Roots Of Rage: How Barelvi Militancy Became A Mass Political Force

Roots Of Rage: How Barelvi Militancy Became A Mass Political Force
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) did not emerge from a vacuum. The roots of the party lie in how Sunni Barelvi militancy has evolved over the decades. This evolution differs from the evolution of Sunni Deobandi militancy. This is understandable, considering the intensity of the historical antagonism between Barelvi and Deobandi ulema, ever since both the Sunni sub-sects emerged in 19th-century India.

For example, in the early 20th century, ulema belonging to the two sub-sects often denounced each other’s rituals and beliefs as ‘heretical,’ even ‘blasphemous.’ Nevertheless, both followed the the Hanafi school, one of the four main Sunni schools of religious law. It is also the oldest.

The Deobandi had emerged to ‘cleanse Islam.’ They often criticised the ‘folk Islam’ that had developed in India during Muslim dynastic rule between the 13th and the 19th centuries. This folk Islam was largely informed by the thoughts and practices of Sufi saints and orders that were popular among common Muslims and, therefore, frequently courted by India’s Muslim monarchs. Various Sufi saints also managed to gather followers from the region’s Hindu majority, even though, on most occasions, Hindu patrons of the saints were not compelled to convert.

This is one of the reasons why, when the Deobandi appeared in the 19th century, they lamented that the Islam practiced by India’s Muslims had been too lax in allowing rituals and ‘innovations’ that had been ‘adopted’ from the region’s non-Muslim communities to seep in. In the late 19th century, Islamic thinkers such as Ahmad Raza Barelvi countered this narrative and accused the Deobandi of being influenced by the puritanical Arabian Islamic strand which began to be denounced as ‘Wahabism.’

Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi

Raza vehemently defended the rituals and beliefs of India’s folk Islam, giving birth to the Barelvi Sunni sub-sect. Raza’s emergence was also triggered by the formation of aggressive Hindu nationalist groups and of ‘Islamic modernists.’ The modernists, in their pursuit to demystify and disenchant Islam so that it could be placed inside intellectual paradigms navigated by science and reason, critiqued the Barelvi of being ‘superstitious.’

The modernists also critiqued the Deobandi for looking backwards to an imagined Islamic past, instead of rekindling the ‘forgotten’ Islamic tradition of consuming and absorbing intellectual, scientific and cultural knowledge to bolster the faith’s progress and evolution. The Deobandi refused to heed the call by the modernists to gain ‘modern education’ introduced by the British.

Vicious polemics went back and forth between the Barelvi, Deobandi and the modernists. All three were also fighting running intellectual and theological battles with Hindu nationalists. Caught in the crossfire were the Shia. The modernists largely stood aside in this respect, but the Deobandi and the Barelvi expanded the parameters of their battles by denouncing the Shia as well, even though the Deobandi were more active in this regard.
It didn’t matter to AISC and its patrons — such as pirs and Barelvi ulema — that the Muslim League’s top leadership was mostly made up of modernists, and more importantly, the Shia

In 1919, the Deobandi ulema organised themselves politically by forming the Jamiat Ulema Islam Hind (JUIH). Six years later, the Barelvi attempted to do the same by forming the All India Sunni Conference (AISC). During the 1945-46 elections in undivided India, JUIH supported the ‘secular’ Indian National Congress (INC), despite the fact that the INC had many vocal Hindu nationalists in it. JUIH, along with the Islamist Jamat-e-Islami (JI), vehemently opposed Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s ‘centrist’ All India Muslim League (AIML). According to JUIH, JI and another radical Islamist party, the Majlis-e-Ahrar, the Muslim League was a ‘secular’ nationalist party just as the INC was. JUIH chose to side with INC because it felt that, at least INC would not break India and the region would continue to have a substantial Muslim minority.

JUP chief Shah Ahmad Noorani (centre) during 1970 elections

JUIH, JI and Ahrar were all anti-nationalist parties who understood Islam as a ‘universal faith’ that cannot be contained inside politically demarcated boundaries. The AISC on the other hand, supported the League. This demonstrated that the Barelvi idea of Islam was not outright against the creation of a nation-state — as long as it was driven by Shariah laws. Or rather, the Barelvi version of such laws. It also didn’t matter to AISC and its patrons — such as pirs and Barelvi ulema — that the League’s top leadership was mostly made up of modernists, and more importantly, the Shia.

A year after Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the AISC became the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP). Even though it emerged as the largest Barelvi Islamist outfit in Pakistan, its political role remained limited. The modernists dominated state and government. Their main opponents were Deobandi political groups and Islamists on the right and ethno-nationalists on the left. It was not until the 1970 elections that JUP fully plunged into politics. The party had remained largely pro-government across the 1950s and 1960s. It should also be mentioned that JUP played little or no role during the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya movement in Punjab, and was late to enter the anti-Ayub-Khan movement in the late 1960s.

Religious parties were routed in the 1970 elections by the Bengali nationalist Awami League, the populist left-liberal Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the left-wing National Awami Party which was an alliance of Pashtun, Baloch and Sindhi nationalists. Out of a total 300 National Assembly seats, religious parties could bag just 18.

7 of these went to JUP, 7 to the Deobandi JUI, and 4 to JI. Most of the seats won by JUP were from Karachi. This was also because the main political leadership of the Barelvi ulema was located in Karachi and was Mohajir. The party’s core electoral support was also based in Karachi and largely consisted of lower-middle-class Mohajirs — even though the JUP also enjoyed some electoral pull in certain areas of the Punjab, especially in Jhang.

A poster published by JUP during the 1977 anti-Bhutto movement. Religious parties used mosques to organise protests against the Bhutto regime

The JUP was only nominally present during the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya movement. But it was extremely active during the 1974 anti-Ahmadiyya agitation. The party was instrumental in collaborating with JUI, JI and anti-PPP Muslim League factions, in formulating and tabling a bill in the National Assembly that looked to oust the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam (for being ‘heretics’). The PPP government tried to stall the bill, and then threatened to unleash the military against supporters of the religious parties who had poured out to protest against the government.

JUP managed to convince a sizeable number of PPP members in the Punjab Assembly to support the bill. According to Rafi Ahmad in his book Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan, Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto, fearing that these members could dent the PPP majority in the Punjab, finally agreed to allow the opposition to table the bill. In September 1974, the bill was passed and the Ahmadiyya were declared a non-Muslim minority.

JUP’s upward momentum as the leading Barelvi Islamist party was maintained when it became a prominent player in the 1977 anti-Bhutto movement. Along with JUI and JI, JUP demanded the resignation of the Bhutto regime and imposition of Shariah laws.
JUP was only nominally present during the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya movement. But it was extremely active during the 1974 anti-Ahmadiyya agitation

But unlike the JI, both JUP and JUI refused to join General Ziaul Haq’s first cabinet that he formed after toppling Bhutto in a military coup. According to a 2016 essay by the historian and an expert on Barelvi politics Dr. Mujeeb Ahmad, JUP was of the view that Zia, who had adopted the Islamist agenda of the religious parties, was close to JI’s version of Islamism.

When Pakistan became embroiled as a front-line state in the war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, the Zia regime began to bring in Deobandi radicals to indoctrinate young Afghans and Pakistanis in the ways of ‘jihad.’ Unlike the Deobandi, the Barelvi do not have a tradition of instigating or taking part in ‘jihad.’ In the 1980s, with the aid of the state and Saudi/US money, various militant Deobandi outfits sprang up. They facilitated the insurgency in Afghanistan. At home, they turned their militancy against Shia groups. Shia Islamic outfits were alleged to have been funded by Iran.

Saleem Qadri (left) was one of the founders of Sunni Tehreek. He was assassinated in 2001, allegedly by the Deobandi Sunni outfit, Sipah Sahaba

In the commotion, JUP splintered. So much so that in 1986, when Zia’s handpicked Parliament tabled a bill that sought to prescribe the death penalty for ‘blasphemers,’ the bill was largely authored by members of JI, the pro-Zia Muslim League faction, and Deobandi clerics.

It was only after Zia’s demise in 1988, and the so-called ‘return of democracy,’ that some younger members of the JUP took the first major step to regroup. The regrouping came in the shape of the Sunni Tehreek (ST). Its leaders claimed that the party was formed to neutralise Deobandi influence in state and government institutions that Zia had left behind, and to also ‘retake’ Barelvi mosques that were taken over by Deobandi clerics.

In the 1980s, violence between militant Sunni sectarian outfits and Shia organisations had become endemic. But violence between Sunni sub-sects was extremely rare. It hardly ever went beyond charged polemics. However, in the 1990s this changed. Violence between Deobandi militants and ST became common. In the early and mid-2000s, when the state during the General Musharraf dictatorship began to sideline former Deobandi ‘assets’ (especially after 9/11), ST found itself in a position to occupy the space left behind by the gradually receding Deobandi militants.

But Deobandi militant outfits were not the only ones that ST was at war with. In Karachi, ST was also involved in numerous clashes with the Mohajir nationalist party, the MQM. Within the ST were also early MQM dissenters who had broken away to form their own faction, the MQM (Haqqiqi). With the faction’s electoral failure, many of its more militant cadres had begun to join ST.

Even so, occupying the space left behind by the receding Deobandi militant groups wasn’t a cakewalk. This was because from 2007 onward, ST became the target of perhaps the most violent expression of Deobandi militancy: the TTP.

As a response, ST facilitated the formation of a larger Barelvi platform, the Sunni Ittihad Council (SIC). SIC was clandestinely treated as an ally by the state, especially during the Asif Ali Zardari regime that came to power in 2008. The government also persuaded the US to see SIC as an Islamist antidote to the more violent Deobandi groups, especially the TTP. After all, SIC was not propagating ‘international jihad,’ nor was it training suicide bombers. In fact, it was at the receiving end of TTP as were the state, government and people of Pakistan.

The late Khadim Hussain Rizvi was one of the leading founders of TLP

But this was a rather simplistic understanding of Barelvi militancy. The militancy was emerging from the grief of the Barelvi being neglected, undermined and then overwhelmed by opposing Sunni sub-sects who were alleged to have been backed by an increasingly ‘Islamised’ state, and mocked by the ‘modernists.’ Yet, SIC was quite like the Barelvi strand of the faith that it followed.

Consider: Pakistan has a Barelvi majority. Most of this majority resides in Sindh and Punjab. Yet, though the Barelvi share certain key beliefs and rituals, mostly involving the veneration of Sufi saints, and of the primacy of upholding the mystical character of Islam’s prophet (PBUH), these can greatly vary from one ethnic group to the other. For example, the Barelvi Mohajir see themselves as being somewhat different than the Barelvi Sindhis and Punjabis. This impacts Barelvi politics as well. This is why Barelvi Islamist outfits continue to emerge and then splinter. This happened to JUP, to ST and eventually the SIC.

All major Barelvi outfits were largely headquartered in Karachi, with chapters in Punjab. And I will argue that despite the fact that compared to the TLP, ST was embroiled in violence that was of a more serious nature, it never made the kind of headlines that TLP has been making in the last five years or so. The reason being that TLP is a Punjab phenomenon. It is headquartered in Punjab — a province where before the rise of the TLP, sectarian militancy was largely associated with Deobandi and ‘Salafi’ groups. Punjab is the country’s largest province and politically the most influential.

TLP’s violence, so far, has been mostly about holding charged rallies and rioting. Indeed, it has also instigated murderous mob violence. But compare this with the violence that Barelvi groups such as ST were involved in, both as perpetrators and victims. ST frequently fought running gun battles with Deobandi militants and security personnel. Most of these took place in Karachi. In 2006, a massive bomb placed underneath a stage went off at Karachi’s Nishtar Park. It wiped out ST’s top leadership. Dozens were killed. And this was a year before the creation of the TTP. All this rarely got any media attention for more than a day or two.
Occupying the space left behind by receding Deobandi militant groups wasn’t a cakewalk. From 2007 onward, ST became the target of perhaps the most violent expression of Deobandi militancy: the TTP

The US and the PPP regime pulled back their support for SIC when ST leaders hailed the 2011 murder of the former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer. Taseer – gunned down by one of his guards who was incensed by Taseer’s criticism of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. The murderer belonged to the Barelvi evangelical outfit Dawat-e-Islami. And he was Punjabi.

This is important. Even though ST had chapters in Punjab, it was largely seen as a Karachi-based party. Its earliest patrons were Karachi’s Memon community, mostly traders and shopkeepers (tajir) and Mohajir ‘petit-bourgeoisie.’

But in the presence of the ‘secular’ MQM in Karachi, the ST could never become the kind of electoral force it wanted to. In the rest of Sindh, which too has a Barelvi majority, ST could not find any electoral traction because here as well, it was seen as a Mohajir-dominated party. Also, for years, the Sindhi Barelvi have been voting for the left-liberal PPP. ST failed to get an electoral footing.

TLP’s emergence can be seen as the awakening of the once dormant Punjabi Barelvi sentiment. The Punjabi Barelvi clerics, who rushed to own the ‘heroic’ action of Taseer’s murderer, castigated Barelvi parties such as JUP and ST for being self-serving and fickle.

So, even though ST was the first Barelvi group to hail Taseer’s killer, it was quickly sidelined by TLP that rapidly began to monopolise Barelvi Islamism. Fiery Punjabi-speaking Barelvi clerics, who were once relegated to the fringes, cleverly tapped the economic and social frustrations brewing within the Punjabi Barelvi working-classes and rural peasants. Instead of solutions, TLP moulded a ‘hero’ for them: someone who was from among them, as were the ‘new’ Barelvi clerics. TLP leadership spoke to them in everyday-Punjabi. The party became a vessel through which thousands of lower-middle- and working-class Punjabis and the province’s rural peasants could vent their resentments.

TLP’s growth was swift. Indeed, patronage from the state and Imran Khan’s PTI helped, but they were simply capitalising on an organic phenomenon because they felt that a populist Punjab-based Barelvi party could help them dent the vote bank of the ‘centrist’ PMLN in the province. During the 2018 election, TLP received the sixth largest number of votes. Most analysts believe that it dented PML-N vote banks in central and northern Punjab, and in the Hindko-speaking areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). It was just enough to aid PTI candidates to gain a simple majority in the Parliament.
Why did the military refuse to ‘crush’ TLP? It sees TLP as a ‘containable’ outfit

However, also intriguing was TLP’s performance in Karachi. In the event of MQM’s splintering, TLP won two provincial assembly seats in the city, usurping a chunk of MQM’s lower-middle-class vote. This aided PTI to bag the largest number of seats in the city. But TLP’s electoral performance in the rest of Sindh, in Balochistan and in the Pashtun-majority areas of KP was dismal. Baloch and Pashtuns are largely Deobandi. And as mentioned earlier, Sindhi Barelvi not only vote for the PPP, but they also differentiate themselves from the Punjabi and Mohajir Barelvi.

So why did so many Mohajir Barelvi vote for TLP, knowing well that it was mainly a Punjab-centric party? JUP used to be the main Barelvi Islamic party in Karachi. However, from 1988 on, votes of the already weakened JUP were successfully usurped by the MQM on the basis of (an albeit secular) Mohajir nationalism. But in 2015, MQM splintered when its founder Altaf Hussain was ousted from the party. This left many Mohajir lower-middle-class voters reverting to voting for Barelvi Islamism in the shape of TLP, because by then ST had splintered as well.

But what does TLP offer? Nothing much. At least not jobs, water connections, roads, schools, hospitals, etc. Thus far, it has been a single-agenda party. It wants to ‘safeguard’ the Second Amendment in the Constitution, and the contentious Article 295-A of the country’s blasphemy laws. The founder of the party, the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi, was quoted on various occasions as saying that the party was only interested in this. One can thus conclude that the votes that TLP received in 2018 were reactive in nature. These were angry votes, generated by the wholesale demonisation of mainstream political parties as being ‘corrupt’ by the media, state and PTI.

Nevertheless, one saw during the recent by-elections in Punjab and Karachi that TLP had begun to usurp PTI votes. This aided the PML-N in Punjab and the PPP in Karachi. PTI is conscious of this. That’s why it banned the TLP in October 2021 and wanted to crush it with state power. But the military establishment balked and advised a compromise. The ban was lifted. Why did the military refuse to ‘crush’ TLP? It sees TLP as a ‘containable’ outfit. TLP is not an anti-state insurgent group like TTP, nor is it armed, as such. Its members and supporters are ingrained in mainstream society. They do not operate from forests or mountains. And neither is TLP an urban guerrilla entity.

But more than an organised political party, TLP is still very much a movement. The core of its traction is rooted in religious emotionalism. It burns bright and fast. It can cause dreadful fires, but such fires burn themselves out. How is one to handle such a situation? Should TLP be allowed to set fires so it can burn itself out? How can one ‘contain’ it, as the state wants to? And how can one crush it, as this government wanted to?

Both will require serious firefighting skills. But if history is a guide, then one can assume that just like most Barelvi movements and outfits, TLP is bound to splinter under the weight of its own emotionalism and frenzy.

Or, on the other hand, there might well come a time when the state will stop viewing it as a containable irritant.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.