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Talking tough

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST



What President Pervez Musharraf, who is fighting on many fronts, has delivered is a stern message to the religious extremists in Pakistan, and to India.

"THE day of reckoning has come. Do we want Pakistan to become a theocratic state? Do we believe that religious education alone is enough for governance or do we want Pakistan to emerge as a progressive and dynamic Islamic welfare state?" Raising these rhetorical questions in the course of his much-awaited address to the people of the nation on the night of January 12, President Pervez Musharraf said that the overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan had given their 'verdict' in favour of Pakistan as a progressive and dynamic Islamic welfare state, as was envisaged by its founder, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Musharraf went on to unveil a drastic plan to deal with the jehadi culture that has become the dominant feature of Pakistani society in the past two and a half decades.

The President's hour-long address on state-run television and radio could in no sense be termed as ordinary. Although one will have wait to see how exactly the government will move in the next few days to implement the wide-ranging decisions announced by Musharraf, the President deserves praise, given the circumstances under which he made the speech.

Indian and Pakistani forces were massed on the border and various leaders of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ruling India had struck belligerent postures. Adding to the surcharged atmosphere were the observations made by Gen. S. Padmanabhan, the Chief of the Army Staff, at a press conference a day before Musharraf's address.

Musharraf was under pressure from the international community, led by the U.S., as well. World leaders had made repeated appeals to him to announce radical measures to take on the religious extremist elements and ward off the threat of a conflict. A delegation of U.S. Senators, which was on a tour in the region, added to Musharraf's burdens by issuing a statement on the potential of his address to transform India-Pakistan relations and help defuse the situation. The stern tone adopted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a joint press conference with Musharraf did not go down well in Pakistan. All these developments led to apprehensions within Pakistan about the danger of Musharraf giving in to Indian demands and compromising on the Kashmir issue.

There was little doubt that Musharraf was fighting on many fronts as he prepared for the speech. He had to do a delicate balancing act, and he seems to have succeeded at least in coming out with a clear policy pronouncement. He announced a ban on five jehadi groups, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which were named by India as the main accused in the December 13 attack on Parliament House.

The President talked tough - to the extremist elements in Pakistan and to India. He ordered monitoring of the by-and-large autonomous madrassas, which also served as training grounds for jehadis, and issued strict guidelines for running them and also mosques. He warned India against any "misadventure" and stuck to his stand on Kashmir. As for India's demand for the extradition of 20 persons mentioned in a list it had submitted, Musharraf ruled out handing over Pakistani citizens among them. He promised to act against the Pakistanis in the list under domestic laws if New Delhi produced proof of their crimes. Musharraf said he could consider the case of Indians in the list.

THE move against the jehadi groups marks a definite reversal of a decades-old policy of the Pakistan establishment. Even as the President was announcing the ban on the Sipah-i-Sahaba, the Tehreek-i-Jafria, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), the police were rounding up about 200 leaders and activists of these organisations in order to prevent a violent backlash. These outfits have threatened to launch a nationwide agitation and it would be a while before the government comes to grips with the ramifications of the 'wholesome plan' unfolded by Musharraf.

In a world that has a strong imprint of the events of September 11, Pakistan perhaps had no option but to reverse its strategy of harbouring and helping terrorists in the name of religion. Its own social fabric and economic progress are as much at stake as its security and international image. The education system is almost taken over by deeni madrassas and madaris (religious schools and seminaries). The mandate of young zealots trained in these institutions is to spread their narrow sectarian beliefs or kill the non-believer. These are beyond the control of the government, and some rich Islamic countries are actively involved in aiding and abetting them. The jehadi groups mostly operated as part of the private armies of sect leaders. They are responsible for most of the killings and other crimes in Pakistan today.

Musharraf targeted these groups from the start but was unable to do much in the face of their clout. His action against sectarian and militant outfits had three phases: the phases before and after the September 11 terror strikes in the U.S. and the one after the attack on India's Parliament House.

In his first speech to the nation, on October 17, 1999, he promised to ensure law and order and pleaded with the clergy to present Islam in a true light. It was followed by a programme to deweaponise society by collecting about 1.2 million unlicensed weapons. In June 2000, Musharraf banned the forcible collection of funds in the name of jehad and the public display of weapons. He passed an ordinance seeking to establish model religious schools with a syllabus that blends Islamic and modern subjects. The government proposed to make the registration of seminaries compulsory and launch a survey to document their sources of funding and the presence of foreigners on the rolls. But none of these measures worked on the ground, partly because the government did not go beyond making pronouncements. In his Independence Day speech on August 14, 2001, Musharraf banned two sectarian outfits and put another on the watch-list. These were considered to be cosmetic changes meant for international consumption.

The September 11 incidents forced the pace of events in Pakistan. Musharraf extended support to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, replaced the Inter-Services Intelligence chief, who was known for his pro-Taliban leanings, and announced the supersession of three senior Generals involved in shaping the policy on Kashmir. He ordered the arrest of the leaders of three major religious groups, including the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamaat-Uelama-Islami, on the charge of inciting people to protest against the government's support to the U.S. action against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. (They are still in jail.)

Following the example of the U.S., the government froze the assets and bank accounts of Pakistan-based organisations that were operating in Afghanistan. Two nuclear scientists were arrested and interrogated for allegedly helping bin Laden.

After December 13, the leaders and hundreds of followers of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad were arrested, their offices in different parts of Pakistan shut down, and their assets frozen. The ISI was ordered to withdraw its support to Pakistan-based militant outfits operating in Kashmir. The government formed a national committee on Kashmir under the chairmanship of Sardar Qayyum Khan, a moderate and former Prime Minister and President of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK).

To be watched now is the reaction of the banned organisations, which are armed to the teeth. The Tehreek-i-Jafria has decided to challenge the ban in court. In a message posted on the Lashkar-e-Toiba's web site, its detained chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, said: "I cannot change my course in the wake of trials and tribulations. I shall continue my struggle until the Muslim Ummah is liberated and Allah's word is established in the world."

According to reports, most of the groups targeted by the authorities have started transforming themselves into underground outfits. In fact, they have been trying to make themselves less conspicuous since the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan. Roadside banners asking the youth to join the jehad and boxes kept on shop counters to collect donations for jehad have slowly disappeared. The Lashkar-e-Toiba moved its base from Muridke, near Lahore, to Muzaffarabad in POK.

Even though Pakistan still supports the 'Kashmir cause', it can ill-afford to be seen as harbouring religious extremists in the post-Taliban days. Musharraf seemed to have launched a war against terror in his own country. But then came December 13. If the assailants' aim was to divert the Pakistani establishment's attention by provoking a war with India, they may succeed even now. The attack was perhaps a backlash of the extremist, terrorist organisations that were feeling neglected, if not threatened, after September 11.

India and Pakistan have been seen to be on the brink of war and their nuclear capabilities make the situation worse. Keeping an eye on the situation is the U.S., whose troops are in neighbouring Afghanistan. Ever since the September 11 attacks and the consequent war on terror, India has been eager to play a role in the 'new world game'. Just as the war on terror was ebbing, New Delhi witnessed the attack on Parliament House. India reacted strongly this time. A diplomatic offensive started within days.

Musharraf's address to the nation is an answer to all these developments. While reiterating his resolve to fight for his country, he has succeeded in giving the impression that he has not cowered in the face of India's diplomatic and military offensive. That leaves the ball in India's court.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 19, 2002.)



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