A tool for targeting India?

On the face of it, Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Jama’at-ud-Da’wah amir Hafiz Muhammad Saeed — whose organisation is thought to be a front for terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (L-e-T), and who is believed to be the mastermind behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks — appear to have little in common. They are poles apart in looks, behaviour and background. Saeed hates politics, while Sharif thrives on it. Saeed is close to the ‘Deep State’ (the Pakistan Army and the ISI); Sharif is trying desperately to be free from the clutches of Rawalpindi.

Why, then, does Sharif seem to be protecting Saeed?
The key to finding the answer to this question lies in Saeed’s utility to Pakistan’s political and military leadership. Hafiz Saeed, along with his group, is a potent instrument that can be used to hoodwink the people, rustle up a rhetorical storm and create an environment of fear and hatred, in which only the leadership — both military and civilian — are able to bring about stability.

But Saeed and his group are more than an instrument for keeping the people in check. They are also an effective tool for targeting India and keeping the flames of hatred burning, so that the Pakistan authorities can escape accountability for decades of corruption and misgovernance. The military, of course, finds in Saeed and his L-e-T a perfect excuse to enforce its authority and avoid any direct responsibility for violent actions against its own citizens in Balochistan and the tribal areas, and against India.

Men like Saeed justify the existence of the military and political leadership and their unruly ways. For the wealthy and feudal political class, Saeed and his radical groups offer a way of managing the public at large — the very public which, if empowered, could turn against their masters. A large number of the people in Pakistan rely for their livelihood on feudal landlords, many of whom masquerade as political leaders. Indeed, Pakistan’s entire political leadership comes from the feudal land-owning class and no cost is spared to maintain this status quo. Nawaz Sharif is from the same class that has for decades been exploiting those who rely on its land and patronage. If the tillers and labourers turn against the owners of the land, there would be no Pakistan as we know it.

In this climate, Saeed is allowed to run schools and other charity organisations, roam freely and raise cries for jihad every now and again — all to keep any embers of public rebellion from being stoked. Jihad is a good way to keep the public occupied, giving them false visions of a future paradise, and Saeed and his men are past masters at spinning a web of jihad for the gullible. So while the people are distracted by religious teachings and dreams of paradise in the next life, the landlords enjoy their own paradise on earth without any threat of disturbance.

Hafiz Saeed also offers a fig leaf of protection for the political class in other ways. Successive political leaders have failed the people of Pakistan on all fronts. The country is in a state of chaos and there seems to be no hope of any kind on the horizon. Much of the blame for this must lie on the doorstep of Pakistan’s political leaders, who often accuse the military of damaging the country, when in fact Pakistan and its people have been held to ransom by both civilian and military leaders. Their failure to help people lead a simple, peaceful life has been colossal, so they rely on Saeed and his ilk to save themselves from public scrutiny and anger.

What is more, since Saeed and his factions have considerable clout among the voting public, their support during elections, especially in Punjab, becomes important to the political class. It is well known that Nawaz Sharif won the latest round of elections in Pakistan largely due to the support extended by organisations such as L-e-T and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, both extremist groups with huge influence in southern and central Punjab, which happens to be a Sharif stronghold. No wonder Sharif and his ‘brothers’ have been overprotective of Saeed and his groups, extending generous grants and aid to them over the years.

For the military, Saeed has other vital uses. As a habitual India-baiter, he keeps hatred for India alive, and has even held Delhi accountable for the attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport in June this year, despite the fact that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have claimed joint responsibility for the atrocity. His assertion that ‘foreigners’ were behind the attack holds some truth in view of the IMU’s role, but this word ‘foreigner’ has a potency in Pakistan’s lexicon, as in certain contexts it is understood to mean simply ‘India’.

Although some might dismiss his rants as mere boasts aimed at boosting the morale of the faithful, who now face an almost existential threat from the very terrorists they had trained to conquer India, Saeed is a danger because he has a following all over Pakistan, including close links with the ISI, and speaks the language his masters like him to speak, and want him to propagate.

Saeed also keeps the Kashmir issue alive, and constantly highlights the notion of outside threats to Pakistan. All this helps to justify the actions of the masters of Pakistan’s destiny. The army has effectively been using Saeed and L-e-T ever since the Afghan jihad wound down in the late 1980s. L-e-T was created to infiltrate al-Qaeda, the Arab-dominated terrorist group that views Pakistan as a launch pad for establishing an Islamic caliphate all over the world.

Looking at these connections and associations, it is difficult to see how Nawaz Sharif can ‘walk the talk’ with India. It may suit the Pakistan establishment to publicy say that Hafiz Saeed is a ‘fringe’ player whose influence is confined to so-called ‘non-state’ actors whose activities include carrying jihad into India; but this argument simply provides a perfect alibi to disclaim responsibility in the event of a terror strike on India launched by these so-called non-state actors, namely Pakistani or Pakistani-trained jihadists.

There is no denying that Saeed’s threats go against the message of Nawaz Sharif to Narendra Modi that he wants to work in harmony with him to resolve all unsettled matters between the two countries. However, Sharif is ultimately too much a prisoner of Saeed and his ilk to offer any real assurances to India on terrorist matters. If he is as serious about this as he claims to be, he must sever his ties with Saeed and his groups, and order a quiet crackdown on them, which he has the power to do. Otherwise, no one — not even his staunchest supporters in India — will take him at his word.