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How Chinese Anger Forced Musharraf To Act Against Lal Masjid

(To be read in continuation of my earlier article titled “Musharraf’s Bhindranwale“ at the SAAG website.)

January 22,2007: Female students of the Jamia Hafsa madrasa attached to the Lal Masjid in Islamabad occupied a Children’s Library adjacent to their madrasa to protest against the demolition of seven unauthorised mosques constructed on roads in Islamabad by which President Pervez Musharraf often travels. The mosques were demolished on the advice of his personal security staff.

February 13,2007: The authorities agreed to rebuild one of the demolished mosques to end the library standoff, but the students refused to vacate the library.

March 27,2007: The female students, along with their male colleagues from the Jamia Faridia,another madrasa attached to the mosque, raided a house near the mosque and kidnapped a woman, her daughter-in-law and her six-month-old granddaughter for allegedly running a brothel. They were released after they repented.

March 28,2007: Some students of the two madrasas took three policemen hostage in retaliation for the arrest of some students by the police. The hostages were released on March 29.

March 30,2007: Some madrasa students visited CD and video shops in the capital and warned the shop owners that they should either switch to another business or face the consequences.

April 6,2007: The Lal Masjid set up its own Sharia court. The mosque’s chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, warned of thousands of suicide attacks if the Government tried to shut it down.

April 9,2007: The Sharia court issued a fatwa condemning the then Tourism Minister Nilofar Bakhtiar after newspapers pictured her hugging her parachuting instructor in France.

April 10, 2007: The Government announced that it had blocked the mosque’s illegal website and radio station.

April 25,2007: Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Qaide Azam), announced that all issues had been settled, but Maulana Aziz denied his claim.

May 18,2007:Some Jamia Faridia students kidnapped four policemen in retaliation for the arrest of 11 madrasa students. The prisoners were swapped after talks.

May 20, 2007:Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain visited the mosque and promised its authorities that they would be allowed to re-construct the demolished mosques, but on different plots away from the route of travel of Musharraf. The mosque authorities rejected his offer and insisted that they should be re-constructed at the same place where they stood earlier.

June 23, 2007: Jamia Faridia and Jamia Hafsa students raided a massage parlour in the capital, which they alleged was a brothel and kidnapped nine people working there, including seven Chinese nationals. They were all released the next day. The clerics in the mosque said that while they valued Pakistan’s friendship with China, they would not allow even Chinese women to work as prostitutes and damage the morals of Muslims.

June 25 to 28,2007: The Federal Interior Minister, Mr.Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao,visited Beijing for talks on bilateral co-operation against terrorism. Before the Minister’s departure for Beijing, media reports quoted a Pakistani official as stating as follows:”The security bosses of the two countries will discuss a list of 22 militants wanted by Beijing. These alleged militants belong to the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan, which is fighting for the separation of Sinkiang province.China has given Pakistan a list of militants who might be hiding in the volatile tribal region and conveyed its reservations to Islamabad over the involvement of some ‘hidden hands’ in the rebel movement’s affairs.China had earlier asked Pakistan to bilaterally explore (enquire about) these ‘hidden hands’ as the movement was a major source behind the unrest in Sinkiang.”

June 27,2007: The Chinese Xinhua news agency reported as follows: “China on Tuesday (June 26,2007) asked Pakistan to take further measures for the security of the Chinese people and businesses in the South Asian country.”We hope Pakistan will look into the terrorist attacks aiming at Chinese people and organizations as soon as possible and severely punish the criminals,” the Chinese Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang told visiting Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao. Sherpao’s visit came days after seven abducted Chinese –a couple and five of their women employees– were got released in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad Saturday (June 23,2007) night. They had been taken away from their residence in Islamabad early Saturday morning by Lal Masjid students.While appreciating the support of the Pakistani Government on helping get the kidnapped Chinese released, Zhou said China expected Pakistan to take active measures to ensure the personal and property security of Chinese working in the country.In response, Sherpao said Pakistan will take more rigorous actions to safeguard the security of Chinese people and organizations in Pakistan.”

June 29,2007:The “Daily Times” of Lahore wrote in an editorial as follows: “During his visit to Beijing, Sherpao got an earful from the Chinese Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang, who asked Pakistan for the umpteenth time to protect Chinese nationals working in Pakistan. The reference was to the assault and kidnapping of Chinese citizens in Islamabad by the Lal Masjid vigilantes. The Chinese Minister called the Lal Masjid mob terrorists who targeted the Chinese, and asked Pakistan to punish the criminals. Mr Sherpao, who must have regretted being in Beijing, lamely rejoined that Pakistan would take more rigorous action to safeguard the security of Chinese people and organisations in Pakistan. Of course, our Interior Minister knew that he would not be able to do much in this regard. The Government has not been able to punish the Waziristan warlord Abdullah Mehsud for abducting the Chinese engineers in FATA (Federally-Administered Tribal Areas). In fact given today’s political environment, Abdullah Mehsud may be more popular in certain areas of Pakistan than President Musharraf. The Chinese engineers killed in Balochistan too were taken by the Pakistanis who normally boast about China as an all-weather friend as forgivable collateral damage in Pakistan’s ideological excesses. While President Musharraf has confessed that Pakistan’s FATA seminaries have been sheltering Uighur terrorists from China’s Western province, Sinkiang, opposition politicians in Pakistan heatedly deny that there are any foreigners in the tribal areas. Out of all the relationships Pakistan has with other states, the one with China is the most mundane because it is not based on any intellectual or cultural affinity. It has been a materialistic connection propelled by Pakistan’s hunger for nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The trouble started with China when the Chinese were building the Karakoram Highway in the 1970s. Mr Z A Bhutto, the then Pakistani Prime Minister who sported a Mao cap on his foreign tours, had a hard time cooling down the ideological passions aroused against the Chinese among regional officials of the state of Pakistan. But during the Afghan jihad under General Zia ul Haq, China first began to feel the heat from our religious parties engaged in plans of reconquering Muslim areas under Communism. Trouble arose for President Musharraf too when Pakistan’s seminaries began to shelter rebels from the Muslim community of Uighurs from China. According to reports published in the international press, he eliminated 19 Uighurs at a terrorist training camp in Pakistan in 2001, at the behest of Beijing. The Uighur American Organisation in its 2002 letter to the then-Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, protested Pakistan’s deportation of the Uighurs. In May 2002, meanwhile, the Chinese authorities announced that Pakistan had detained Ismail Kader, a major Uighur separatist leader, at a secret meeting in Kashmir. In December 2003, Pakistani authorities stated that Hasan Mahsum, leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, was shot dead on October 2 during a military operation to flush out Al Qaeda elements in South Waziristan. President Musharraf, during his visits to China in 2001 and 2003, pledged to the Chinese leaders that Pakistan would never allow anyone, including the terrorist forces of East Turkestan, to use Pakistani territory to carry out anti-China activities. The Lal Masjid affair has now put the President on the spot. The Rangers have been called out in Islamabad, but when the mullahs gave warning that they would soon declare jihad against the state of Pakistan, the routine disclaimer has once again been issued: that the Government has no intention of attacking the armed acolytes of the seminary. One of the clerics has appeared in the national press in a photograph showing him surrounded by armed guards. The Chinese have been dumped again. Pakistan has always got into bed with the wrong states. As a warrior state intellectually wedded through the clerics to jihad and through some vaunted retired military minds to war with India and the United States, Pakistan has shown no inclination to look at China as a model for effective statecraft. Pakistan interprets its strategic geopolitical location as a disruptive opportunity blocking other nations’ access to neighbouring regions. Despite President Musharraf’s assertions, Pakistan still regards trade as an obstacle to war instead of the other way round. But China’s pragmatism goes against the grain of Pakistani nationalism; and there is no desire in Pakistan to embark on any cultural connection with a country admired only because it has supported Pakistan’s not so noble military adventures in the region. It is easy to predict what Islamabad will do. It will shove China in the box called collateral damage and protect the outlaws of Lal Masjid because there are too many people inside the establishment who want the clerics to win the battle of pieties. The government has so far done more to complete the Lal Masjid crusade against video shops than it has protected the inhabitants of Islamabad against violence and kidnapping. ”

June 30, 2007: On his return to Islamabad, Mr.Sherpao reported to Gen.Musharraf that the Chinese were extremely unhappy over the failure of the Pakistani authorities to protect Chinese women working legally in Pakistan from attacks and a slanderous campaign by the “terrorists” of the Lal Masjid and over the failure of the Police to make headway in the investigation of the murders of Chinese engineers in Gwadar and the FATA by the Uighur “terrorists”. Mr.Sherpao also reported that the Chinese suspected that the raid on the massage parlour was conducted by some Uighur students studying in the Lal Masjid madrasa and that the Chinese apprehended that Uighur “terrorists” based in Pakistan might pose a threat to the security of next year’s Olympics in Beijing. Musharraf ordered the posting of the Rangers, a para-military force, in the vicinity of the Lal Masjid to prevent the madrasa students from making any more attacks on Chinese women working in the massage parlours of Islamabad.

July 2,2007: The Rangers took up position in the vicinity of the Masjid and in the premises of the Ministry of Environment located nearby.

July 3,2007: The authorities of the masjid and the students of the madrasas alleged that the Rangers were planning to raid the masjid and the madrasas. They tried to snatch the weapons of some Rangers’ pickets and set fire to the offices of the Environment Ministry. There was an altercation when the Rangers resisted. A madrasa student opened fire from inside the Masjid injuring two Rangers, one of whom died in hospital. Hell broke loose and there was an exchange of fire between the students inside the Masjid premises and the Rangers outside, resulting in about 20 deaths. The exchange of fire continued throughout the day. The Government imposed a curfew in the areas around the Masjid, rushed commandos of the Special Services Group (SSG), which is Musharraf’s parent unit and very loyal to him, to reinforce the Rangers. It issued an ultimatum to the students to vacate their hostels and go back to their homes. The ultimatum has twice been extended.

July 4,2007: There was continuing tension, but no exchange of fire. The Government has claimed that the students have started vacating the hostels and that about 500 have already left for their homes. There are still about 8,500—-boys and girls—left inside. It has been reported that the Government does not intend raiding the madrasas. It is hoping to pressurise the students and the authorities to vacate through a game of patience. (4-7-07)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.)

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