The gloves are off. And the cat is wondering if it will be once more out of the bag. Quite possibly, it might be set among the pigeons. Which, these days appear to be a role played by our state institutions, which have become used to ruffling a few feathers here and there. This week has seen Hafiz Saeed return to the Pakistani spotlight. For two very important reasons. Firstly, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has refused to register the Milli Muslim League (MML) as a political party, thereby scuppering its electoral hopes for next year. This is a welcome move. And it is heartening to see that the ECP acted upon the request of the Interior Ministry, pending an independent investigation. Though not before the ‘political’ party contested the NA 120 by-election in Nawaz Sharif’s old hood. Though, as to be expected, the MML isn’t taking any of this lying down. Prior to this latest development, it had already set up offices in Peshawar with an eye on by-polls there. Yet it’s after the ECP ruling that things have taken an interesting, if not alarming, turn. The MML says it’s suing the ECP for defamation — to the cool tune of Rs 100 million — for daring to refer to it as a proscribed outfit. Secondly, the Lahore High Court is this week expected to move to have Hafiz Saeed, who is wanted by India for his role in the Mumbai terrorist attacks, released from house arrest unless and until the political set-up can bring concrete evidence against him of his misdemeanours. Today, all of this is a lose-lose situation for Pakistan and its international standing. Not only will this add fuel to the Trump fire about support for certain undesirables — it will undermine considerably this country’s recent calls to put the Kashmir issue back under the UN auspices, after an overdue absence. Yet for ordinary Pakistanis, the domestic plot thickens. At the time of the MML’s infamous participation in NA 120, a retired Army officer had ‘come clean’ about what he termed as the military establishment’s strategy to mainstream — not disarm — its proxies. Last week, the head of the military’s public relations wing confirmed that he was aware of what he described as the government’s mainstreaming plan. While the Interior Ministry disclosed that it had approached the ECP upon the recommendation of the security establishment. Regardless of who is passing the buck to whom — neither the civvies nor the khakis has denied the existence of this plan. The matter of the MML versus the ECP could have been avoided. Meaning that the government committed a gross misstep when it placed Hafeez Saeed under house arrest back in January of this year. At the time, no concrete grounds were given for his detention. Though many members of Pakistan’s religious right pointed to the timing of this, which coincided with Donald Trump taking his place in the White House hot seat and the ruling party’s intermittent flirtations with neighbouring India. Be that as it may, the way forward for any functioning democracy is to seek relief from the courts. Thus Hafiz Saeed should have faced due process before the Anti-Terrorism Court; a process that might or might not have included access by a visiting Indian investigating team. That this was never on the cards raises questions as to whom is protecting whom; and which side would be more damaged by the fallout of such a move. If we were the cat, we wouldn’t settle for pigeons. We would go to London to see the Queen.* Published in Daily Times, October 13th 2017.