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A peacemaker from Pakistan

Print edition : Aug 15, 2003 T+T-

Atal Bihari Vajpayee's peace initiative brings to India an unlikely visitor, Jamaat-e-Ullema Islam leader Fazl-ur-Rahman, heading a Pakistani parliamentary delegation. But, apart from the hype, what has the visit actually achieved?

in New Delhi

JUST when the passengers on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's peace bus were starting to suspect that their driver did not know where he was headed, he gave them just the reassurance they needed. In June, a burly passenger from Pakistan came on board, a development that is being cited as evidence that a cross-border political consensus for peace is developing. Jamaat-e-Ullema Islam (JUI) leader Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman, an unembarrassed Taliban enthusiast who almost became Prime Minister of Pakistan last year, seems the best possible advocate for the dialogue process initiated by Vajpayee in May. The argument is if powerful pro-Taliban figures start calling for India-Pakistan peace, can the Pakistan military establishment be far behind?

Nothing, however, is as simple as it seems. For one, as Fazl-ur-Rahman himself pointed out in an exclusive interview to Frontline, many of his supposedly sensational pro-India statements on Jammu and Kashmir were in fact the inventions of headline writers. He did not, for example, say that he advocated acceptance of the Line of Control (LoC) as a final-status solution for the State. What Fazl-ur-Rahman did say was that any solution to the problem of Jammu and Kashmir that the governments of India and Pakistan could mutually agree on was acceptable to him as well. Asked by a journalist if this included the Line of Control, he repeated his answer without elaboration. And he did not, quite notably, suggest on Indian soil that terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir should end violence, and argued instead that peace would come of its own once their grievances were addressed. His call for terrorists to end armed struggle was made only after he returned to Pakistan, suggesting perhaps that it was not directed at ethnic-Kashmir groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen.

More important, no one is certain just what the JUI leader's visit in fact signals, though most commentators seem to agree that his presence in India had high-level official blessing. Each proposition on the Maulana's motives can, however, be met by counter-arguments. Was he acting as a front for the military regime in Pakistan? If so, he was an odd choice, for Fazl-ur-Rahman is at the cutting edge of efforts to force General Pervez Musharraf to resign either as Chief of the Army Staff or Pakistan President. Was the visit in response to pressure from the United States, which is believed to have been behind the denial of the Prime Minister's post to Fazl-ur-Rahman? If so, why did Fazl-ur-Rahman criticise U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq? Or were jehadi forces in Pakistan, by carrying out the terrorist attacks in Katra and Tanda, signalling that India ought to talk to them, and not to the military regime? Again, if so, why the Lashkar-e-Toiba front organisation that executed the attacks claim that its actions were a response to Fazl-ur-Rahman's "provocative remarks"?

What seems probable is that Fazl-ur-Rahman was seeking to cut through the formal confines of the India-Pakistan diplomatic relationship, to address the communal confrontation that underpins the engagement of the two countries. While his meetings with both Vajpayee and Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi were broadly political, his meetings with Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief K.S. Sudarshan and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders Acharya Giriraj Kishore and Vishnu Hari Dalmia were more interesting. Fazl-ur-Rahman is believed to have directly asked the three Hindutva hawks just how many mosques they laid claim to; newspapers have widely reported that he responded to their answer with a surprised "just three?"

The meeting might signal that the Islamist Right in Pakistan has decided to go over the head of the political establishment, and speak to the Hindu clerics who they believe actually control the levers of power in New Delhi.

But why would an Islamist leader with well-documented connections with the terrorist Harkat-ul-Mujahideen want to do any such thing? Part of the problem is that much of the Indian media discourse on the issue has conflated the JUI's support for the Taliban, and its stand on Jammu and Kashmir. The JUI supports the Harkat, but its connections were forged in Afghanistan, not in the Kashmir Valley. Clerics at JUI-controlled mosques in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir have instructions not to allow organisations other than the Harkat to use their premises for propaganda or fund-raising. Unlike senior Jamaat-e-Islami leaders such as Qazi Husain Ahmad, Fazl-ur-Rahman's endorsement of the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir has at best been qualified; it is, in fact, an issue he has rarely addressed.

During his last visit to India, which came in the midst of the 1995 kidnapping of Western tourists by a Harkat-ul-Ansar front organisation, Fazl-ur-Rahman profoundly embarrassed the Pakistani establishment with an offer to use his influence to secure their release. That blew apart official Pakistani claims that the kidnappers' bosses did not operate from their soil.

Part of the problem might be that Fazl-ur-Rahman's comments have a political meaning that is very different from that Indian commentators have vested in them. While Jammu and Kashmir might be a core issue for Pakistan and a key issue for India, it is, at best, of limited interest to the JUI chief. Unnoticed by the Indian media, the JUI leader has said little during his visit to India that he has not said several times in the past. Fazl-ur-Rahman, the journalist Mohammad Amir Rana has noted in his encyclopaedic Urdu-language book on the Islamist Right in Pakistan, Jihad-e-Kashmir Aur Afghanistan (The Jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan), privileges the jehad in Afghanistan over that waged by Pakistani Islamists in Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, he has hesitated to describe the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir as a jehad. "The battle in Kashmir is only for land," Rana's book records the JUI leader as saying, "so we prefer the jehad in Afghanistan."

Understanding this world-view - which endorses the Taliban, but seems to reject the ideologically similar Lashkar-e-Toiba, for example - requires an engagement with the JUI's complex history. The JUI's parent body in pre-Partition India, the Jamaat-e-Ullema-i-Hind, rejected the notion of Pakistan. In 1938, its leader, Maulana Madani, asserted that "nations are determined by their homeland", and that "race and religion do not make a nation." Positions like these stemmed from its deep traditionalist conservatism, which was at odds with the theology espoused by Islamist ideologues calling for Pakistan. The previous year, the Jamaat-e-Ullema-i-Hind had, acting on the advice of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, formally backed the Congress. In 1941, far-right elements of the Muslim clergy broke away from the Jamaat-e-Ullema-i-Hind, and formed the Jamaat-e-Islami which, like the modern JUI, wields considerable influence in Pakistan.

After the formation of Pakistan, the JUI energetically campaigned against what it perceived as un-Islamic provisions of the new Constitution. After martial law was imposed in 1958, the JUI as a consequence found itself drawn into a confrontation with the dictator Ayub Khan. The JUI survived Khan's legendary loathing for the clerics, and after the 1970 elections emerged as a major force in Baluchistan and the Frontier Province. Fazl-ur-Rahman's father, Maulana Mufti Mahmood, briefly became Chief Minister of the Frontier Province. Its struggle for the creation of Islamic statutes led it into further confrontation with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but the JUI stopped short of assisting a military overthrow of the regime. Indeed, at the time of General Zia-ul-Haq's coup against the Bhutto regime, the JUI claims to have been engaged in near-complete negotiations to end the standoff by adding Islamic statutes to the Constitution.

Fazl-ur-Rahman promptly backed the anti-Zia Movement for the Restoration for Democracy - a sharp and courageous departure from the position taken by the vast bulk of clerics in Pakistan. His decision enraged others within the JUI, notably Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, who formed a rival faction. Over time, Fazl-ur-Rahman came to control the mass of the pre-split JUI's assets. The Islamist organisation today runs some 1,500 seminaries, evenly divided between the Frontier Province, Sindh and Punjab. The seminaries supply cadre to the official armed wing of the JUI, the Ansar-ul-Islam. Apart from its well-documented links with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Taliban, many senior JUI figures have participated in the activities of sectarian terrorist organisations in Pakistan, such as the Sipah Sahaban, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Tehreek Khuddam Ahl-e-Sunnat, and the Tehreek Difah Sahaba. These groups have waged a long-running and often murderous campaign against the Shia minority in Pakistan, and other minorities they accuse of apostasy.

Historically speaking, the JUI's principal adversary was Western materialism and imperialism. Islamic traditionalists opposed reformists like Sir Sayyid Ahmad, the ideological fountainhead of the Pakistan movement, because they believed his reinvention of the faith in a pro-imperial mode would perpetuate enslavement, not subvert it.

Now, after the fall of Baghdad and the decimation of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Fazl-ur-Rahman may well believe that ending five decades of India-Pakistan enmity is the best hope, paradoxically, for the sustenance of his vision of Islam. The jehad in Jammu and Kashmir has done little for Muslims in or outside the State, but not a little to push India into the embrace of the U.S. That the JUI leader said what he did in India, braving scathing criticism at home, shows he means business. Now that he has crossed the Wagah border, he will face a sterner test: bringing other Islamists in Pakistan around to his point of view.

In the event that Fazl-ur-Rahman passes that test, India may have to consider the biggest question of all: Are out-of-control Islamists alone responsible for terrorism in Kashmir, as Union Defence Minister George Fernandes seems to believe, or is their jehad in fact merely an instrument of state policy?