Debating the dangers

Print edition : January 19, 2002

Of the revival of secular sentiment in Pakistan, impressions from a fortnight-long visit.

A TRIP to Pakistan, while troops of India and Pakistan were massed on the frontiers of the two countries, yielded insights one could scarcely have gained in rich nuances in normal times. There were, most remarkably, no cries for war or belligerent action against India. Nor were the political parties vying with one another in striking patriotic postures. There was no sign of panic. But there was concern lest the situation got out of hand; most thought that it would not. Regret was universal at what was perceived as India's recourse to threat of war. A good few were even bitter that Pakistan's nuclear armoury, though small as compared to India's, provided considerable assurance of security.

Human rights activists at the Wagah border on December 31.-ARIF ALI/AFP

It was on the issue of terrorism that one heard comments that find scant space in the Indian press. There is not one journalist of any significance, not one public figure of any standing - bar the 'usual suspects' in the jamaatis and jehadis - who had anything but scorn for the terror tactics used by these outfits within Pakistan itself. The 'fundos' - as the fundamentalists are derisively called - have overshot their mark. It would be premature, perhaps, to say that they are a spent force. It would be correct to say that their decline has set in sharply and public resentment at their misdeeds is now expressed more openly than ever before.

Sadly, the present crisis in India-Pakistan relations erupted just as Pakistanis had begun to ask themselves searching questions about their country's future, its recent travails, especially since the Zia era, and indeed, about its identity. As this writer has documented in detail in these columns earlier (''Secularists in Pakistan'', Frontline, April 23, 1999), Pakistan preserved, against all odds, a significant secular segment in its society which few in India cared to understand and appreciate. On the contrary, India's hardline policies and the Sangh Parivar's rhetoric harmed the cause of secularism in Pakistan. The truth is that in every neighbouring country in South Asia there is a body of opinion which admires India's democracy, its political and judicial set-up and its secular commitments, despite its failures and failings on each count. India has never quite appreciated the worth of such genuine admirers or forged hands with them. (The less said about the publicity-hunters who profess Indo-Pakistan friendship while espousing the hardline for domestic opinion, the better.)

Debate on Pakistan's identity and the danger posed by the jehadis had begun, ironically, after the military coup in Pakistan on October 12, 1999. Benazir Bhutto, whom the Indian establishment is busy promoting with utter lack of scruple, was a hardliner vis-a-vis India (goli chalao) and made an alliance with Maulana Fazalur Rehman's Jamiat-i-Ulema-Islam when she was in power from 1993 to 1997. The Maulana was made chairman of the National Assembly's Committee on Foreign Affairs. Nawaz Sharif was sympathetic to the Islamists.

General Pervez Musha-rraf began with modest efforts such as reform of the blasphemy law but was forced to beat a retreat. But he had, meanwhile, nailed his colours to the mast by revealing his admiration for Kemalist Turkey. He had to eat half an apple pie for this as well. By June 5, 2001, he had, as it were, come into his own. He bearded the lions (no pun intended) in their own den when he addressed a conference of the clergy (Ulema) that day at the National Seerat Conference convened by none other than his Minister for Religious Affairs, Dr. Mahmood Ghazi, in order no doubt to provide an opportunity to the General to speak out his mind. Which he did: "I would like to talk on that (Prophet Mohammad's message) frankly, simply and in my own idiom. I do not have a written text before me... How does the world look at us? The world sees us as backward and constantly going under. Is there any doubt that we have been left behind all, although we claim Islam will carry us forward..."

Little was left unsaid. But what was said is of direct relevance to us when we appraise the kind of person our interlocutor is. Is President Pervez Musharraf one with whom we can "do business"? Pakistanis will have to decide whether he can deliver on his promise to restore democracy.

"We claim it (Islam) is the most tolerant of faiths. How does the world judge our claim? It looks upon us as terrorists. We have been killing each other. And now we want to spread that violence and terror abroad. Naturally, the world regards us as terrorists. Our claim of tolerance is phoney in its eyes...

"Where do we see justice and equity? Do you see it? In Pakistan? Where? Look at the judiciary's performance. Corruption is rampant and misdemeanour the order of (the) day. Only sifarish works. Merit has no takers. The poor are oppressed. To be poor in Pakistan is a curse. Everybody oppresses him...

"This is the justice about which we brag so much that Islam provides. But where is it in Pakistan? And for whom? For the rich, maybe. For the powerful, maybe. What about mutual tolerance? It exists nowhere. Instead, we are killing each other wearing masks...

"We know and the world knows that whenever we took up arms for Islam, we did it openly, not hiding behind the masks, not through terror, not firing a burst and then slipping away. This is not the way to promote an ideology... This is sheer cowardice. Do it openly if you want...

"One example comes to my mind. One hears the boast that we will hoist our flag on the Red Fort (in Delhi). We will do this, we will do that. Have your ever thought of the consequence of such talk on Muslims in India...

"On the contrary, this provides India with the excuse to talk about you as terrorists and to tell others to declare you as terrorists so that prospective investors shy away from your country. When you kill each other, who will consider Pakistan a safe place for investment?"

He concluded by saying "above all, religion should never be exploited for political gains. Do not sully our great faith.''

The speech came as a shot in the arm for publicists who braved the ire of the fundos and kept the flag of secularism flying even in depressing times; most notably I.A. Rehman, a veteran of many battles in the noble cause, and Khaled Ahmed, Consulting Editor, The Friday Times.

December 13, 2001, had a mixed impact on this debate. Most argued that India's military moves deprived Musharraf of the political space he needed to continue his fight against the 'fundos'. But they stressed that considerations of prestige should not deter him from what he should be doing in Pakistan's own interests, anyway.

Significantly, in the clime generated by the intra-Muslim debate, the minorities came forward and boldly ranged themselves on the side of the liberals who, in turn, strove to offer amends for the past. Two meetings held during the writer's tour merit particular mention. In Islamabad on January 3, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute organised a seminar on the Blasphemy Law, which has been abused to target not only members of minority communities - Hindus and Christians - but also Ahmadis. Aslam Khaki, an eminent jurist and consultant of the Federal Shariat Court, pleaded for reform of the law so that investigation precedes the lodging of a first information report. "Even the execution of this law is illegal because Islam does not allow such harsh punishments." The court's position on that law, he said, was legal but un-Islamic. Islam did not allow such punishments. He mentioned that fear of reprisals from extremists deterred even judges of higher courts from deciding the cases. "We, the silent majority, have let them carry out their activities which need to be dealt with an iron hand."

The Concerned Citizens Forum in Lahore has been holding interactive dialogues since 1999. On January 5, it held one on the question which Pakistanis are asking themselves today - "What kind of Pakistan do we want?". The keynote speaker was one of Pakistan's ablest diplomats, Iqbal Akhund. Others who spoke were Khaled Ahmed and Group Captain (Retd.) Cecil Chaudhry, a national hero of the 1965 war fame, who is an educationist and peace activist. He is a Christian. M.L. Shahani, another speaker, is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, while S.U. Kaul is a social activist. The invitation card quoted Jinnah's famous speech in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, in which he said "...in course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense... but in the political sense as citizens of the state." The speakers pulled no punches. Shahani reminded the audience tartly that the Koran described god as the lord of the Universe (Rabbul Alameen) and not as one of the Muslims alone (Rabbul Muslimeen).

Two features of the debate must be noted. Not even the most ardent of liberals or secularists favour abandonment of Pakistan's stand on Kashmir. They advocate a compromise acceptable to all the sides - the two states and Kashmiris - and denounce the use of violence. More to the point, they remind us that in Pakistan, the fundos faced one debacle at the polls after another. They used muscle power to make up for want of electoral support. In India, they said, the 'fundos' are in power at the Centre.

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