On January 04, 2011, late Pakistani President and Army Chief Gen. Zia-ul-Huq’s dream came true. Islamic extremists, obscurantist and radicals had penetrated a large section of Pakistan’s educated middle class. Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab was assassinated that day by a security guard attached to him. Governor Taseer’s fault, as perceived by the radicals, was that he was campaigning for the amendment of the pernicious Blasphemy Law and thus insulted Islam.
The liberal and outspoken Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Member of the National Assembly (MNA), Ms. Sherry Reheman had moved a bill in the National Assembly to repeal the Blasphemy Law, but the government hastily withdrew the bill when it found that the Islamist groups would rally against it. Salman Taseer, however, continued to campaign against the law and defended an illiterate Christian labourer woman Aaisia Bibi, who has been convicted of Blasphemy and incarcerated in jail since last November allegedly for insulting the Prophet.
Insult of the Prophet is punishable by death under the Blasphemy Law. Anyone can report blasphemy against a person and that person is taken as guilty without any other evidence. The law has been stretched to such an extent that a medical representative complained of Blasphemy against a Ahmedya doctor in Karachi because the irate doctor threw his visiting card with his name “Mohammad” into a waste paper basket! In fact, under such arguments, anyone holding the name Mohammad should be guilty of blasphemy for “impersonating” the Prophet.
President Zia was killed in 1988 in a plane crash. A bomb was hidden in a basket of mangoes presented to him which was loaded in aircraft’s hold. The American Ambassador to Pakistan was also with him in this special Air Force flight. Who did it was never established, but there are many speculations. One explanation, the most credible, was that some Pakistani armed forces officials who were against Zia’s Islamisation of the military which was brought up in the liberal traditions by General and President Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator, were involved.
There were some speculations that the Chinese may have been involved along with some Pakistani military elements because Zia was getting too close to the USA. This suspicion grew from the fact that Chinese official media reporting on Zia’s death was less than charitable to him.
President Zia-ul-Huq, a cricket enthusiast, had made no secret of his determination to radicalize Pakistan’s polity. He was apparently convinced, especially after the 1971 war which led to East Pakistan’s liberation as Bangladesh, that only a dedicated Islamist armed forces and polity could counter India.
President Zia’s civilian successors, whether it was Nawaz Sharif of PML or Ms. Benazir Bhutto of PPP either went along with his line or were not able to reverse the trend. The armed forces and their intelligence wing, the ISI, had become too strong. Nawaz Sharif’s Islamic trends are now well known. When Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto visited China in 1992, Chinese Premier Li Peng presented her with evidence that Pakistan Islamic organizations were hosting and training China separatist Muslim Uighurs, but at the same time told her China understood that she was in no position to do anything about it.
If almost two decades ago such was the strength of the Islamist radicals in Pakistan, one can imagine how much it has grown in these interim years when the Pakistan government and the army used them as strategic elements in pursuance of their foreign policy with India and Afghanistan.
Governor Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri claims that he acted on his own. The claim, however, is highly questionable. Qadri was a well known hard line Islamist and an open proponent of the Blasphemy Law. He reportedly told some of his colleagues that he had planned to kill Taseer because of the latter’s views. In high security detachments such statements even in very small circles do not go unreported to higher ups. Qadri was not given other sensitive postings because of his views. How then, was Qadri, attached to Governor Taseer when all facts were known?
What is shocking is that the PPP leaders fell short of condemning Qadri for his devilish act against one of their own. The only lengthy condemnation came from the 19 year old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the elected Chairman of the PPP and son of Benazir and President Asif Ali Zardari, who is yet to get into the thick of Pakistan’s politics. He is currently a student in London. Pakistan’s political leaders fell into a deep stupor apparently fearing the awesome threat from the Islamists.
The myth of the inconsequence of Pakistan’s Islamic radicals because they cannot garner more than two percent of the popular votes in elections has now been blown. It appears that the radical voters do not deliberately elect the Mullas to the Provincial and National Assemblies because they are not good politicians. Instead, they vote for those who would bow to the diktats of these Mullas.
The public demonstrations following the assassination of Salman Taseer supporting the cause and person of his killer is fearsome. The government had to enlist one of their own religious figures to consecrate the burial of Salman Taseer, because the large majority of the religious personages refused to do it. More than one thousand lawyers, some of who fought in the name of democracy to reinstate Chief Justice Iftakar Choudhury dismissed by President Musharraf, and were instrumental in bringing down Musharraf, have offered to fight the killer Qadri’s case pro bono. In Karachi, a procession of more than 40 thousand was taken out to congratulate Qadri. Save for a few newspapers like The News, The Dawn and the Daily Times, most others especially the Urdu publications and television talk shows appeared to support Qadri and the Blasphemy Law.
There has, however, been no comment from the Army. The Army Chief Gen. Asfaq Kayani, as a matter of principle, does not comment on internal issues. His views are articulated by the impotent government led by President Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. And they have made their views through silence.
The power of the radicals was demonstrated following the Taseer episode would be of serious concern to the US and Afghanistan. The Pakistan Army, which dictates the country’s Afghan policy, promotes the radical Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani clique and others who are fighting President Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government and the US and the International Security force in Afghanistan. For the Pakistani military establishment these radical forces are key to future Pakistani dominance in Afghanistan. The new radical upsurge in Pakistan is a bonus to the Pakistani armed forces, especially Gen. Kayani.
What can Pakistan’s liberals and forward looking sections do under such circumstances? They find that their own citadel has been subverted. The liberal United States’ perception that they can win over hearts and minds in Pakistan is a non-starter. Their lavish economic and military aid to Pakistan is being usurped by those who are working against US interest.
If the Pakistani god-fathers of deliberately misconstrued Islam think they can incite India’s 160 million Muslims to rise against the State, they are sorely mistaken. There are some who enticed by money can cause some irritations. The Indian Muslims are Muslims and Indians. They have risen to the highest positions in India like President and Chief Justice as well as Generals in the army. They are as equal to Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Jews and any other faith. The Indian constitution does not differentiate between religions. Now even some Kashmiri separatists are blaming Pakistan for the woes in Kashmir.
To conclude, one must quote Pakistani writer Feroz Khan’s article (January 10): “It is a country ruled by the emotions of a mob driven insane by its own self- created versions of a religion that is militaristic by its outlooks”………… “Pakistan is an experiment in the making of an unholy Kingdom of heaven on earth. There is no soul left to fight for Pakistan”.
There is nothing more poignant, nothing more soul searching, than the words of Feroz Khan.
Is anyone listening? Let Pakistan not be made a Great Game between the United States and China. If they do, both will suffer eventually, and the region will be reduced to a powder keg.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi.Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)