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Fear reigns

Published : Apr 08, 2011 00:00 IST

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Pakistan: The two recent assassinations bring into sharp focus the radicalisation of society and the retreat of the powers that be.

in Islamabad

COMPARISONS are odious but inevitable when two high-profile assassinations take place in a country within a span of two months and purportedly for the same reason. So while there are a lot of similarities between the assassinations of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and the country's Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the general perception in Pakistan is that the international response has been sharper after the Minister's killing because of his religion.

But to view Bhatti's assassination only through the prism of faith he was a Christian would be to limit the scale of the problem facing the country. If it were only about minority rights, then this is an issue almost as old as Pakistan itself as the Constitution has put minorities a notch below the Muslim majority by mandating that only Muslims can become the President or the Prime Minister of the country. And, the blasphemy law in which both the assassinated politicians from the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) had sought to usher in changes to prevent its misuse has been a contentious issue for years.

At stake is the larger issue of the right to differ and speak up without fear, and this cuts across all faiths as the two assassinations make amply clear. As one civil society activist put it: Everyone needs to understand including Pakistanis that all of us citizens of Pakistan are under attack and threatened by extremist factions and religious political parties, who are actually playing out a political power game of trying to gain absolute and total power by killing people to silence the majority from speaking out.''

More worrying is the extent of the radicalisation. Though the religious political parties do not count for much in legislatures, their hold over society is clearly evident. This has put a question mark on the widely held perception that Pakistan despite the jehadist elements is peopled by a moderate majority. Gone is the myth that religious fundamentalism is the domain of the unlettered masses. The Facebook pages created in the wake of Taseer's assassination in support of the assassin were crowded by the English-speaking blogging generation with access to computers and Blackberrys.

As the human rights activist I.A. Rehman wrote in The Dawn, that some elements in the mute majority' have now become bold enough to proclaim their sympathies with the militants by declining to condemn acts of terrorism by refusing to join funeral prayers or make gestures of condolence for victims of absolutely indefensible murders, and by lionising an assassin has significantly altered the nature of Pakistan's mega-crisis.''

But the very powers that be in the Pakistani context it includes the Army also which should have been in the forefront of dealing with the crisis appear to have gone into retreat as the two assassinations brought into sharp focus the radicalisation of society. Even the Army as per the author Ahmed Rashid has not been immune as the Chief of the Army Staff, Parvez Ashfaq Kayani, apparently told Western diplomats after Taseer's assassination that the reason the military did not publicly condole with his family was that it could have caused a revolt.

PPP retreat

As for the political class, it went into a shell but for some lone voices, such as Sherry Rehman of the PPP and Ayaz Amir of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N). But each speaks in his or her individual capacity, and Sherry Rehman has stopped doing so publicly after fatwas' calling for her death were issued by clerics opposed to her bid to move a Bill in the National Assembly to amend the blasphemy law.

In fact, circumstances prevailed upon Sherry Rehman to give up the Bill after Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani announced in the National Assembly that she had withdrawn the draft legislation. Though Sherry Rehman maintained that she had done nothing of that sort, she said: But since the Prime Minister has announced that there cannot even be a discussion on procedural amendments, and the committee announced by the party to amend laws has been disbanded, then as a PPP Member of the National Assembly, I have no option but to abide by the party decision in Parliament.''

This was after Taseer's assassination. But the PPP's retreat pre-dates the assassination. When the blasphemy debate was prised open by the death sentence awarded to Aasia Bibi a Christian woman who is alleged to have made derogatory remarks about the Prophet in an argument with women from her village President Asif Ali Zardari called for an inquiry. The President himself a member of the minority Shia community also constituted a committee under Bhatti to engage with religious experts, intellectuals and others to suggest amendments in the law to prevent its misuse.

But as the religious' right-wing took to the streets and called for protests on Christmas Eve and a shutter-down strike on New Year's Eve, the PPP-led government reiterated its commitment to the blasphemy law and distanced itself from Sherry Rehman's Bill. That retreat was complete with Taseer's assassination, and now Bhatti's murder has put the PPP leadership more on the defensive.

In his column Islamabad Diary' in The News International, Ayaz Amir lamented: When Taseer was gunned down the government and the political class as a whole should have taken a clear stand instead of ducking behind equivocations, and the Prime Minister and sundry Ministers declaring over and over again that the law was not being amended. This conduct stemming from fear only emboldened the holy armies.''

For its part, the PPP has not publicly explained its move, but party sources maintained that we decided to cut our losses and make a calibrated retreat after losing two of its leading lights in clearly targeted attacks. It is the PPP Bhuttos and now non-Bhuttos which continues to spill its blood, a party source said.

The PPP's counter to criticism is to point to the record of other parties. Highlighting the fact that only the PPP and the Awami National Party which traces its roots to Frontier Gandhi' Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan have spilt blood in the war against extremism, the party stated: A tally should be made of how many politicians have died since 2007 at the hands of terrorists and religious fanatics. And let us see which parties these politicians have belonged to. Did the blasphemy law figure in the agenda-cum-ultimatum that Mian Sharif Saheb [former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif] was declaring to the government the very minute Taseer was being gunned down?'' According to the PPP, the government is busy walking a tightrope on an issue on which there are clearly two opinions in society. The blasphemy law is just one of the many fronts of a gigantic battle that the government is really trying to fight against a greater enemy, increasingly alone, subverted from many sides, even allies, insist federal government managers, as the ruling coalition is feeling the heat on various counts.

Party under siege

Under siege from the day it took office, the PPP has begun to feel particularly insecure after the two assassinations and the decision of the PML(N) to expel PPP legislators from the Punjab government where the two parties were in coalition. After relative bonhomie between the two parties for the past three years, this decision has brought back the spectre of changa manga politics' the Pakistani name for horse-trading of the 1990s. (Changa Manga a 4,800-hectare irrigated forest planted in 1890 by the British near Lahore to provide wood fuel for railway steam engines was used by Sharif in the 1990s to keep his flock of legislators away from PPP poachers.)

Adding to this is the PPP's problems with the Supreme Court, which has of late taken unfavourable decisions regarding the legality of contractual appointments. The Supreme Court decisions to dismiss the Director General of the Federal Investigation Agency and declare invalid the appointment of the Chairman of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) have raised eyebrows, if the editorials in leading English dailies in the country are any indication.

For its part, the PPP ruined whatever chances it had of redeeming itself with a usually hostile media by calling for a province-wide strike in Sindh on March 11 after the NAB Chairman's appointment was declared invalid. The opposition led by the PML(N) got an opportunity to accuse the President of giving the NAB Chairman issue a provincial colour. Provincialism, however, is not a new phenomenon as all the provinces in the country crib about the Punjab province's dominance in Pakistan be it in matters relating to politics, resources or the establishment.

Uncomfortable with the violence unleashed in Sindh by the strike, PPP sympathisers said the strike call was a knee-jerk reaction to the prevailing situation where the comfort provided by Nawaz Sharif until now the PML(N)'s position had been that nothing should be done to destabilise the democratic set-up had been withdrawn and there were daily run-ins with the Supreme Court. Such attacks from various quarters the religious political parties included feed into the PPP's historical sense of insecurity as the very same forces that ganged up against party founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and plagued his daughter Benazir Bhutto are back in action.

Seen along with the developments in West Asia and northern Africa, talk of a revolution has been in the air, with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) once again speaking of a French Revolution-like uprising in Pakistan. This is the second time in less than a year that MQM chief Altaf Hussain has called upon patriotic generals to lead a revolution.

Though all the conditions for a revolution are present widespread disenchantment with the government over spiralling prices, corruption, inefficiency, bleak economy, drone attacks, law and order, and so on the apprehension is that an uprising in Pakistan will result in anarchy as there are too many fault lines including the blasphemy law plaguing the country and society. And it will be anything but bloodless.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 08, 2011.)

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