LAHORE: Sitting inside a room at the Jamia Farooq-e-Azam seminary in Walton, Ghulam Rasool Shah, a senior operative of the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), is irritated. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) founder and his one-time mentor, Malik Ishaq was recently detained by the authorities for giving a “provocative speech” against Shia Muslims.
Shah says Ishaq had only given a speech and questions why his arrest could not have been avoided. “Compromises are reached here on murder, people get bail and are walking free.”
“Ishaq is not the only one from a proscribed organisation. Does Sajid Naqvi not have any cases against him? Are there no cases against Hafiz Saeed sahib? They are from proscribed organisations as well.”
Naqvi is a leader of Tehreek-e-Jafria and Hafiz Saeed belongs to Jamaatud Daawa. Saeed is also alleged to be a part of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Shah says he has “GHQ support”.
The links between ASWJ, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and LeJ run deep. SSP was renamed to ASWJ after the government imposed a ban on them in 2002. The LeJ is the armed wing of SSP and is behind the killings of Shias since its inception in the early 90s.
Shah’s association with the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) began at a young age. It was in 1989 that he had heard the organisations founder, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, speak at a public gathering in Bahawalnagar, after which he started working as a helper for one of SPP’s former chiefs, Ziaur Rehman Farooqi.
It was as a young operative of SSP that he watched an anti-Shia video of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) founder Malik Ishaq and was inspired by his ability to “speak against” Shia Islam with the help of “researched references”. Shah met Ishaq later that year in Rahim Yar Khan and the LeJ leader went on to play a role in his grooming.
Both men were detained together twice, once for four years from 2006 to 2009 at the Central jail in Multan and then at Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore during Muharram in Lahore.
Shah was jailed to “maintain public order” following the wave of sectarian killings in the 90s and had 22 cases filed against him. Released on May 20, 2010, he has been detained four times to date since then, including during Muharram. His speeches are known to incite hatred and violence against the Shia community.
A legal fight?
Armed men dressed like the Elite Force of Punjab Police stand alert outside the room. They could easily pass off as Police officials.
Guards in similar ‘uniform’ were also giving protection to Malik Ishaq before he had been detained. But Shah says that he had kept the guards with the government’s consent. “I asked them for security, but they did not give us any. They let us keep our own,” says Shah.
Originally the owner of an English-medium middle school in Bahawalnagar, Shah took intermediate and BA exams and also earned a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies during his 13 years at different high security jails in Multan, Gujranwala and Lahore. But Shah is known for his legal insight among members of the SSP. Not only has he defended his own cases in jail, he has also helped his fellow operatives with legal work.
More than 40 SSP and LeJ operatives are currently in jails across Pakistan. ASWJ has been providing “legel remedy” to currently jailed senior Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operative Akram Lahori as well.
It was Malik Ishaq who had advised Shah to fight legally. Shah’s name was on a list of jailed militants whose release had been demanded by Dr Usman, the mastermind of the attack on Army HQ. “My name was on the list, but I had been released by then,” says Shah smiling.
He says militants had then expected Malik Ishaq and himself to lead their operations after being released from jail, but the LeJ founder had advised him to fight legally instead.
Influential with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi
Even though Shah denies having any association with the current Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, he still defends it and says he is in a position to influence their activities.
He goes on to claim that in the wake of Shia killings, the Government of Punjab and a number of Interior ministry officials have asked him to “play a role in Quetta”.
“The Lashkar founded by Malik Ishaq is no more,” he says, “I told them I am willing to go to Quetta and will even take Malik Ishaq, but then they should let us go to Karachi as well.”
Every mention of Shia killings is countered by claims of SSP men being killed in Karachi. “Why is Quetta being discussed and not Karachi, where 200 of our companions have been killed.”
Shah claims that LeJ is an organisation of “deprived individuals”.
“They were and are forced to live in hiding and feel left out because the state does not pay heed to the woes of the Sunnis.”
But there is also paranoia within SSP that the Shia community will “overcome” Pakistan. “If Iran is a Shia state, then Pakistan must be a pure Sunni state. We want the government to give us our rights.”
SSP or ASWJ leaders have always had political aspirations. Azam Tariq, the third chief of SSP, was an MNA and the current chief of ASWJ Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi ran for a National Assembly seat in 2008, but lost to a Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) candidate.
Shah says that ASWJ has not decided on an alliance with any political party as yet. “Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) have contacted ASWJ for support in the elections.”
Shah says there has been a change of heart now. The once fiery speaker says the change came during his time in confinement and on the advice of Ishaq.
The change came in the shape of registering FIRs under blasphemy laws against the Shia community.
“Please take note, now when insult of the companions of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) has been committed, there has not been any rioting or protest, but an FIR was registered. This is change, right?”
He is “proud” that his organisation is “no longer” violent. Shah says ever since his release two years ago, he has been involved in registering 50 to 60 FIRs against members of the Shia community.
Shah says that Malik Ishaq has already filed a petition in the Rahim Yar Khan sessions court against the azaan given by the Shia community.
Wanting a ‘resolution’
Shah is speaking at a convention. There are slogans against the Shia community. One attendee asks Shah how he can submit an application against the Shia call for prayer. He is given instructions and is asked to follow ASWJ literature and pressurise his local police station as a group.
The process of registering complaints and FIRs is seen by Shah as evolution of their movement.
During the convention, Shah tells the attendees that both SSP and LeJ were used as a scare in the 80s and 90s, but says that despite their “ups and downs” all Jhangvis are focused on their ideology.
The ASWJ leader insists that they, including Malik Ishaq, want a solution to the Shia-Sunni conflict. He says they want to sit with the Shia leadership and resolve the issue. This was said an hour before the interview, when another member asked attendees to prefer their “anti-Shia, pro-Sunni cause” to the “love of the country” through the example of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi.
One of their primary demands is to have enough leverage in parliament to get legislation passed which gives death penalty to anyone “insulting” the Holy Prophet’s (pbuh) companions.
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