A home-grown menace

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

FOR the first time since Pakistan's independence, the establishment is faced with the prospect of confronting the religious (jehadi) forces in the country. Religious parties and groups have enjoyed a cosy relationship with successive governments since 1947. The governments banked on them to stem any crisis. In fact, most of them aided and abetted these groups in pursuit of their narrow agendas. As a consequence, religious forces have emerged as a 'state within the state', as President Pervez Musharraf put it.

Pakistan was born as a Muslim nation but its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, envisaged a "modern, progressive and liberal" Islamic country. Religious zealots, with liberal help from successive regimes, succeeded to a large extent in imposing their agenda on the nation.

Religious extremism and intolerance surfaced in the mid-1970s under the stewardship of Pakistan's first elected Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His decision to give in to the demand of the religious parties to declare the Ahmadi sect a minority was the starting point.

President Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator, took the process further through his programme of Islamisation. Post-Zia governments did not dare to reverse the process, and they continued to pander to the whims of religious extremists for partisan ends. The situation deteriorated so much that in 2001 the country faced the serious danger of 'Talibanisation'. Women and the minorities were the worst affected.

The clout of religious parties in Pakistani institutions is disproportionate to the popular support. Barring the 1970 elections, which were conducted under extraordinary circumstances, all the religious parties together have never polled even 5 per cent of the vote.

External forces have played no small role in the rise of religious militancy. Jehad (holy war) as a concept is a gift of the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. The Afghan war of that period provided an opportunity to Zia to legitimise his rule. With the support of the U.S. and its allies, he encouraged religious parties to recruit youth for jehad.

Billions of dollars and sophisticated weapons flowed into Pakistan during the proxy war, and these transformed its social fabric. Kalashnikov rifles and drugs became commonplace. Sectarian and ethnic terrorism made their appearance in the 1990s, killing thousands of people.

Musharraf was aware of the havoc caused by sectarian and ethnic extremists when he took over as the Chief Executive of the country after the bloodless coup that saw the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He announced an ambitious seven-point agenda against them immediately after assuming office. But his grand plans remained on paper. He developed cold feet in the face of the threatening postures of religious parties and groups.

Musharraf's failure can be attributed partly to his policy of not touching those engaged in Kashmir lest he would be accused of harming the "Kashmir cause". A case in point is the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which faced serious charges of sectarian violence in Pakistan. The Pakistan government's special relations with the Taliban militia prior to September 11 complicated matters further. Afghanistan was an ideal breeding ground for the kind of jehadis needed in Kashmir, and the government had no alternative but to look the other way even when religious extremists committed crimes. Before September 11, over 60 notorious groups of Pakistani origin were sheltered in Afghanistan.

There was a realisation in the establishment that there was no room for jehad in the post-September 11 world. At the same time it was also felt that immediate disengagement from Kashmir could pose serious problems within the country. After all, safeguarding the "Kashmir cause" was one of the reasons cited by Musharraf in support of his decision to back the Americans in Afghanistan. Mounting international pressure after December 13 forced Musharraf to rethink his strategy on Kashmir.

The enormity of the problem Musharraf faces can be gauged from the fact that there are an estimated 12 lakh unlicensed Kalashnikov rifles in Pakistan. No one has an idea of the number of religious seminaries. The estimates range between 15,000 and 40,000. Some of them fall in the category of 'jehad factories'.

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