Politics Of Shrine Burning

'The Other Side of the Divide'

Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Investigators in Pakistan have blamed a Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) leader for inciting the mob that burnt a Hindu shrine in the country's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province last month. They told Pakistan's Supreme Court on Tuesday that 109 people have been arrested for the arson while 92 policemen have been suspended over "cowardice and negligence" they showed by their failure in protecting the shrine. The focus in India so far has been on the Pakistani Supreme Court's order that directed authorities reconstruct the century-old shrine and recover money from the arsonists. Hardly anyone has paid attention to the political affiliation of the alleged instigator.

JUI-F is no ordinary party. Its leader, Fazlur Rehman, is leading an 11-member coalition called Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) that has launched a campaign and organized well-attended rallies across the country to bring down Prime Minister Imran Khan's government. Rehman has over the last few months been particularly scathing in his attacks on Khan, his arch-rival, and Pakistan's military establishment for having facilitated his rise to power. Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has retaliated by, among other things, accusing Rehman of working at the behest of India. It has released photos of Rehman's meeting with Ajit Doval during a 2013 trip to India a year before the latter became the Indian National Security Advisor. The insinuation has to be also seen in the light of JUI's opposition to Pakistan's creation. Rehman's father, Mufti Mehmood, is famously quoted to have said in 1971 that thank God 'we [clerical organization JuI] were not part of the sin of making Pakistan'.

Rehman, with his street power despite limited electoral base, is important enough for parties like avowedly secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Frontier Gandhi's Awami National Party, and Nawaz Sharif's faction of the Muslim League to have him as the leader of PDM. It is not immediately clear whether the attack on the Hindu shrine has had any negative impact on PDM, which is reported to be already falling apart amid PPP's refusal to have its members resign from legislative bodies to bring down Khan's government. PPP of the Bhuttos has enjoyed the confidence of the Hindu voters because of its avowed commitment to secular politics. Hindus are concentrated in the southern province of Sindh, which makes them an important voting bloc. Every vote counts as other parties seek to challenge PPP's dominance in Sindh, which the party has ruled continuously since 2008. Mirpurkhas, Tando Allahyar, Umerkot, Tharparkar, Tando Mohammad Khan, and Matiari in Sindh have between 49 and 13% Hindu voters.

Khan's PTI made inroads into Karachi, the provincial capital, in the 2018 elections by winning 14 out of the city's 21 seats. But it was unable to breach PPP's fortress-interior Sindh. Khan attended Diwali celebrations in Umerkot ahead of the 2015 local polls in Sindh and promised to take care of minorities and make them equal citizens. PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, whose government in Sindh passed a law against forced conversions on the demand of the Hindu community, has been a regular feature at Diwali festivities since he joined politics. A video of a Diwali puja at a Karachi temple went viral in 2016 and showed Bhutto-Zardari offering flowers and milk to Shiva's idol amid recitation of mantras and loud applause. The young leader, with Sindh chief minister Syed Murad Ali Shah and other PPP leaders in tow, was heard saying while posing for selfies: "Whether Muslim or Hindu Pakistani, we are all one. We want democracy and peace.'

Nawaz Sharif, PPP's-arch-rival-turned-ally, chose Katas Raj temple complex in Punjab in 2017 to warn hardliners against preaching animosity. Sharif pledged minorities welfare, reaffirmed his resolve for equal citizenship while denouncing hate-mongering as unlawful. His government earlier passed the long-delayed Hindu Marriage Bill. In November 2015, Sharif participated in Diwali festivities in Karachi and told his largely Hindu audience he would be on their side if they are oppressed. The moves were seen as part of Sharif's attempt to cultivate a liberal image. But they also made sense for his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) politically as it too has, albeit unsuccessfully, tried to make inroads into Sindh, the country's second-biggest province in terms of population.

It remains to be seen how Hindu voters respond to PPP's continued association with JUI (F) and whether the PTI government's alacrity in arresting the arsonists earns the party the community's goodwill as it has got from the Sikhs for opening a corridor to provide visa-free access to pilgrims to Sikhism founder Guru Nanak's final resting place. Sindh's Umerkot, which has around 50% Hindu population is among places, where by-polls are being held amid the crisis Khan's government faces. PTI lawmaker Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, who has emerged as one of Khan's spokespersons on national TV, has been proactive in taking up issues of his community including the shrine burning.

The PTI government's immediate action against the arsonists may well have to do with Khan and Rehman's bitter rivalry too. The rivalry has ensured Rehman is out of power in Islamabad for the first time in three decades. When Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of conservatives the JUI (F) led, bagged 11% votes in 2002, it was the first time they managed a double-digit vote share in the country's history. The trend has continued since 2002. The conservatives' electoral success was an exception made possible by anti-US sentiments that swept Pakistan over military ruler Pervez Musharraf's move to sign up for the war on Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. JUI (F)'s vote share came down to 3.2% in 2013 but Rehman continued to remain in power in alliance with Sharif. Rehman, who lost the 2018 polls as Khan swept to power after 22 years in the political wilderness, tried to bring down the PTI government last year too by staging a sit-in in Islamabad.

Khan and Rehman have resorted to the worst form of name-calling against each other. Rehman often accuses Khan of being a 'Jewish agent'. Khan publicly refers to Rehman's as 'Maulana Diesel', the sobriquet he earned in the 1990s when he cut a diesel franchise deal with Benazir Bhutto in return for support despite an ugly misogynist campaign against her. Rehman has since been known for his political expediency. He vindicated his opponents, who maintain Islam for him means the seat of government (Islamabad), when a leaked 2007 cable showed he lobbied US envoy Anne Patterson for American blessings for support ahead of the 2008 election despite whipping anti-US frenzy a few years earlier.

Rehman hosted a dinner for Patterson in November 2007, where an aide of his was quoted as telling the envoy that all 'important parties in Pakistan had to get the [US] approval'. In the cable, Patterson cited Rehman's known 'wily political skills'' and said she was told his 'still significant numbers of votes are up for sale.' She noted Rehman enjoys 'being courted by both Musharraf and [former Prime Minister Benazir] Bhutto and sees himself increasingly in the lucrative position of being kingmaker'', if not the Prime Minister. Patterson wrote Rehman wanted to be 'more engaged with the US' and to lobby the Congress and American think tanks. She noted Rehman appeared worried whether the US would deal with him if he became the Prime Minister. Rehman cautioned Patterson "not to put all the eggs'' in Bhutto's basket months before getting his brother a lucrative ministry when the PPP was voted to power after Bhutto's assassination.

Vol. 53, No. 29, Jan 17 - 23, 2021