The repackaging of Hafiz Saeed

Will you defend Pakistan?", boldly exhorts the official website of Difa-e-Pakistan. This is the new coalition populated by the likes of former ISI chief, Hamid Gul, former army chief Mirza Aslam Baig and politicians like Sheikh Rasheed and Ijazul Haq. But the star attraction of this group which comprises 40 parties and organisations, is the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba or LeT, Hafiz Saeed. Without a tinge of irony, Hafiz Saeed claims that this group will "defend Pakistan". It is another matter that the rest of the world believes that Pakistanis need to be actually defended from Saeed and his ideological brethren breeding jehadi terror.

In the last few weeks, the Difa-e-Pakistan council has organised massive rallies in Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi. As if to signal the close bonding of military-jehadi complex, the rally in Rawalpindi was hosted barely a mile away from the headquarters of the Pakistan army. What message is the Pakistan Army trying to send by bringing Hafiz Saeed under the spotlight?

Distressing signals: What message is the Pakistan Army trying to
send by bringing Hafiz Saeed under the spotlight?

The main message is for the United States. These rallies are purported to convey the depth of popular anger on Pakistani streets against the US. By claiming cognisance of this public opinion, Pakistani Army can drive a harder bargain while striking any deal with the US. In comparison to these venom-spewing jehadis, Pakistan Army ought to look reasonable and moderate to the decision-makers in Washington.

Such portrayal buttresses the argument, most recently made by Anatol Lieven, that Pakistan Army must be strengthened to keep Pakistan together. Of course, the US wouldn't like to see the collapse of a country with the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal, especially when the US is preparing the ground for a transition in neighbouring Afghanistan. The US must thus resume its support for Pakistan army.

Although it isn't confirmed yet, Difa-e-Pakistan could become an overt political player in the next Pakistani elections. With the support of the establishment, it could win sufficient seats in the next parliament to hold the key to next government. Imran Khan seems to be aware of this scenario because his message was read out at the Lahore rally of Difa-e-Pakistan.

Notwithstanding this bonhomie, Difa-e-Pakistan owes its allegiance to Pakistan army. If Imran Khan does emerge as a front-runner in the prime-ministerial race, this friendly group will allow the Pakistan army to keep a check on the ambitious cricketer-turned-politician, lest he becomes too big for his boots.

But Hafiz Saeed's violence has always been directed against India. And his speeches in the recent Difa-e-Pakistan rallies were full of vituperative rhetoric against India. India is likely to be caught up in this repackaging of Saeed. Last week, one of the most Pakistan-friendly Indians, Mani Shankar Aiyar was on a popular television talk show in Pakistan when the anchor brought in Saeed to participate in the discussion via a phone-link.

Naturally, it caused outrage in India with even the Congress party expressing its disapproval because "even the perception of interaction with somebody accused of such heinous crimes like 26/11... is not acceptable".
Certain sections in Pakistan reacted rather intriguingly to this Indian disapproval. If the US can speak to Taliban, why can't India talk to Hafiz Saeed?

A more apt parallel would be how the US dealt with Osama bin Laden. Osama was guilty of masterminding the 9-11 attacks in New York while Saeed heads the organisation which wreaked havoc in Mumbai during 26/11 terror strikes. While 26/11 was the most spectacular terror strike unleashed on the Indian soil, LeT has been actively targeting Indians via terror strikes, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, for over a decade now.

Moreover, Saeed and his 'charity' organisation JuD are banned under the UNSC resolution 1822 of December 2008. Pakistan government, which is so fond of remembering defunct, six decade old UN resolutions, has ignored the UNSC resolution on Hafiz Saeed and JuD.

Providing legitimacy to Saeed could soon result in his graduation from appearances on TV shows with Indians to Track-2 parleys. It would be an affront to all Indians who have suffered due to terror unleashed by Saeed. India must neither forget nor forgive Hafiz Saeed. He, like bin Laden, is a terrorist and needs to be treated like one.

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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