Hafiz Saeed could be contesting elections in Pakistan this year. On Friday, the Islamabad High Court set aside a decision by the Election Commission of Pakistan to reject the Milli Muslim League’s application to be registered as a political party.

The League was set up in August as the political wing of the Islamist outfit, Jama’at-ud-Dawa, led by Saeed. This links the prospective party to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the armed wing of the Jama’at that is held responsible for major terror attacks in India. The election commission and the interior ministry had protested that the Milli Muslim League could not be registered because of its ties with militant outfits but the court rejected such reasoning, citing provisions of the Pakistani constitution.

In India, mention of Saeed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba conjures up the smoke curling out of the Taj hotel in Mumbai in 2008. That the architect of 26/11 could now join the political mainstream has raised hackles here and the Ministry of External Affairs put out a strongly worded statement accusing Pakistan of shielding Saeed, who features on the United Nations’ terror list.

The normalisation of Saeed makes the prospect of talks even bleaker at a time when talks are imperative. It also points to the difficulties of talking to a fractured establishment in Pakistan.

The mainstreaming of Hafiz Saeed

The mainstreaming of Hafiz Saeed began some years ago. Writing in 2012, military historian Ayesha Siddiqa noted how the Jama’at-ud-Dawa had emerged as one of the stars of the Pakistani media, where the organisation’s charitable work was separated from the darker legacy of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. She also observed that the organisation had got good press from academics in the West, who painted Saeed as a “Santa Claus”. It was the West’s acknowledgement of the conservative turn taken by Pakistan and perhaps a means to isolate the Lashkar from groups such as the al Qaeda and start a political engagement.

Now the West has hardened against Pakistan. Earlier this year, United States President Donald Trump froze security aid to the country and threatened to put it on a terror finance list. Under pressure, Pakistan was said to have started cracking down on seminaries and health facilities owned by Saeed’s outfits. In January, it also barred the Jama’at from collecting donations. But the mainstreaming of Saeed cannot be reversed so easily in Pakistan.

Siddiqa observed in 2012 that it was unlikely the Jama’at would find many takers even if it joined politics; the radical Right is a fairly crowded space in Pakistan. Now, columnist Khaled Ahmed writes of the swelling popularity of Saeed, who combines the muscle power of a large personal army and militant rhetoric with the sheen of a “big-money” charity. Even if it does not translate into votes, Saeed seems to enjoy a growing political cache.


The whitewashing of Saeed coincides with a surge in hostilities between India and Pakistan. Since September 2016, when the Army said it had attacked launchpads for militants across the Line of Control, India has assumed a new posture of belligerence. Such operations are said to have been conducted covertly before. This time, they became occasion for political chest thumping.

The common sense of a decade and a half, which helped maintain a fragile calm, seems to be eroding. A ceasefire signed in 2003 has been worn threadbare. The doctrine of “strategic restraint”, which reined in open aggression, has become increasingly unpopular. India seems keen to switch from deterrence, defined as the threat that prevents an adversary from starting something, to compellence, the threat intended to make an adversary do something.

But if a decisive strike was meant to silence the guns at the border and quell bloodshed, it has not worked. According to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, there were 120 ceasefire violations at the Line of Control and the International Border till February 18, killing 11 security forces personnel and 10 civilians, destroying homes and displacing thousands. Meanwhile, groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad continue to launch fidayeen attacks on security installations in Jammu and Kashmir.

Armed hostilities have poisoned all forms of engagement between the two countries. In February, for instance, the Federation of Western India Cine Employees banned Indian producers from employing Pakistani artistes and technicians, citing the “war-like situation”. Now Indian and Pakistani diplomats trade allegations of “harassament and intimidation”. While Pakistan threatens to pull its diplomats out of Delhi, the families of Indian officials have reportedly started leaving Islamabad.

Quiet gestures of conciliation have been attempted: last week, the two countries agreed to exchange women, elderly and disabled prisoners. But these are drowned out by the din of jingoism.

Everywhere, the constituency for talks is shrinking. Indian Army officials now speak of a war on two fronts, with both Pakistan and China. GD Bakshi, former general and prime time television star, recommends following up the “surgical strikes” with a few more. With both India and Pakistan gearing up for general elections, political leaders will not dial down the populist jingoism, either.

But as authors Toby Dalton and George Perkovich observe in their new book, Not War, Not Peace, compellence is harder to achieve than deterrence. “We can only say the condition of ‘not war’ is unsustainable if ‘not peace’ is at the core of either state’s policy,” they argue.

To negotiate peace, dialogue is essential. This needs to be accompanied by a political ownership of dialogue to create public support for it. Looking across the border, however, India is faced with a perennial question. Whom do we talk to if we want to talk to Pakistan?

Even if it does not translate into votes, Hafiz Saeed seems to enjoy a growing political cache. (Credit: Asif Hassan / AFP)
Even if it does not translate into votes, Hafiz Saeed seems to enjoy a growing political cache. (Credit: Asif Hassan / AFP)

A broken mirror

The fluctuating fortunes of Hafiz Saeed in Pakistan reflect how fragmented various parts of the Pakistani establishment are. Last year, even as the authorities were trying to put him under house arrest, Ahmed writes, large crowds gathered outside to protest. Saeed, who reportedly runs “private courts” in various cities of Pakistan, has also been dealt with remarkable leniency by the official courts.

While the authorities had detained him under anti-terrorism laws early in 2017, these were dropped later in the year. While the government tries to crack down on organisations run by him, the court paves the way for his political party. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s flailing government faced a volley of outrage for partially accepting that Saeed was involved in acts of terrorism in India. Meanwhile, it is widely accepted that Saeed and the Lashkar were propped up by sections of the security establishment to wage “proxy war” on India.

Talking to a civilian government on the eve of elections is near impossible, especially a government so discredited as this one, where Sharif was forced to resign on corruption charges. But talking to a civilian government has never been easy in Pakistan. Far too many forces challenge its control.

To begin with, the Army and the security establishment remain political stakeholders. In a history dotted with military coups, the Army has often been the government. It was not until 2013 that a democratically elected government was able to complete a term in Pakistan. Even with a civilian government in Islamabad, commentators say, the Army assumes a “tutelary role”, which means the balance of power tilts towards it.

Besides, as Anatol Lieven writes in Pakistan: A Hard Country, no matter who is in power, the state has always been weak, with corrupt, malfunctioning institutions. State services are scarce on the ground. In contrast, “society in its various forms is immensely strong,” writes Lieven. He paints the picture of a people ranged against a predatory, lawless state, depending on kinship ties and the patronage of local elites to survive.

Across the table

In such a state of smoke and mirrors, whom should India face across the talks table? Speaking to the civilian government may be futile if other cogs in the establishment work against talks. Neither can the larger political issues be left to the generals, though meetings between the two directors general of military operations could help defuse tensions in the short term. Outside these institutions, wider social exchange between the two countries may be encouraged but that cannot replace a formal dialogue.

Talk of talks is now filled with meaningless platitudes because these questions cannot be untangled. But India must concentrate its energies on them instead of the daily sabre rattling. The lives and welfare of too many people depend on it.