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Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman: A man for all seasons

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By S. M. Hali

Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman is a pragmatic politician. He learnt the intricate game of politics from his father Mufti Mahmud but also perfected the art of survival. Over time he has learnt to bend with the wind, run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. His father was opposed to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, for which he may have suffered but Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman provided Benazir Bhutto a shot of adrenaline when she needed it the most. Despite his fundamentalist orientation, he supported her right to become the Prime Minister and opposed the campaign of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the 1990s against a woman heading the Government of an Islamic country.  Benazir rewarded him by making him the Chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, which he made full use of by visiting various capitals of the world in an incessant travel program. Whether they bore fruit or not is another matter.

When the government changed, the Maulana tested the waters by briefly allying with Mian Nawaz Sharif but the experimentation did not work out as the Maulana lost the elections in 1990.

During the Musharraf era, the Maulana served as the leader of opposition in the National Assembly but his party Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam (JUI) was part of the alliance of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of far-right Islamist parties that was formed in 2002 to electorally challenge the Pakistan Parliament's incumbent parties. The MMA garnered the second-largest majority in the National Assembly with 58 out of 342 seats, as well as a provincial majority in NWFP now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and a provincial minority in Sind and Balochistan. The Maulana’s shadow over the MMA was so visible that the Chief Minister of then NWFP, Akram Khan Durrani was from the Maulana’s Party. The MMA was a political ally of General Parvez Musharraf and it was a marriage of convenience as the so called political government had been formed after 9/11 and Pakistan had become an ally of the US-led war on terror. However, whenever the US demands on Pakistan to do more became louder, the General would nudge the MMA to issue anti-US statements causing US President George W. Bush to back off. Amidst this tug of war the shrewd Maulana made the most of it.

In July 2003 the Maulana visited India and surprised and shocked his friends and critics alike. His Indian hosts were expecting a fundamentalist Maulana, who would lecture them like most firebrand Maulanas, roaring from the pulpit but he surprised them with his soft-worded interlocution. B. Raman, then director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai and former member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India, wrote in his article titled ‘Supping with the Maulana’  in “South Asia” of 23 July 2003: “The high-profile visit of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the controversial leader of the Jamiat-ul-ulema Islam (JUI) of Pakistan, to India and the attention accorded to him in governmental and non-governmental circles in New Delhi are being viewed by many India-watchers in the US with a mix of bewilderment and concern.”

Perhaps the Maulana got carried away by the rapt attention and high profile welcome showered by the Indians. Sultan Shahin, another Indian columnist revealed in his article titled ‘India sits up and listens’ that: “He was accorded a warm welcome on many fronts. Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that heads India's coalition government, was able to find 90 minutes to spend with Rahman at short notice. Similar courtesy was extended by other top leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Forum) and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS, the fountainhead of Hindu fundamentalism in India). 
As if these first-time high-level meetings between Pakistani Muslim and Indian Hindu religious extremists were not stunning enough, Rahman shocked the country, not by his fundamentalist rhetoric—that would have been expected—but by a peace blitzkrieg. He said all the right things that would have been sweet music to Indian ears, but for the fact that the sight of these words emanating from his fundamentalist mouth, so used to brandishing extremist anti-India rhetoric, was incongruous to Indian eyes.
Indians found it difficult to forget that it was from madrassas (religious missionaries) run by Rahman's party that the Taliban (literally, students), the erstwhile rulers of Afghanistan, had graduated. His madrassas were known as factories of militant, jihadi Islam where poor Muslim children were brainwashed into a fanatical version of Islam that even promotes suicide as a part of jihad, something that is anathema to orthodox Islam. 
Rahman's peace rhetoric was nevertheless compelling. If nothing else, it had great curiosity value. He was not only asking for a peaceful solution to all problems including Kashmir through bilateral dialogue, he was specifically against third party (read American) intervention—something Pakistan has been seeking for decades. He was not only willing to settle for the present line of control (LoC) that separates the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir being converted into an international border—a dream solution for India—but even to consider Pakistan merging with India altogether in the way that both Germanys came together after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It seems Rahman is seeking India's support in keeping Americans out of South Asia. He is promising a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir dispute more or less on India's terms, if India helps fundamentalists come to power. He is also promising help in dealing with India's Muslim fundamentalists for finding a negotiated solution to the dispute arising out of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the BJP's need for building a temple on the spot through an out-of-court settlement in order to win the forthcoming elections.” 

If the Indian media is to be believed, the Maulana’s endorsement of the long term Hindu dream of Akhand Bharat (United India) embarrassed the Pakistani government and establishment. On his return he tried to clarify his statements as being quoted out of context.

With the fall of MMA and General Parvez Musharraf, the Maulana found fresh alliance with Asif Ali Zardari and his PPP government. He has blown hot and cold over various issues, in the end getting his pound of flesh for his in-veritable support whenever the need arose. Lately, the Maulana has chosen to support the beleaguered Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani. During his address at Kalat, over the weekend, the Maulana declared that those who respect the judiciary should not criticize the Speaker’s verdict (on the PM’s eligibility to continue in office). In the same meeting he charged the establishment for mending its ways and stop placing impediments in the way of the party (JUI-F). Such an outburst from the Maulana is surprising because he has been perceived as pro-establishment. Perhaps the Maulana was playing to the gallery, but he is too astute a leader and he must be having a fresh plan up his sleeve for the new season.

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