The split in Jhang

A candidate strongly supported by the ASWJ is up against the PML-N man

The split in Jhang
By the time we went to press, we were a day away from voters casting their ballot in a closely watched by-election for what is possibly one of the most interesting constituencies in the country. On December 1, the people of Jhang’s PP-78 would have decided on their MPA. Their two main choices: the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz’s Haji Azad Nasir Ansari and Sipah-e-Sahaba’s founder’s son Masroor Jhangvi. Masroor is standing as an independent candidate but is supported by the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (formerly the SSP).

The by-election

The Jhang by-election for PP-78, the Punjab Assembly’s constituency, had fallen vacant after the Supreme Court, while upholding a decision of an election tribunal on October 7, 2016, disqualified Rashida Yaqoob of the PML-N for concealing assets. Yaqoob was elected in the 2013 general elections and the runner-up candidate, Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat’s (ASWJ) Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi had challenged her election.

Then the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced that it would hold a by-poll in the constituency on December 1 for which Maulana Ludhianvi filled nomination papers as ASWJ’s candidate while Masroor Jhangvi, the son of Sipah-e-Sahaba founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi filed nomination papers as an independent candidate. Rashida Yaqoob filed her nomination papers as an independent candidate because the PML-N gave its ticket to Sheikh Sheraz Akram.

The PML-N’s Akram filed a petition on which the two-judge bench on November 11 restrained both Yaqoob and Ludhianvi from standing. Akram argued that Ludhianvi is a fourth-schedule criminal and more than a dozen cases were registered against him. He had also pointed out a discrepancy in details of the assets provided Ludhianvi to the ECP in connection with the 2013 general elections and the upcoming by-poll. At a later stage, Akram withdrew his candidature and was replaced by Haji Azad Nasir Ansari as the PML-N candidate.

Following this Ludhianvi started campaigning to get people to vote for Masroor Jhangvi and participated in a number of political jalsas and corner meetings on his behalf. On November 28, a full bench of the Lahore High Court allowed Ludhianvi to contest the by-election. The bench, headed by Justice Shahid Jamil Khan, issued an interim order on a petition filed by Ludhianvi, challenging the decision of the two-judge bench that had disqualified him. The bench fixed December 14 for a further hearing after extending interim relief to Ludhianvi on grounds to be announced later. Notices were issued.

Madam Boota
Madam Boota

Ludhianvi had challenged the decision, contending that FIRs registered against him were not in his knowledge when he filed his nomination papers. He had requested the court to allow him to contest the by-poll and set aside the two-judge bench’s decision. But after the decision came in his favour, Ludhianvi announced that Masroor Jhangvi was their candidate.

A transwoman candidate, Madam Boota, is also contesting the by-elections. She has told the media that it is unlikely that she will win by-elections but she is completely motivated and determined to stand. “Seeing me (a transgender) might awaken their honour,” she said. “And that might make them start working for the people of this constituency, which is the way I might be able to do something for the people.”

Factions in Jhang

There are two major divisions in the vote bank in Jhang—those who support the Sipah-e-Sahaba and those who don’t.

“The people who are against Sipah-e-Sahaba include the Ahle Tasheeh, a majority of Barelvis, liberals and moderate people living in the city,” said a former MPA from the area. He said that as far as he knew, in this constituency it was understood that there were roughly 50 percent Barelvi voters (about 10 percent of them supports SSP).

“The Sipah-e-Sahaba voters are very devoted and they only give votes to their candidate,” he said. “So, to tackle [them] we try to support the candidate who is strong and can beat the SSP,” he said. “We have witnessed Maulana Azam Tariq winning from Jhang four times.”

Tariq officially joined the SSP in the 1980s and soon became a prominent leader of the party, mostly by virtue of his powerful oratory. His perspective was popular with those who subscribed to this view and this was also a time when sectarian tensions ran high in Karachi and elsewhere in the country.

“We can see the terror in the eyes of people who were witnesses to the bloody sectarian wave in which many people were killed,” said a member of the Tirmizi family which lost two of its sons in the 1990s. “They roam freely in the city with fourth-schedule criminals and there is no one to stop them,” he added. However, a police official, who says he has faced threats, said that Khalid Junejo and Liaqat Qiamat, two fourth-schedulers, were arrested and are still in custody.

Haji Azad Nasir Ansari
Haji Azad Nasir Ansari

Some people report problematic campaigning. “Throughout his campaign Masroor passed controversial remarks against [one] community, and chanted slogans [...], saying that after he comes to power he will work on legislation [against one sect],” said Mehtab Bukhari, one of the voters in the constituency.

This message seems to have trickled through the ranks, as backed by one of the SSP’s workers, Abu Bakar Muawiya, who affirmed that they would want to work on such legislation. Part of this plan extends to ambitions for the 2018 elections.

These claims are, however, refuted by Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, who says that during the campaign speeches Masroor Jhangvi did not pass any such harsh comments against one sect. “Some [of those] people are also supporting us in this by-election,” he said. By way of indicating their popularity, Ludhianvi claimed that all the videos of Masroor’s speeches have gone viral on social media ahead of the campaign.

They are banking on voter sentiment when it comes to public works, not sectarian affiliations. Masroor has promised roads and other infrastructure, saying that no development work has been done in the constituency in the last two terms.

Those who do not support the SSP are backing the PML-N’s candidate, explained local journalist QB Bukhari. He added that they are not expecting the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf or Pakistan Peoples Party candidates to get many votes. “If the PTI and PPP manage to get more votes, it will only strengthen Masroor Jhangvi.”

The crux of this election is that if people vote for the Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, it could split the votebank that would have otherwise stood against Masroor. For its part the PML-N believes that Azad Ansari would be successful in drawing a large number of voters away from the ASWJ. But Masroor Jhangvi is said to wield significant influence over a large segment of Urdu-speaking voters who always supported the SSP and ASWJ candidates in the past.

PPP leaders, including former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, Khursheed Shah, Qamar Zaman Kaira, Nadeem Afzal Chan and Shehla Raza, visited the constituency to persuade people to vote for their candidate Sarfaraz Rabbani.

In fact, Shehla Raza visited many houses in the constituency in a door-to-door campaign.  “We told her (Shehla) that you came from Karachi for this election but you don’t know the ground realities of this area,” said Ghulam Rasool Chishti, a prominent member of the constituency. “You don’t know its political dynamics and if we vote for the PPP’s candidate who is weak, it will only strengthen Jhangvi.”

Other prominent families in the politics of Jhang include Abida Hussain and Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat.

With input from Hassan Naqvi in Lahore