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Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 31

Lal Masjid : What Lies Ahead?

Saturday 21 July 2007, by M K Bhadrakumar

The violent denouement to the standoff at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad is bound to have far-reaching consequences for Pakistan. In the short run, though, President Pervez Musharraf holds the upper hand. He has shown that he can be decisive. He has restored his authority as a ‘strongman’ that was severely dented in the recent weeks by the lawyers’ agitation. The troops carried out his instructions as a disciplined force under a chain of command. Musharraf evidently carries the Army top brass with him.

Equally, his decisiveness has gone down well in the Western opinion. Continued American support is crucial for Mushharf’s hold on power. And Washington has given him very strong support on his decision to storm the mosque.

The Pakistani liberal opinion, which has been feeling uneasy about the ascendancy of militancy and religious extremism, finds itself somewhat reluctantly endorsing Musharraf’s decision to order troops into the Lal Masjid. These are people who have an inherent distaste toward the Army’s intrusive role in national life, but harbour even greater abhorrence toward religious obscurantism. The fact remains that, despite all the propaganda about the ‘Talibanisation’ of Pakistani society in recent years, a majority of people in that country would like to make a distinction between religiosity in private life and political Islam.

But even this silent majority seems to be stunned by the sheer ferocity of the violence. There is widespread disbelief amongst them about the casualty figures released by the government. Indeed, the government has a lot of explaining to do. No proof is yet available to show that foreign militants were holed up inside the mosque. No one could explain how the militants stockpiled a sizeable cache of weapons. The dominant view is that the government orchestrated the crisis and took political advantage of it. The man on the street believes Musharraf acted in order to please the Americans and to put the growing domestic Opposition on the back foot, apart from distracting attention from the lawyers’ movement.

Indeed, the crisis brought back the rift between the former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, which had been the bane of Pakistani politics all through the 1990s till the Army takeover. Bhutto is being encouraged by Washington to work out a political deal with Musharraf, which involves power sharing that gives the regime a civilian façade. She appears willing to go along with Washington’s political agenda. She has practically dissociated from the movement for the restoration of democracy. She spoke approvingly of the Army crackdown on Lal Masjid.

FOR Sharif, on the contrary, there is no scope for a political accommodation with Musharraf. He has forged an All Parties Democratic Movement, which includes the religious parties and several minor parties. But there are undercurrents of rift involving the two main religious parties, Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), with the latter, which is the ruling party in Baluchistan province, adopting an ambivalent stance. The Karachi-based Mohajir party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, remains supportive of Musharraf.

Thus, Musharraf can draw satisfaction that there is no unified political Opposition to him as of now. Without doubt, the Lal Masjid crisis has accentuated the fissures within the Opposition camp. But, beyond this, Pakistani politics is entering uncharted waters. A backlash to the storming of the Lal Masjid is surely building up. The militants constitute a dangerous force, no matter how small or unpopular they are. They are well entrenched in the North-West Frontier Province and the tribal areas. This in itself is significant, as Baluchistan already faces an insurgency movement inspired by Baluchi nationalism. The Pashtun alienation further complicates the Baluchistan situation as Pashtuns form close to half of the province’s population.

There have been extensive deployments of troops in the NWFP and the tribal areas. A large-scale military operation is expected in the border regions with Afghanistan. Musharraf has spoken of his resolve to crush militancy. “Wherever there is fundamentalism and extremism, we’ve to finish that, destroy that,” he said in a nationwide address. But it is doubtful whether such a sustained confrontation is anymore within his capacity. His political and popular standing stands severely eroded.

Lacking a political base, Musharraf may not be in a position to altogether discard his tactical ambiguity, which involved co-opting the Islamists while appeasing the Americans at the same time. Moreover, pro-Islamist elements within the country’s political and security establishment need to be ruthlessly sidelined. Beyond that lies the highly complicating factor of the 30-year old state policy of using Islamism to expand Pakistan’s strategic influence within Afghanistan. So long as the Durand Line remains unacceptable to the Afghans, Pakistan should remain sensitive to Pashtun nationalism.

It is entirely conceivable that a flashpoint can arise within the coming days. The Supreme Court is about to pass judgement on the case of dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. If the verdict goes against the government, a first rate political and constitutional crisis will erupt. Musharraf’s game-plan to get re-elected to the office of presidency will be disrupted. Again, the growing alienation to Army rule and the political backlash of the Lal Masjid bloodshed can coalesce as a mass movement under the democratic Opposition. That may trigger public agitations. The possibility of continued and targeted terrorist attacks is very real, too. Thus, as time passes, Musharraf may be left with no option but to take recourse to Emergency rule. A crackdown on democratic political dissidence can always be explained away as a crackdown on militancy and extremism.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s drift poses a grave challenge to the United States’ regional policy. The fact remains that most of the supplies for the NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan. Given the pervasive and deep-rooted “anti-Americanism” in the Pakistani public opinion, Washington depends heavily on the present Army dispensation in Islamabad, and on Musharraf in particular. Of course, the nightmare scenario for Washington would be a Pakistan under a democratically elected government with untrammelled civilian supremacy.

(Courtesy : Sakal daily)

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