and at the same time has allowed the government in the past to save face before the international community by not appearing complete unwary of JuD's operations.

Only LeT has been proscribed under Pakistan's terrorism laws and JuD tries hard to draw a distinction between itself and LeT though still openly advocates ideological support for same. It is important to note that UNSCR 1267 does not distinguish between LeT, JuD and FIF and sees them as one network and demand equal sanctions on all of them. UNSCR 1267 is a binding resolution on all UN members and demands member states to freeze assets, impose a travel ban and ensure an arms embargo for all outfits and individuals listed under the resolution.

LeT/JuD has not only benefited from the establishment's omissions but has in fact enjoyed state patronage. The same cannot be more obvious than seeing the operations of Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF). FIF not only enjoys complete freedom to raise funds but is also issued NoC from intelligence agencies and interior ministry to work across Pakistan even in disasters in border areas like Awaran, Chital and Thar where most other NGOs would have wait for weeks to get clearance. It is not just areas in Pakistan but FIF as per its own claims it allowed to operate relief operations for Syria, Somalia, Gaza, Yemen, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, East Timor and Burma as well.

These operations of FIF have allowed LeT/JuD to build goodwill amongst masses, recruit members and preach it's ideology across the country. Hence, it was no surprise that when Hafiz Saeed was put under house arrest earlier this year one saw the Hindu community of Thar protesting outside the Karachi Press Club for his release. Unfortunately, some influential media personalities have also recently tried their best in recent past to paint him as a Saint.

Hindu Community of Thar protesting against Hafiz Saeed’s house arrest

However, support for FIF is still nowhere near the resources and authority PPP enjoyed in the Federal Government between 2008-13 and is still enjoying in Sindh since 2008.

As regards State Patronage for Hafiz Saeed , his ascend began when he became a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology under Dictator Zia ulHaq and later with the support of military and subsequent governments formed and expanded operations of Lashkar-e-Taiba. How LeT and JuD have been seen by the establishment can judged by Senator Mushahid Hussain's interview in April 1998's Friday Times. Hussain was then the federal minister for information under Nawaz Sharif and visited LeT/JuD's headquarters in Muridke. He was quoted in FT as saying about LeT/JuD "It is not a sectarian organisation and is not a source of domestic destabilisation".

The statement highlights how the establishment has come to describe and view terrorism. It has not considered acts of violence and "destabilisation" on foreign lands as terrorism. This view of 1998 was recently echoed and supported with much more vigour by another Dictator Pervez Musharraf in an interview given to Karen Shahid in February of this year.

Besides state patronage and relief works what has also benefited JuD is propagating the Ahle Hadis School of thought and hence attracting voters belonging to the said school on religious grounds. This was also proves that the view about LeT/JuD not being sectarian is partially incorrect. However, it must be understood that LeT/JuD does not represent all followers of Ahle Hadis nor do all followers of Ahle Hadis agree with Saeed's ideology.

With regards to sectarianism it is also important to highlight LeT/JuD's open support for Pakistan's biggest and perhaps most ruthless sectarian terror outfits the Sippah-e-Sahaba/Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (SSP/ASWJ). A bold testament to their alliance is the Difah-e-Pakistan Council (DPC). The DPC was curated by former Director General ISI, Lt. General Hamid Gul and supported by mainstream Political parties and leaders like Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq and Sheikh Rasheed. It catapulted the public visibility of LeT/JuD and allowed the resurgence of SSP/ASWJ to the extent of providing it a seat on the negotiation table with federal ministers and even governors.

A Difah Pakistan Council Rally. Hafiz Saeed and Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh can be seen with Ahmed Ludhianvi, Sirajul Haq, Maulana Sami ulHaq and Lt Gen (r) Hamid Gul

Our media, political commentators and even activists has a tendency to question the intellect of the voters when they see them rallying for terror outfits. But when the state allows a terrorist group to hold rallies, open offices, recruit members, preach it's ideology and re-brand itself a philanthropic and political force it makes little sense to put the onus on the common man to not vote for it.

The recent US policy under Trump, China and Russia support for the BRICS declaration which demands action against LeT saw some positive response from the Pakistan government. The interior minister under the recently appointed Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal published a list of all outfits which were prohibited from collecting animal hides during Eid-ul-Azha. The list mentioned all three; LeT, JuD and FIF. It was the first time after the National Action Plan which was formulated in December 2014 that the interior minister publicised the list for awareness of the masses. Some camps of FIF were also shutdown and bulldozed in Lahore. However, support for LeT/JuD/FIF from the establishment became evident as some districts in Punjab in violation of the ministry's directions issued written permission to FIF to collect animal hides which translates into a massive funding source.

A notification issued by District Government of Toba Tek Sindh giving permission to FIF to collect animal hides

In this backdrop of international pressure and Pakistan government's own claims of working to "put our house in order" as express by Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif one would expect mature analysts, politicians and anchors to be more concerned about the 4000 or so votes which MML (LeT/JuD political front) got as opposed PML-N winning after Panama Judgement. Unfortunately, maturity and farsightedness is a very scarce commodity.

Read: Sleeping with sectarianism: How militants are becoming a political force in Pakistan

One may question that why despite various legislation and a political consensus in the form of the National Action Plan have these terror outfits succeeded in forming new fronts and rebrand themselves as political forces? Why did the interior ministry leave the matter of giving clearance to these new political fronts hanging in the middle and not respond to the ECP? Why the ministry not arrest members of both TLP/TLR and JuD/FIF/MML for glorifying terrorists and outfits scheduled under ATA?

Those aware of the modus operandi of the former interior minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan who was in charge till 28th July this year, know the answer. When it came to terrorism the former minister believed in managing problems as opposed to solving them. He did not take bold decisions and risk confrontation but has rather opted to wait things out. This was evident in his refusal to allow cases to be registered against Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid, his refusal to implement recommendations of the Justice Faiz Isa Quetta Commission Report, his reluctance to publish and circulate names of the proscribed organizations and the shameful manner in which he negotiated the siege of Islamabad by TLR/TLP. As a result he has left Pakistan in a bigger mess despite all the numbers he likes to flash to present himself as an effective minister.

Former Federal Minister for Interior Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan with Maulana Sami ulHaq of JUI-S and Ahmed Ludhianvi, head of Sippah-e-Sahaba/Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat

According to news report, around 55 people who appear on the proscribed list under ATA for being suspected terrorists or being members of terror outfits were allowed to contest elections in 2013. The list included terror suspects belonging to outfits identifying themselves with both Sunni and Shia schools of thought. The most worrying outcome was in Karachi PS-178 where SSP/ASWJ President Aurangzeb Farooqi, lost only by a little over 2,000 votes, a margin which he reduced to a little over 200 votes in the by-election in 2015.

In November 2016 an election tribunal comprising of two judges from the Lahore High Court in a case challenging SSP/ASWJ chief Ahmed Ludhinavis's nomination for the PP-78 by-election in Jhang held that mere inclusion of the person on the 4th Schedule under ATA as a terror suspect does not bar him or her from contesting elections. In December 2016, Masroor Jhangvi, son of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, SSP/ASWJ's founder, was elected to the Punjab Assembly after recording the biggest win in PP-78's electoral history. Masroor's name was and still is listed on the fourth schedule yet that did not appear to have any impact on the voters as Masroor got more votes than the combined votes of all 24 opponents which included members from PML-N, PTI and PPP. Though Masroor contested as an independent and later joined JUI-F after winning thunderous chants of “Ab Raj Karegi SSP” (Now SSP will rule) were heard in his corner meetings during the election campaign. Masroor now acts a parliamentary leader of JUI-F, an ally of PML-N, in the Punjab Assembly and is part of the Committee on Industries, Commerce and Investment. Masroor’s win gave SSP/ASWJ reasons to launch a diligent election campaign. Aurangzeb Farooqi has already started holding election rallies in Hazara Division and has announced to contest from NA-18 Abbottabad.

Masroor Jhangvi and Ahmed Ludhianvi pictured with Maulana Fazlur Rehman after Masroor’s win in PP-78

For the longest time political commentators have questioned the potential of right wing groups to convert street power into votes. Many have raised the same doubts about banned outfits. What we fail to consider is that for a banned outfit the election has already been won once they are allowed to contest as it legitimizes them as a political force allowing them to campaign, reorganize, recruit and most importantly quantify their support base in the form of voters. So though TLP/TLR may have not won the seat but it has gathered more than 7000 people willing to vote for Mumtaz Qadri’s ideology in a single constituency.

It also discredits government authority as the government may have placed Hafiz Saeed under house arrest on suspicion of terrorism but the nearly 6000 votes for MML in NA-120 has allowed Saeed to build a counter narrative. At a time when we are already miserably struggling to form consensus amongst masses on who is a terrorist and what is terrorism the result of the by-election has led to further polarization.

SSP/ASWJ has long been forming electoral alliance with members of different parties in different constituencies. In fact if one reviews SSP/ASWJ strategy they appear to possess an astute political approach. They allies can be found in left leaning parties like ANP and PPP to right wing parties like PML-N, PTI and JI. The same has proved to be SSP/ASWJ’s insurance policy from Parliament. This is coupled with street activism and agitation in favor of causes which support the establishment’s interest such as Kashmir, CPEC or an anti-Trump rally after the US president raises question on Pakistani forces. This dual approach has kept SSP/ASWJ safe from any massive crackdown despite several anti-terrorism operations in the country. MML and TLP are likely to take the same route.

Mainstream political parties looking to secretly seek favours from ASWJ, MML and TLP for electoral support can perhaps learn a lesson from JI. JI which played an important role in legitimizing ASWJ and MML through DPC and added voice to TLP’s cause for Mumtaz Qadri was made irrelevant in the NA-120 by-election with such 592 votes.

Furthermore, various activists, commentators and journalists in Pakistan have also been divided and selective in its condemnation of allowing proscribed persons to be part of the electoral basis on sectarian grounds. Many have expressed reservations that proscribed outfits identifying themselves with the Shia school of thought have been a victim of arbitrary and executive action by the government which has tried to play a balancing act between outfits from different sects. Ironically, this is the same argument used supporters of anti-Shia militant outfits. As a result, we have failed to develop a consensus and convincing narrative internally to push government to bring activities of banned outfits to a halt and the establishment and government benefits from same. However, it is the state and not the citizen who carried the primary responsibility of developing the country’s internal and external security policy.

Forcing the establishment and government to change its ways will take effort. In the current scenario foreign pressure is proving more effective. However, we must bear in mind that a peaceful and long standing solution to this problem will only be possible through a change in domestic policies ushered in by local actors and will require some honest self-reflection from the establishment and the government themselves.