Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi — son of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi who was the founder of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan based in Jhang — has defeated the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz candidate Azad Nasir Ansari with a big margin of 13,000 votes in PP-78 Jhang city by-polls, held on December 1. Jhangvi secured 48,562 votes against PMLN’s candidate who obtained 35,469 votes. The candidates of Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf secured less than 5,000 votes each. Masroor Jhangvi contested as an independent candidate.
His victory has rung alarm bells across the country. Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a successor of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), is equally seen as an organisation with extreme views against the Shia sect (ASWJ was also banned by the government in 2012). With this victory in Jhang, SSP is believed to have revived its politics after almost 14 years, though some analysts attribute it to purely local factors within the constituency.
Masroor Jhangvi, a hardcore party worker and a forceful speaker, is in late 20s and claims a commitment to the party mission in his public rallies and earlier party meetings. In one of his pre-election old speeches, available on social media, he is assuring about not changing his extreme views regarding his opponents and is determined to remain inflexible — remembering the sacrifices of his party leaders and workers since the 1990s. In another video clip, he is seen listening to a speech of Malik Muhammad Ishaq, a former leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant offshoot of SSP formed in mid-1990s, who said he would not show any leniency in his anti-Shia views every time he was arrested.
There has been severe criticism of the Election Commission of Pakistan on social media, asking how a candidate with this background was allowed to contest elections. He is also said to be included in the fourth schedule of hardcore sectarian suspects list of the Punjab government since 2014. Some circles are questioning the credibility of the National Action Plan (NAP) for allowing him to contest.
The ASWJ claims there is no criminal record against its candidate. Within the party, there is lot of excitement on this victory after a long time, even if it was contested in an independent capacity. Some analysts think the key factor behind his victory was uniting all members and like-minded groups within the constituency and because he was “son of the founder of the organisation”.
Some people look at Masroor’s victory as defining a new rank of young leadership within the party’s hardcore group. His future performance, stance within and outside the party and conduct within the assembly will set the credibility and image of the ASWJ, they think. It is important to note that the current ASWJ chief, Ahmad Ludhianvi, lost in the last two general elections from Jhang city, once on a provincial assembly seat and twice on National Assembly seats. Many think that Ludhianvi’s hometown is Kamalia and therefore he has no roots in the ASWJ headquarter constituency in Jhang.
In the 2013 general elections, Ludhianvi lost to the PML-N candidate with nearly 2,000 votes. Ludhianvi got 40,938 votes against Rashida’s 42,870 votes.
2002 was the last time when this hardcore sectarian group succeeded in reaching the parliament was when Azam Tariq, the then head of this group, was elected independently on the National Assembly seat of Jhang city and was later killed in October 2003 in Islamabad. He beat Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief, Dr Tahirul Qadri, with a margin of almost 7,000 votes. Tariq was twice elected as member National Assembly and once from the provincial constituency in Jhang. The second time he was elected while in jail.
Following his murder, in an environment of hatred against sectarian politics, Sheikh Waqas Akram who belongs to an influential and veteran political family of Sheikh Iqbal in the city won this seat in the by-polls against Azam Tariq’s younger brother Alam Tariq. Akram won it as an independent candidate and later joined PML-Q.
Two former heads of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan — Isarul Qasmi and Azam Tariq — were elected on the provincial seat of Jhang city in the 1990s. Later, the SSP had been supporting Sheikh Yaqoob, a scion of another political family of Jhang, on this seat. Sheikh’s house in Lahore’s posh locality has remained a centre of the activities of the SSP leadership till the differences emerged between them.
In 2013, the current chief Ludhianvi lost to Sheikh Yaqoob’s wife, Rashida Yaqoob, who was disqualified by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for hiding her assets some weeks ago, leading to this by-poll in Jhang city.
“The ASWJ victory is definitely a result of democratic process. Decrying it won’t serve any purpose just as banning them hasn’t. What we need to acknowledge is that every election is mainly determined by constituency-specific factors which people looking at things from a distance may not be able to appreciate or comprehend fully,” says analyst Tahir Mehdi who has been following the elections in Punjab very closely.
“If parties like the ASWJ can manoeuvre factors, other than sectarian ones, in their favour, no one can stop them from winning this game. But then these very factors are bound to have an impact on the politics of winners in return,” he says. “We should not jump to broad conclusions based on one by-election in a provincial constituency.”
Ludhianvi considers himself an “ambassador of peace” for having adopted a non-violent approach. A number of hardcore activists within the organisation are said to be ideologically opposed to Ludhianvi — for not following the party agenda in letter and spirit. All the previous leaders elected to the assemblies belonged to the hardcore section of the organisation, contrary to the image of the current leadership. At the same time, both the elected leaders of the organisation, Isarul Qasmi and twice elected Azam Tariq, were gunned down.
“There has not been any anti-Shia slogan in the whole election campaign, even after the victory,” says Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, while talking to TNS. “We have come through a fair democratic process and if we want to mainstream ourselves with a peaceful approach, the state should encourage us just like they are encouraging Baloch nationalists.”
He says in the past several years, “his strategy of non-violence within the ASWJ should be acknowledged rather than forcing us to go back in 1990s situation”.
Tariq Parvez, former head of Pakistan’s National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA), says “the state needs to give a clear message that any person with militant or extreme approaches is not allowed to contest elections. Or they should be forced to renounce their ideology and views. Ideally, there should be legislation clearly saying that any person who believes other Muslims as infidels or non-Muslims, on sectarian grounds, is barred from holding any public office or contest elections”.