Scrapes with death - Rahimullah Yusufzai - Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Four top politicians of the country belonging to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province are lucky to have survived suicide bombings in recent years. The way they reacted to the attacks throws some light on their politics and character.

The JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the latest to have survived, not one, but two suicide bombings, refused to cancel his public engagement at the Darul Uloom Islamia seminary in Charsadda on March 31 despite security warnings after the previous day’s attack in which his party workers became the target in Swabi district. He also visited the injured JUI-F members and policemen at a hospital in Peshawar and gave brave statements to the effect that such attacks won’t deter his resolve to speak his mind and reach out to the people by holding public meetings.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman didn’t run away after the Swabi attack and managed to reach the venue to address the waiting JUI-F workers and supporters. The next day he insisted on speaking at the public gathering in Charsadda and was attacked again. Better sense prevailed and his further public appearances were cancelled. If he had gone ahead with his scheduled public meetings, it would have been suicidal because these events had been publicised and were known to those seeking to eliminate him.

One could ask that wasn’t Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s bravado misplaced as it exposed his own party workers and the cops to unnecessary risks and put extra burden on the district administration and the police in Charsadda already reeling under pressure due to the militants’ threat emanating from the adjoining Mohmand Agency. In fact, Charsadda also has its own share of militants and has suffered a number of terrorist attacks.

Though Maulana Fazlur Rehman and other top party leaders including former federal minister Azam Swati and ex-chief minister Akram Durrani survived the Charsadda suicide bombing, a fresh controversy surrounding the incident was triggered due to allegations by elders and residents of the Nowshera Road locality where the attack took place that the private JUI-F security guards were responsible for some of the deaths as they panicked and fired indiscriminately after the blast. The ANP-PPP coalition government is now investigating the incident and Provincial Law Minister Arshad Abdullah has said Maulana Fazlur Rehman would be charged if the involvement of his guards in the killings was established.

However, there is another aspect of this incident. Those aspiring to be leaders have to face risks and lead from the front. Politicians are role models and their sacrifices inspire followers and strengthen parties and movements. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s supreme sacrifice of life and that of Benazir Bhutto would continue to provide vitality to the PPP even if this party has been unable to perform to the satisfaction of the people while in power, not once, but many times. Maulana Fazlur Rehman chose to stay close to his supporters despite the danger to his life as he didn’t want to face criticism for abandoning them. It is possible he had Asfandyar Wali Khan, another leading politician from his province, in mind while making his decision.

The Awami National Party (ANP) President Asfandyar Wali’s reaction was unbelievable after the failed attempt on his life about two and a half years ago. It is true that he has been a prime target for the militants and his life is in danger, but the way he took a helicopter flight to Islamabad on October 3, 2008 when the suicide bomber tried to kill him in his hujra, or male guesthouse, in Wali Bagh, Charsadda on the occasion of Eidul Azha was baffling. He neither visited the hospital to tend to the wounded party workers not attended the funeral of his bodyguard Yar Zameen who had reportedly grabbed the suicide bomber and probably saved Asfandyar Wali’s life. His political opponents and critics would keep mentioning this incident to embarrass him and his party because politics is a cut-throat competition where matters of life and death are also politicised.

Asfandyar Wali’s visits to his native province have become rare since that suicide bombing. Even if he happens to visit Peshawar, he is to be found at the heavily-guarded residence of Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti. During the floods last summer, Asfandyar Wali’s absence was noticed as the people in his National Assembly constituency in Charsadda were among those who suffered the most. His helicopter flight to the flood-affected area may have caused more anger instead of winning him any favour with the affectees. When criticised for staying away from his province and home district some months ago, he apologised and promised to come more often. However, he hasn’t been able to keep his promise.

Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, the leader of his own faction of the Pakistan People’s Party named PPP-S after him, has also survived two suicide bombings. Both the attacks took place in his native Charsadda in 2007. The first was at a public meeting near Charsadda city on April 28, 2007 in which 28 people were killed. The second was more devastating as the suicide bomber managed to enter the mosque in Sherpao village where the Eidul Fitr prayers were being offered on December 21. The death toll was 57 and more than 100 people were injured.

Aftab Sherpao miraculously emerged unharmed in both suicide bombings. His son Mustafa sustained injuries and was brought back to health after treatment. The Sherpao family had lost Hayat Sherpao in a bomb explosion at the University of Peshawar in 1975 and younger brother Aftab Sherpao had to be extra-cautious to avoid a similar fate. But politicians need to stay in touch with the electorate and attend public events. More so in case of courageous politicians like Aftab Sherpao, who attended funerals, enquired after the health of the injured and looked after the needs of the bereaved families after the two suicide bombings targeting him. He stayed put and continued to interact with the people while quietly upgrading his security.

The fourth politician to survive a suicide attack is former federal minister Amir Muqam, whose house in the Hayatabad locality in Peshawar was attacked by a suicide bomber in November 2007. Five people including three policemen and former lawmaker and provincial minister Pir Mohammad Khan, a relative and political ally of Amir Muqam, were killed in the bombing.

To his credit, Amir Muqam took a stand against the militants and continued to attend political gatherings not only in Peshawar and elsewhere in the province but also in his native Shangla district and neighbouring Swat. He campaigned during the 2008 general election, won his National Assembly seat from Shangla and continued to spend time in his village home and in Swat. Amir Muqam attracted flak for abandoning his party, Jamaat-i-Islami, and the MMA after the 2002 general election and joining Musharraf who made this newcomer the provincial president of the PML-Q, but his courage in the face of militants’ threats won him many admirers.

The threat from the militants to Amir Muqam and Aftab Sherpao became less after the 2008 general election when their parties lost and they were no longer in power. However, they are still at risk and have to be careful while moving around.

Asfandyar Wali’s party is in power and he continues to face threats to his life from the militants. In fact, the ANP has lost more members than any other political party in the violence perpetrated by the militants.

Those who felt Maulana Fazlur Rehman wasn’t at risk due to his party’s sympathy for the Taliban were mistaken. There are many kinds of militants and some don’t like him and would not hesitate to kill him. Besides, he and his colleagues believe the US and CIA were behind the recent suicide bombings targeting him.

Almost 90 people lost their lives in attacks primarily aimed at eliminating Aftab Sherpao, who was interior minister during General Pervez Musharraf’s rule and, therefore, one of the main targets of the militants. More than 20 innocent people were killed in the two suicide bombings against Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Six were killed in the attack against Asfandyar Wali and five in the one targeting Amir Muqam. They all survived and reacted differently to the bombings and in the process earned praise or criticism.


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