KARACHI: The Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) has been divided in the midst of a power struggle between two influential clerics – Maulana Tahir Ashrafi and Maulana Zahid Mahmood Qasmi – who both claim to be the elected chairperson of the council.
In February, the PUC’s Central Executive Body had removed Ashrafi from the post of the council’s chairperson and appointed the then secretary general Qasmi as the new chief of the party, according to several media reports. The basic party membership of Ashrafi and his associated subgroups was also cancelled in a meeting attended by some 500 clerics.
Ashraf was reportedly ousted after being accused of taking funds from American and German governments and spying on the students of seminaries. However, in March, flanked by several PUC office-bearers, Ashrafi held a press conference in Islamabad and claimed that only four members of the executive body had attended the meeting wherein it was decided to oust him.
He maintained that the PUC central executive body and all provincial and district wings had reposed confidence in him as the chairperson. He added that Qasmi and his supporters’ PUC membership had been cancelled. Besides, he added, Qasmi had been served a defamation notice.
Similarly, PUC Vice Chairperson Maulana Muhammad Ayub Safdar also told reporters that Qasmi was removed after law enforcement agencies had pointed out that he was involved in extortion and supported elements behind sectarian violence.
The struggle over the chairmanship has been ongoing since then. On Saturday, the PUC reiterated Qasmi’s dismissal in a press release which mentions Ashrafi as the chairperson and is penned by PUC Vice Chairperson Maulana Muhammad Ayub Safdar.
Press release issued by Maulana Ashrafi’s PUC.
The statement read that Qasmi and five of his supporters as well as Tayyab Qasmi (the information secretary) had been removed and they were no longer associated with the PUC. It further stated that the PUC was registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and as per a Lahore civil court order, Qasmi could not call himself its chairperson.
However, Qasmi has maintained that he holds the office Ashrafi is claiming. Both his Twitter account and Facebooks page titled ‘Pakistan Ulema Council Official’ and Zahid Mahmood Qasmi (Official) describe him as the chairperson of the PUC.
Another press release issued on Saturday by the PUC led by Qasmi read that Ashrafi had been ousted from the PUC in a central executive body meeting on February 28 because of his “foreign connections”. It added that the PUC legal committee had submitted details about the council elections (presumably in which Qasmi was elected) and the new office-bearers’ details with the ECP.
Press release issued by Maulana Qasmi’s PUC.
Evidence against Ashrafi, including the central body’s decision to sack him and the transfer of funds meant for a PUC charity organisation, Ilm-o-Aman Foundation, to the cleric’s personal bank account, have also been submitted to the Lahore civil court, the statement added.
Tayyab Qasmi, the ousted information secretary, told The Express Tribune on the phone that Qasmi had been elected by the central executive body in the presence of 500 clerics. He added all evidence against Ashrafi had been presented in court by the PUC’s legal committee.
Maulana Ashrafi’s lawyer has been summoned by the court, but now Ashrafi has expressed lack of confidence in the same court that he himself had approached and is not appearing there, said Tayyab Qasmi.
For now, press releases being issued by both sides bear the official PUC letterhead, but different office addresses – Lahore for the Ashrafi group and Faisalabad for the Qasmi group. But who is actually the chairperson of the influential PUC, a body formed in 1988 by clerics of all major sects to promote sectarian harmony, remains unclear.