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EFSAS Commentary

Assassination attempt on PAK-Interior Minister and its serious Implications


Ahsan Iqbal, Interior Minister of Pakistan and a senior, influential member of Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), the party in power, was on 6 May 2018, shot in the arm by 21-year-old Abid Hussain. Iqbal had just finished addressing supporters at Kanjroor village in Narowal district of Punjab province and was walking to his car when the incident occurred. Hussain fired at the Minister with a 30-bore pistol from a distance of around 18 metres. He was overpowered by Iqbal’s supporters before he could fire a second shot and is presently in police custody. The injured Minister was taken for treatment to a hospital in the provincial capital Lahore where he is recuperating after undergoing surgery. 

The Punjab Government constituted a five-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) on May 7 to probe the attack on Iqbal. Preliminary reports suggested that Abid Hussain was affiliated to the Islamist Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (Movement of the Prophet’s Followers) party that opposes weakening of Pakistan's contentious blasphemy laws, calls for enforcing the death penalty for blasphemy, and seeks to strictly impose Shariah law. This party had in November 2017 organized violent anti-blasphemy protests throughout Pakistan against alleged amendments to parliamentary bills that sought to dilute rules obliging lawmakers to mention the Prophet Mohammed when taking oaths. Hussain had participated in these protests. The Army was mobilized to restore calm. The protesters demanded and succeeded in securing the resignation of Pakistan's Law Minister Zahid Hamid (through a deal brokered by the Pakistan Army) but not before seven people were killed and hundreds injured. This set a dangerous precedent for fringe groups to coerce the state citing blasphemy. 

Ahsan Iqbal has been a strong supporter of the rights of Pakistan’s much-persecuted religious minorities. In October 2017, he condemned a hate speech by a leader of his own party against the Ahmadias, an Islamic minority sect, and called for an ‘inclusive Pakistan’. He held meetings with Shia Hazaras a week ago and had concluded a meeting with a Christian group just a few minutes before he was shot. During such meetings he often assured these anxious groups of the full protection of the Pakistani State. That the forces directly under his charge in the Interior Ministry could not provide the same to their own Minister would, without doubt, have the effect of undoing any confidence Iqbal’s assurances may have instilled in members of these minority groups. The fate of senior Pakistani politicians who have espoused their cause has, in any case, been deeply discouraging. Former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer who had called for amendment of the blasphemy laws was shot dead by Mumtaz Qadri, his own bodyguard, in Islamabad in 2011. Qadri was convicted of murder and executed in 2016. He is, however, treated as a martyr by hardliners. Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah draws its inspiration from him and a shrine in his honour has been built on the outskirts of Islamabad. 

Ahsan Iqbal, a four-time member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, belongs to a family with long-standing linkages to PML-N. He is a known to be a confidant of former Prime Minister and party supremo Nawaz Sharif. In addition to the Interior Ministry, Iqbal also holds charge of the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms. Highly educated, he had obtained an MBA degree from University of Pennsylvania. He also pursued courses at Harvard and Oxford Universities. An articulate political leader, he has often spoken of the need for primacy of civil authority in Pakistan. He has simultaneously been a strong critic of moves by the military and judiciary to undermine Pakistan’s democratically elected governments.

The attack on the Minister has been condemned by Pakistani politicians cutting across party lines. Prominent among those who voiced their criticism were Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) leaders Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto and Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah, Chief Minister of Punjab Shehbaz Sharif, and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party leader Imran Khan. It is noteworthy that several of the statements issued by these leaders sounded alarm bells regarding the future of democracy in Pakistan. Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah described the attack as an attempt to portray the security apparatus as weak and generate an atmosphere of fear ahead of the general elections in the country that are due in July this year. PML-N leader Shehbaz Sharif, in a veiled message to the Pakistani Army, tweeted that PML-N "will not be browbeaten into submission". Another PML-N leader Maiza Hameed described the shooting as an attempt to "weaken democracy" ahead of the upcoming elections. However, PTI leader Imran Khan’s Chief of Staff, Naeem ul Haq, was an exception – he blamed Nawaz Sharif for the attack. He stated - “We condemn it with full force. But the political climate is being seriously affected by Nawaz’s wild accusations against his opponents and creating tension and anger all over. So, if Nawaz continues to utter poison, such incidents will continue to occur”. This is significant in view of Nawaz Sharif’s oft-repeated allegation of Imran Khan being a pawn in the hands of Pakistan’s dominant military establishment that has a long history of preventing democracy from forging roots in the country. 

PML-N leader and Minister of State for Interior Affairs, Talal Chaudhry, on May 7 stated that the police were investigating elements that may have instigated Hussain to target Iqbal, adding that “such people, on an ideological level, are prepared by others”. It is significant in this context that a video clip of a senior Pakistan Army officer handing over money to Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah members had been circulated widely on social media soon after the November 2017 anti-blasphemy protests. Chaudhry further opined that the attack was aimed at postponing the forthcoming general elections. Some analysts believe that such postponement would stand to benefit PTI and other pro-Army parties given that PML-N, despite serious setbacks to its leaders, has performed commendably in recent by-elections and this trend is likely to continue if the elections are held on time. It would also work in PML-N’s favour that the party is being seen by the people of Pakistan as being hounded and victimized by the Pakistan Army and the judiciary. Had the assassination attempt on Iqbal succeeded, it could plausibly have provided the Army the excuse of an adverse law and order situation to defer the elections to benefit those backed by it. Others feel that the attack was aimed at conveying the clear message to Nawaz Sharif and PML-N to not cross the red line in its ongoing conflict with the Pakistani Army establishment. PML-N believes that the life-ban from politics imposed on Nawaz Sharif by the judiciary last year as well as the removal of former Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif by the Islamabad High Court for violating election laws were part of a conspiracy by Pakistan's Army establishment to weaken the party. Nawaz Sharif has publicly stated that his fight at the forthcoming elections is against the Army establishment and not any political opponent. 

The Pakistani Army establishment’s penchant for using proxies to achieve its ends, whether externally against Afghanistan and India, or internally against political leaders or parties that even remotely threaten its hegemony, is well documented. Religious clerics are the preferred proxies internally, so their being galvanized against Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N does not come as a surprise. It is of little importance or relevance to the establishment that, in reality, the use of such religious proxies seriously dents the State of Pakistan and the price is actually paid by subsequent generations of Pakistanis who are left grappling with heightened fundamentalism and incessant violence. Khadim Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-i-Labaik, appears to have joined the long list of ‘strategic assets’ comprising people such as Hafeez Saeed and Omar Khorasani, cultivated by the establishment over the years to fulfill its self-serving myopic interests. 

Iqbal, in his charge as Minister of Planning, Development and Reforms, has also been overseeing implementation of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the $60 billion project that is accorded high priority by both the Chinese and Pakistani Governments. The Chinese Government, already concerned over recent incidents of killing of Chinese nationals involved in the project in Pakistan, would certainly not be comforted by an assassination attempt on the senior Pakistani political leader who is not only responsible for implementation of the China-funded project but also for maintaining law and order in the country.