Slowly and silently, a new `stake-holder` has emerged in Karachi: the Ahle Sunnal Wa/ Jamaat (ASWJ), th new name of the banned Deobanndi terrorist outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Their rise to prominence is best reflected in the 2013 polls: despite not grabbing the headlines, they secured significant numbers of votes in each of the constituencies in Karachi where they fielded candidates. Their rise indicates that sectarian militancy now has space in the Pakistani political mainstream one that transcends ethnicity.
The 2013 polls saw two distinct trends emerging in Karachi`s voting trends. The first one, the votes secured by the PTI in traditional MQM constituencies, has been discussed exhaustively. The second, little-discussed trend, is the number of votes secured by the ASWJ, the legal face of the banned sectarian organisation, Sipah Sahaba Pakistan. In most constituencies, the ASWJ hardly had anything to do with the results. But in PS-128, ASWJ candidate Maulana Aurangzeb Faroogi came in direct contest with MQM candidate Waqar Ali Shah al`ter the PPP, Awami National Paarty (ANP) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf` (PTI) all boycotted a repolling process.
Contesting elections under the banner of Muttahida Decni Mahaz (MDN), Faroogi ran the eventual victors, MQM, very close but not enough to over whelm them. In the other constituencies where the ASWJ fielded their candidates, they secured more votes than their traditional rivals, JamiatUlema-iIslam Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F). The ASWJ thus emerged as the largest religio-political party of the Deobandi sect.
The original SSP had been disbanded by the Musharraf government in 2002 under the Anti-Terror Act of 1997. It re-emerged as Millat-i-Islamia Pakistan (MIP), but in 2007 befell the same fate as the original. The next year, it adopted the ASWJ name. It also enjoys city-wide permission in Karachi to collect funds and sacrificial animal hides. The ASWJ exploited all space and opportunities created for it, focusing on fortifying existing setups and reinforcing their grassroots network.
In Karachi, their phenomenal rise can be gauged on different levels as their influence has transcended ethnic l`ault lines, making inroads into the territories associated with the ANP, PPP and even the MQM.
Politics in Karachi through the years has been more about asserting control over territories, making presence l`elt with flags, banners, graf`liti and signboards around; as well as by showing formidable influenceby shutting down the city on a single call of protest or mouming over killings.
What contributes to ASWJ`s success in Karachi is its employing a more proactive strategic focus on youth in different localities. The young and overzealous Maulana Faroogi is the face of this new ASWJ, that offers a stiff challenge to the JUI-F.
Traditionally, the SSP`s influence has been in ethnic Punjabi and Siraiki constituencies, but not over the Pashto-speaking constituents of the JUI-F. Fluent in Pashto and Hindko, Maulana Farooqi has increased its influence in these communities, which was hardly ever achieved by the SSP in the past.
Even Baloch localities have not been spared this rising influence, as even various factions of the defunct People`s Amn Committee (PAC) too have been openly using sectarian slogans against each other.
Sectarian and militant groups have also been exploiting the political vacuum that the Lyari violence has created.
In its bid to go mainstream, the ASWJ also adopted a clever strategy of entering small but broad-based and multi-sect conglomerations, of which one was the Anjuman Tahaffuz-i-Haramain-o-Bahrain Tehrik Tahaffuz-i-Haramain O Bahrain http://ummatpublication.com/2011/05/ 07/news.php?p=news33.gif (Organisation for the Protection of holy lands of Makkah and Madina, and Bahrain). Such groups, though insignificant at the time, were formed after political uprisings in the Gulf. The ASWJ is also part of the conglomeration of religious and Jihadi outfits called the Defence of Pakistan Council (DPC).
The ASWJ has also proved that it is not scared of going toe-to-head with the established players in Karachi`s matrix of street politics. In the outskirts of Orangi Town, for example, the MQM attempted to restrict the ASWJ`s influence among people of Bengali and Burmese lineage by removing ASWJ f`lags and white washing their graffiti.
The ASWJ response came from its violent offshoot, the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ); one MQM member of the Sindh Assembly and dozens ol` other workers were gunned down in the l`irst few months of 2013.The extensions of ASWJ to the bordering district of Balochistan and escalation of their activities in Hub, Winder, Uthal towns of district Lasbella too is linked with the Karachi organisation. Some political commentators argue that this relationship is yet another manifestation of addressing political dissent in Baloch territories by radicalising youth and engaging them in Jihadi and sectarian activities.
The rise of the ASWJ as a mainstream political party has serious repercussions, which have been felt with the escalation of sectarian violence in Karachi over the last couple of years. It was originally thought that the ASWJ in the mainstream will help in distancing the LeJand the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), crafted during the time the LJ worked as an extension of the TTP in Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh, especially in Karachi.
The approach has partially worked in Punjab, where acts of terrorism declined. But violence directed at the Shia community, their clerics and professionals, as well as robberies, extortion and kidnappings for ransom continue unabated.Meanwhile, attacks against Shias have increased manifold in Karachi, Baluchistan, Kurram Agency, and have even reached Gilgit Baltistan. This dynamic adds another aspect to the baffling term of target killings in Karachi, which has more to do with numbers than making distinctions and citing underlying reasons.
Irrespective of its electoral performance, the ASWJ`s strategy of operating in Karachi has proved successful. Their growing influence will be more evident once local bodies elections are carried out.
When the date was announced previously, after pressure from the Supreme Court, there was news that many political parties have made contact with the local ASWJ leadership for electoral alliances or seat adjustment. Some even prefer them over the JUI-F and even the Jamaat-i-Islami. A new stake-holder is indeed in town.
By E Ali Arqam is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Karachi. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org