NEW DELHI: The Mili Muslim League is a new political party in Pakistan, that at first glance appears a regular political outfit fighting for change. Its website loudly declares its mandate as ‘leadership based on merit not wealth’ and the need to ‘unite Muslims once again, shunning ethnic/religious divide.’ The catch, however, is that the MML is backed -- openly -- by terror accused Hafiz Saeed, who is believed to be behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

The MML was established in 2017, with Saeed inaugurating the party’s offices in Lahore in December. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) initially refused to grant the party political recognition. That changed earlier this month, with a high court decision on March 9 approving the party’s registration, allowing it to run in national elections scheduled for July.

The fact that a political party openly backed by Saeed is to be allowed to run for national elections is indicative of the deep crisis in Pakistan -- a country which has long been accused of differentiating between “good” and “bad” terrorists. The former refers to terror operations focused across the border in India and Afghanistan, with Saeed -- despite being on the terror watchlist and having a US bounty of $10 million for information leading to his arrest and conviction -- remaining a powerful figure in the country.

The “bad” terrorists then are groups active within the borders of Pakistan, including the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). At the time of writing, a teenage Taliban suicide bomber attacked a police check-post near the residence of ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, killing nine people including five policemen.

The attack comes as Pakistan grapples with US pressure, with CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, vowing to take a harder line against Islamabad if the country fails to show that it’s battling terrorism. The US, which has traditionally been a key partner for Pakistan, has spoken out in the past at Islamabad's failure to take concrete measures against all terror groups, including those using its territory as a safe haven but focused on Afghanistan and India. Under the new administration, the US has followed the rhetoric with more action.

"We see the Pakistanis continuing to provide safe harbor, havens inside of Pakistan for terrorists who present risks to the United States of America," Pompeo said earlier this year. "If they fix this problem, we’re happy to continue to engage with them and be their partner. But if they don’t, we’re going to protect America." There is also pressure to add Pakistan to the Financial Action Task Force’s terrorism-financing watch list -- a move, which if cleared, can lead to sanctions.

Pakistan has consistently denied that it differentiates between terror groups. The MML’s official recognition, however, is further proof that terror outfits continue to receive tacit official support given that valid objections have been raised regarding Saeed’s charities being fronts for the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. The MML has dismissed the allegations as “propaganda.” Post the High Court ruling clearing MML for recognition, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa told reporters he stood by the judiciary and subversion of its rulings will not be allowed.

Additionally, the move to recognise MML has received sharp criticism from New Delhi, which has consistently highlighted the protection accorded by Pakistan to Saeed. Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, told reporters that it “completely exposes Pakistan’s duplicity.” “This is an attempt by the Pakistani establishment to mainstream him, to mainstream this system as a political party.”

India has been demanding that Saeed stand trial for the Mumbai attacks, but Pakistan has managed to use one pretext or another to prevent trial. In fact, Pakistan denied any role in the 2008 blasts, but following evidence of LeT involvement provided by India, Saeed was put under arrest in September 2009. He was cleared off all charges a month later. In January 2017, he was put under house arrest again -- a move meant to appease the US and India. In December he was released by the Lahore High Court “for lack of evidence.”

Despite the fact that wanted terrorists such as Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar remain free in Pakistan, the country has remained off the FATF’s monitoring list thanks to the intervention of Saudi Arabia and China.

The US has reportedly persuaded the two countries to remove their objections from June.