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Why protests in Islamabad could have large geopolitical ramifications

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The years of democratic governments since fall of Musharraf regime in 2008 have remained an unfulfilled dream. The fragility of democracy in India’s neighbourhood has been exposed on numerous occasions like 2009 when Pakistan Taliban took control of Buner (177 km from Islamabad) with news spreading of march towards capturing Islamabad; 2012 protests in Lahore where Difa-i-Pakistan Council (DPC), a group of Pakistani hardliners opposed Islamabad’s decision to help USA’s anti-terror operations; 2014 Azadi March by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), supporters of cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri against erstwhile PM Nawaz Sharif for winning 2013 elections illegitimately. The situation reached its worst stage till now when protests last week in Islamabad led to 6 dead, and over 200 injured after clashes between police and protesters belonging to hardline religious groups.

The controversy erupted when Pakistan amended declaration of faith (Khatm-i-Naboowat) in recently passed Election Act 2017. The amendment in Elections Act 2017 was that the words in Form-A “I solemnly swear” had been replaced with “I believe” which led to dilution of candidate’s belief in the finality of the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad and it had been made not applicable to non-Muslim candidates. Also Sections 7B and 7C of The Conduct of General Elections Order, 2002, which relate to the status of Ahmediyas were absent from Election Act 2017.

As reported in Dawn, Section 7B says that the status of Ahmedis remains as stated in the Constitution of Pakistan, while section 7C states that if an enrolled voter’s belief in the finality of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood is contended, they shall have to sign a declaration stating so, failing which their “name shall be deleted from the joint electoral rolls and added to a supplementary list of voters in the same electoral area as non-Muslim.”

Hence, the omission of 7B and 7C empowered Ahmadiyas who have historically been persecuted by Pakistan, 1984 Anti-Ahmadiyya Amendment said that Ahmadis cannot call themselves Muslim or “pose as Muslims” which is punishable by three years in prison. This relaxation to Ahmadiyas was the bone of contention between Government & pre-dominant Barelvi led by 3 parties namely Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and Sunni Tehreek Pakistan. Barelvi parties called liberal steps of Government as blasphemy which ultimately led to Government accepting demands of Barelvi hardliners and called Election Act 2017 changes as “clerical errors” and subsequent resignation of Law Minister.

These developments reflect a deeper point which needs to be analysed as how domestic politics of Pakistan is developing, influence on Indian subcontinent, and relations of Pakistan with other nations.

In the domestic politics of Pakistan, this movement was a significant step. It represented the growing disenchantment within Barelvi community which is feeling discontent due to large funds gathered by other communities like Deobandi, Salafis both internally (State, Army, ISI, private support) and externally (aided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar). For simplification, one can understand that Salafi/Wahabi, Deobandi, Barelvi represent descending order in magnitude of hardliner ideology respectively.

 

Also, Barelvi have been against salafi hardliners like Hafiz Saeed who is now entering political establishment of Pakistan through political party named Milli Muslim League. Since Army, ISI reportedly consider Hafiz Saeed as their “strategic asset”, Hafiz Saeed entry into mainstream politics will help him legitimize his position on world scale. Barelvi parties will hence be directly pitted against Saeed’s party and since latter is reportedly said to have backing of deep state, barelvi parties feel further embittered.

Moreover, this event has also deepened civil government- military distrust which was already widening after Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from post of Prime Minister. It is now reported that when civil government asked military to help in removing blockade, military is reported to have said no, and said that it could not risk the “love and trust” of the people for “small gains”. Later, Army acted as mediator and helped in resolving the crisis thereby delegitimizing the civil administration.

Further, since General Bajwa is said to have few family members of Ahmadiya community, army possibly believed that these protests were castigated by civilian administration to make religious parties go against army. This made the situation worsen & trust deficit widen.

 

Current condition in Pakistan is no less than anarchy, GHQ Rawalpindi (Army headquarters) remains at sweet spot with consolidation of power, power tussle within PML (Nawaz) is ongoing, PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) is devoid of resurgence, and the infamous 10 year cycle of military rule-civilian rule is knocking the door of Islamabad. Though military coup is highly unlikely, but as it is said in Pakistani politics “never say never”

The impact of hardliners rising in Pakistan have a deeper message to Indian subcontinent. Since Jihadi elements have begun to rise in domestic politics, their ideas are expected to spread in neighbouring nations especially where democracy is still fragile namely Maldives, Bangladesh. Due to deep integration of India with both these nations, New Delhi must remain conscious of change. Also, Jihadi elements have anti-India propaganda which could spur violence, and militancy in Kashmir owing to rising tensions for India domestically. Further, Pakistan is a nuclear armed nation and irresponsible use of Nuclear weapons could ultimately lead to Nuclear terrorism if such hardline forces continue to gain ground.

Also, Pakistan’s relationship with other nations could be in jeopardy in future. Hafiz Saeed had slammed Pakistan’s all weather friend China for the violence done by Beijing against Xinjiang Muslims or Uyghurs. If radicalism continues to gain ground in Pakistan, China may begin to alienate Pakistan as Chinese need stability in the nations to conduct its operations in CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) peacefully. CPEC is a crucial part of ambitious BRI (Belt & Road initiative) of Beijing, and any turbulence in domestic politics by Islamist hardliners could result in creation of cracks in China-Pakistan partnership.

Likewise, Iranian would be greatly concerned if hardliner Sunni parties gain prominence in Islamabad who are critical of Shia Iran. Similarly, Afghanistan could further alienate from Pakistan as the tendency of creating a “strategic edge” in Afghanistan will further resonate in minds of hardliners.

Hence, New Delhi must remain cautious and monitor the situation closely. The game between several actors within Pakistan has begun and its unfolding will gradually determine the trajectory of future stability in South Asia.

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