Rawalpindi’s Strategic Calculus and the Emergence of Militant Parties in Pakistani Electoral Politics
Varun Nambiar

When Pakistan’s erstwhile Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was declared ineligible to hold his office by the country’s Supreme Court on a corruption charge in August,1 Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD), the public charity wing of the Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT) terrorist group declared that it would enter politics and field a candidate to contest elections for Nawaz Sharif’s vacated seat, NA-120, in Lahore.2 This new political party, which calls itself the Milli Muslim League (MML), is the LeT’s first foray into electoral politics.

Lashkar-e Taiba

The LeT is an internationally proscribed terrorist organisation. The JuD, too, has been banned by many countries and international groupings, including the United States, India, and the European Union, for being a sister organisation of the LeT. Many of its leaders have been designated as terrorists, including Hafiz Muhammed Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the two founding fathers of JuD and LeT, who were listed in December 2008.3

In 2014, the U.S. Department of the Treasury named Nazir Ahmad Chaudhry and Muhammad Hussein Gill of the LeT as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs), taking the number of designated terrorists associated with LeT and JuD to more than 20.4 The U.S. government also listed the names of six groups, ostensibly different, but effectively either a part of or closely associated with the LeT. These included the JuD, Al-Anfal Trust, Tehrik-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool, Tehrik-e-Tahafuz Qibla Awwal, Falah-i Insaniat Foundation (FIF), and Idara Khidmat- e Khalaq (IKK).5 The United States has also announced a $2 Million reward for any information that could bring Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, another key LeT and JuD functionary, to justice.6 Pakistan-watchers aware of the bounty on Makki’s head watched with some degree of bemusement as he campaigned openly in different parts of Pakistan, addressing public rallies to drum up support for the newly-launched MML.7

Much before its jump into electoral politics, the LeT had already, for several years, been trying to present a ‘softer image’ of itself through charity work in a bid to boost its popularity and public acceptability. Indeed, the formation of the FIF, ostensibly a charitable organisation, was meant to serve this very purpose.8 The group’s public outreach programme has undoubtedly been strong, at least to the extent of generating sympathy within Pakistan. Its charity work after earthquakes9 and floods11 has led to the creation of considerable goodwill within society, with many people seeing the organisation of being capable of delivering services that the Pakistani State itself is unable to deliver. The LeT has also tried to push a ‘pro minorities’ image by allowing the occasional Sikh speaker11 at their rallies and donating to impoverished Hindu families in Sindh. In this context, it is pertinent to note that some Tharparkar Hindus protested against Hafiz Saeed’s house arrest in February of 2017.12 While the spontaneity of such protests cannot be verified — they could have been staged using coercion — they do show the extent to which the LeT/JuD is willing to go to ‘whitewash’ its image as a violent internationally proscribed terrorist group.

Tehreek-e Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah

The LeT, with its violent interpretation of the Ahl-e Hadith movement’s teachings, is by no means the only violent extremist group active in contemporary Pakistani politics. Another party that chose to contest elections for Nawaz Sharif’s vacant seat is the Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the political party avatar of the Barelvi extremist group Tehreek-e Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), which openly declares support for Mumtaz Qadri, the Barelvi extremist who killed Punjab governor Salman Taseer. TLY started out as a movement to get him released from prison.13

The TLY’s prominent leaders are all firebrand Barelvi clerics. Its core leadership comprises of the likes of Pir Afzal Qadri, Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Dr Ashraf Jalali.14 Unlike the MML-LeT/JuD, the TLP and its parent organisation, the TLY, have no background of charity or community service. Their popularity and pulling power is based purely on religious and ideological grounds. The TLY and its political wing, the TLP, seek to market themselves as the guardians of Islam’s honour and protectors of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. They openly advocate and support vigilantism. Vigilante-style mob justice for anybody who is alleged to have blasphemed against the religion or Prophet is what the TLY stands for and the popularity of such retributory justice among the masses is the reason for this group’s rise and popularity. The movement’s poster boys are individuals who took the law into their own hands in the name of religion, the likes of Mumtaz Qadri, Tanvir Ahmed,15 the man who murdered an Ahmadi in Glasgow16and the killers of Mashaal Khan.17

The TLY movement has received support from many influential figures. Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, an opposition Member of the National Assembly (MNA) from Rawalpindi who is known to be close to Pakistan’s military and also happens to be a six-time former Federal Minister in addition to being a former member of General Musharraf’s military-led government, has come out openly in support of the TLY and Mumtaz Qadri.18 Even sections of the present Federal Government in Pakistan have come out in support of the TLY movement. The Minister of State for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, Pir Hasnat Shah, too, has expressed support for the TLY and its ideology.19 He has also expressed sympathy for Mumtaz Qadri. 20 Several smaller Barelvi extremist groups have started to merge with the TLY and TLP. Groups such as the Teehreek Sirak e Mustaqeem and Tehreek e Tahfuz e Islam have thrown their weight behind the TLY as the group begins to gain, both in terms of popularity and its financial muscle.


The electorally significant portion of the result of the NA-120 by-poll was along expected lines. The constituency is a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) stronghold and Kulsoom Nawaz, the bed-ridden wife of the ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, won by a substantial margin, although the party suffered a loss in terms of the absolute number of votes cast in its favour.

What came as a surprise to many — but not for keen observers of Pakistan — was that the two militant parties, the MML and TLP, did well for first-timers by finishing fourth and third respectively behind the PML-N and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). What was not very surprising however, was the fact that both of these militant parties on their own got more votes than the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), a left of centre party once known for its pan-Pakistan appeal. During the 1970 elections, this area was won by the chairman of the PPP, Zulfiqar Bhutto, who defeated his closest rival Dr Javed Iqbal, the son of poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal by a margin of 45211 votes. 21 The rise of the militant parties coupled with the fall of the PPP in the electoral politics of Pakistan is a telling sign of the decline in left of centre and liberal politics in that country.

The performance of the militant parties was not out of the blue. Last year, Masroor Jhangvi, a man with his name on a list of terrorism suspects belonging to the proscribed Sipah-e Sahaba, won a by-election to a Punjab provincial assembly seat (PP 178). 22 He subsequently joined Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman’s party, the JUI-F. Fazl-ur-Rahman and his party are allies of the PML-N. The signs of a heightened militant presence in Pakistani electoral politics were already out there.

Mainstreaming Rawalpindi’s Proxies

There appears to be little doubt that this effort to introduce militant groups to electoral parties is being done with the backing of the Rawalpindi-headquartered Pakistan Army. Lt. General Amjad Shuaib, a retired member of the Pakistani Military Establishment and an active unofficial spokesperson of the Establishment on national television, admitted to Reuters that it was indeed the Army that was behind the entry of these militant groups into electoral politics,23 ostensibly to bring them into the mainstream of the political process so as to ‘deradicalise’ them.

International sanctions on the LeT leadership had forced the Pakistani Army in the early 2000s, to try and create a ‘softer image’ for the group. The formation of the JuD-FIF and the charitable activities undertaken by the group had Rawalpindi’s blessings. The recent attempt to bring the group into the ‘mainstream’ through electoral politics might be seen as another effort in consonance with the same policy.


Pakistan’s Army is no stranger to facilitating the entry of religious extremists into that country’s political scene. Its role in propping up extremist-influenced movements such as the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA),24 Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI),25 and the Difa-e Pakistan Council26is part of the historical record. History is also witness to the death, destruction and chaos that has ensued as a result of the Pakistani Military’s support for militant groups on its soil. It may not take long for a group earmarked as a ‘good’ terrorist group to turn into a ‘bad’ terrorist group because of the threat of splinter elements going rouge, as evinced by the Jaish-e Mohammed (JeM) assassination attempt on General Musharraf.27

Pakistan would be well served by a course correction in its policy towards militant groups operating from its soil. The ‘mainstreaming’ argument does not hold much water because these militant parties are not shelving their militant ideologies for mainstream ones, instead, they seek to project their militant ideologies onto the mainstream political canvas. Needless to say, this is an extremely risky move that could go catastrophically wrong in the future. The Supreme Court of Pakistan had observed in 2011 that political parties in that country have militant wings of their own.28 Unfortunately, courtesy the Pakistani Military Establishment’s own policies, that precarious situation has come full circle today with Pakistan’s militant groups having political wings of their own.


1. 'Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif resigns after Panama Papers verdict', BBC, 28 Jul 2017, available at: www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40750671.
2. Shafqat Ali, 'Hafiz Saeed’s party fields candidate from Sharif seat', 14 Aug 2017, The Asian Age, available at: www.asianage.com/world/asia/140817/hafiz-saeeds-party-fields-candidate-from-nawaz-sharif-seat-1.html.
3. For 1267 Committee’s listing of LeT and JuD: http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/pdf/AQList.pdf.
4. United States Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Two Senior Lashkar-E-Taiba Network Leaders,” June 25, 2014, available at: https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl2440.aspx.
5. U.S. Department of State, "Addition of Aliases Jamaat-Ud-Dawa and Idara Khidmat-E-Khalq to the Specially Designated Global Terrorist Designation of Lashkhar-E-Taiba,” April 28, 2006, available at: https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/65401.htm.
6. U.S. Department of State, 'Rewards for Justice', "Information that brings to justice... Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki", available at: https://rewardsforjustice.net/english/hafiz_makki.html.
7. See Abdul Rahman Makki's speech in Faisalabad on 14 August 2017, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6h3DnPU-Bw.
8. Mohammad Jibran Nisar, "Popularising Terrorists: How militants have become a political force in Pakistan", The Nation, 18 Sept 2017, available at: nation.com.pk/blogs/18-Sep-2017/na-120-the-by-election-belonged-to-hafiz-saeed.
9. Asad Hashim, "Militant-linked charity on front line of Pakistan quake aid", Reuters, 30 Oct 2015, available at: www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-quake-militants/militant-linked-charity-on-front-line-of-pakistan-quake-aid-idUSKCN0SO0OR20151030.
10. Omer Farooq Khani, "JuD key player in flood ops in Pak", The Times of India, 4 Aug 2010, available at: timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/pakistan/JuD-key-player-in-flood-ops-in-Pak/articleshow/6257979.cms.
11. See Gopal Singh (Pakistani Sikh Extremist) speak at a MML rally in Lahore in September 2017, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5uqJqc2G7k.
12. "Hindus protest Hafiz Saeed’s house arrest", The Express Tribune, 2 Feb 2017, available at: https://tribune.com.pk/story/1314323/raising-voice-hindus-protest-hafiz-saeeds-house-arrest/
13. Zaigham Khan, “Religious Politics after NA-120”, The News, 25 Sept 2017, available at: https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/232377-Religious-politics-after-NA-120.
14. Zia Ur Rehman "Pro-Mumtaz Qadri religious group morphing into militant outfit", The News, 31 Jul 2017, available at: https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/220108-Pro-Mumtaz-Qadri-religious-group-morphing-into-militant-outfit.
15. See a TLY rally in favour of Tanveer Ahmed where a Nasheed praising him was recited, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCsxTkvLEp4.
16. Severin Carrell, "Man who murdered Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah in sectarian attack jailed", The Guardian, 9 Aug 2016, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/09/tanveer-ahmed-jailed-for-murder-glasgow-shopkeeper-in-sectarian-attack
17. See Khadim Hussain Rizvi's defence of the Mashaal Khan murderers, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZQ9IAPKvf8.
18. See Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad’s speech in favour of TLY and Mumtaz Qadri, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzpn6yIsUAk.
19. "Pir Syed Amin-ul-Hasnat Shah meets Tehree-E-Labbaik Rasool-U-Llah delegation in Islamabad", Radio Pakistan, 18 May 2016, available at: www.radio.gov.pk/18-May-2016/pir-syed-amin-ul-hasnat-shah-meets-tehreek-e-labaik-rasool-u-llah-delegation-in-islamabad.
20. See Hasnat Shah's speech on Mumtaz Qadri, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtoC6h59ksc.
21. Nadeem F. Paracha, "The Upcoming Battleground", Dawn, 6 Aug 2017, availble at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1349892/smokers-corner-the-upcoming-battleground.
22. Rana Tanveer, "Lawmaker-elect Masroor Jhangvi joins JUI-F", The Express Tribune, 7 Dec 2016, available at: https://tribune.com.pk/story/1256528/lawmaker-elect-masroor-jhangvi-joins-jui-f/.
23. Asif Shahzad, "Pakistan Army pushed political role for militant-linked groups", Reuters, 16 Sept, 2017, available at: https://in.reuters.com/article/pakistan-politics-militants/pakistan-army-pushed-political-role-for-militant-linked-groups-idINKCN1BR02P.
24. Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace, 2005, pp. 70-79.
25. "Hamid Gul accepts responsibility for creating IJI" Dawn, 30 Oct 2012, available at: https://www.dawn.com/news/760219.
26. Imtiaz Ahmed, "ISI behind new political party, Difa-e Pak", Hindustan Times, 21 Feb 2012, available at: www.hindustantimes.com/world/isi-behind-new-political-party-difa-e-pak/story-QXXtby4eWUATTAgUXDiZaO.html.
27. Salman Masood, "Pakistani leader escapes attempt at assassination", The New York Times, 26 Dec 2003, available at: www.nytimes.com/2003/12/26/world/pakistani-leader-escapes-attempt-at-assassination.html?mcubz=0.
28. See The Supreme Court of Pakistan's 2011 judgement in the Karachi Suo Motu Action case, available at: www.supremecourt.gov.pk/web/user_files/File/SMC16of2011_detailed_judgment.pdf.

Image Source: https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/pakistan-seeks-ban-on-26-11-accused-terrorist-hafiz-saeed-s-party-which-wants-to-contest-polls-330728.html


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