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The Maulana Conundrum

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Given the current geo-political situation, any disruptive behaviour by Maulana Fazlur Rehman will be a perfect opportunity to take advantage of. India and Afghanistan will leverage the ensuing law and order situation to activate their assets with the objective to create organised chaos and instability, writes Jan Achakzai.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s strength lies in his muscle power (i.e, Madrasa students) and his experience of power politics (e.g. taking a share more than the percentage of his vote bank through pressure tactics). For the first time in almost two decades, he is out of power corridor—no representation at the federal, and two provinces levels— and he feels threatened after the PTI government unveiled Madrasa reform agenda.

So he wanted to stage a comeback through what he calls ‘Azadi March’.

This comeback is aimed to stay relevant by basking in media glory, to preempt any NAB investigation, as short term goals; to prevent government from carrying out any meaningful reforms in Madaris (as per the satisfaction of the FATF), as his core constituency; and to put enough pressure to get some share in the government, as medium term objectives.

So far, he has successfully managed to twist perception in his favour. Here is how: as per his pys-ops, Maulana created a perception that he enjoys alleged support from within elements of the establishment; he convinced the PPP and the PML-N to bolster him and he will deliver PM Imran Khan’s resignation. The hype he created made him a ready horse for vested interests to invest, who have an agenda to malign security institutions as he also succeeded to create the impression that he is the only anti-establishment politician in Pakistan. So it makes practical sense for all those elements to use him as a leverage against Pakistan army.

So far, no NAB inquiry could have been launched and his close associates are still off the hook.

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The media is 24/7 promoting by default his threat of disrupting the country and optics of ‘Azadi March’. The geo-political issues like Pakistan’s high profile mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, India’s suppression of IOK as the curfew enters into 70th days and the unprecedented exchange of artillery at the LOC have gone into background.

Diplomatic corps is buzzing with queries on Maulana’s march and the ensuing politics of instability around his optics.

As a result, he got sponsors from within and outside the country: what he needs the most from them is finances to lock the country down. “So far he has amassed more than Rs one billion for the March,” according to security agencies. The money from his networks in the gulf countries is still unaccounted for.

As far the actual set-in is concerned, there are three scenarios: a) he comes with madrasa students; b) he does come without madrasa students—which is unlikely—and c) he does not come for set in. It will become clear after 23rd of October. But all indications are that will bring madrassah students and will come to Islamabad for D Chowk.

So far, the government has not realised the leverage he will exercise when he captures the D-Chowk. In such an eventuality, he will cripple the power seat, lay a siege to the diplomatic corps and will not leave without any grand bargain. His closed aids believe he is looking for the slot of governor KP, 3 ministers and himself an advisor at federal level to inform the government on religious issues. On the other hand, the government of Imran Khan and the establishment is believed to be in no mood to concede any thing to him thus far.

Government strategy of talks will not make much headway. As far as the administrative measures are concerned, the Interior Ministry will be able to reveal sometimes this week its tactics. It has only indicated the government might ban JUI-F’a militant group called Harkatul Islam.

Given the current geo-political situation, any disruptive behaviour by Maulana will be a perfect opportunity to take advantage of. India and Afghanistan will leverage the ensuing law and order situation to activate their assets with the objective to create organised chaos and instability.

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The last thing Pakistan needs is international media portrayal of Islamabad with angry bearded madrassah students capturing state buildings and thronging the streets—a perfect excuse for the FATF to whip Pakistan again in February 2021 for not confronting what it calls extremist/radical groups with violent capability.

Administrative efforts like the arrest of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his supporters may not be enough to contain him. The state has to decide as a long term strategy should organised religious groups with muscle powers encompassing violent capability, dressed as politically legitimate parties, operate in the post FATF world?

Given the government has already neutralised groups focused on IOK, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the question remains madrassahs and some universities used by religio-political groups should operate outside the writ of the state.

Some serious strategic thinking is called for and the time for such thinking is now and the opportunity for any such strategy arrived at, is also now, not yesterday, not tomorrow but today.

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