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Pakistan: Elephant in the room

5 8

A discussion about the mutant growth of extremist violence and mindset in Pakistan is never quite complete without lamenting how, in his attempt to appease the right-wing opposition, Z.A. Bhutto and his regime started the rot. And also how what Bhutto began witnessed a manifold expansion during the reactionary Gen Ziaul Haq dictatorship.

But it’s been 39 years since Bhutto was hanged in 1979 on a seemingly trumped-up murder charge and 30 years since Zia perished in a plane crash in 1988. What did the state and governments do to rectify the Machiavellian follies of Bhutto and Zia in the decades following their demise?


Not much. The military establishment — which, till the early 1970s, had scoffed at the overt fusion of religion and politics — realised that this combination could be used to revive its political influence (especially from the 1980s onward). On the other hand, instead of at least trying to gradually roll back the rot, the politicians actually adopted the tactics of these two men.

A now deceased leading member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had once told me that when Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, was elected as PM in late 1988, and wanted the National Assembly to review some of the thorny constitutional amendments enacted by her father, and later Zia, her party members advised her to desist thinking about such matters.

This is how the late gentleman had described the scenario: “During a cabinet meeting in February 1989, Benazir floated the idea of starting a discussion in the National Assembly on certain religion-based amendments and laws introduced by Bhutto and Zia. But her idea was instantly shot down by her ministers. One of them said that if the religious parties were protesting against a pop concert shown on PTV, just think what they would do if we were to suggest the issue of these amendments and laws.”

Whereas Benazir decided to remain quiet in this context, her political nemesis, Nawaz Sharif, wanted to continue constitutionalising the religion-politics fusion. It was an attempt not only to consolidate his party’s religious vote bank, but to also neutralise the monopoly over ‘political Islam’ held by the religious parties and the immediate post-Zia military establishment.

During the Gen Musharraf dictatorship, certain attempts were made to get the assembly to discuss the aforementioned amendments and laws. In early 2000, he announced that his regime would “reform” the Blasphemy Laws. But, after facing a series of protests by religious parties, the regime backed down.

In a 2006 press conference, when he was asked why much of his reformist agenda (in the context of religion-based laws in Pakistan) had come to nought, Musharraf lamented that many members of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) had conservative constituencies and that they couldn’t commit to support the reforms because they would lose votes.

Things went from bad to worse, especially between 2008 and 2013. A weak PPP-Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)-Awami National Party (ANP) coalition government remained disoriented by rising sectarian violence, religious militancy, terrorism and a precarious relationship with the military. There was much in-fighting in the coalition as well.

In 2013, as suicide bombers unleashed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were blowing themselves up among men, women and children gathered at the election rallies of the PPP, MQM and ANP, leaders belonging to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the upstart Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) were promising that, if elected to power, they would succeed in brokering a “workable and amicable peace deal” with the militants.

Both the parties had also vehemently criticised US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Most talk-show hosts on several private TV news channels also backed the idea of striking a deal with the militants. This despite the fact that over 15,000 civilians, soldiers, police personnel and politicians had been killed in terror attacks between 2007 and 2013.

TV talk-show’s hosts and PML-N and PTI bigwigs often described militants as “our angry brothers” who should be brought to the negotiating table and heard. The militants had already announced that they would not allow the PPP, ANP and MQM to hold political rallies. The coalition had encouraged a wide-ranging military operation against them. But it had failed to draw up a parliamentary consensus on the issue as both the PML-N (within the parliament) and the PTI (outside the parliament) simply refused to support the government in green-lighting such an operation.

Till then, the military had been fighting isolated battles against militants which were often punctuated by ad hoc “peace deals.” But many such deals had continued to collapse. During the first year of the new PML-N government, the people were fed a narrative that peace with the ‘angry brothers’ was just round the corner, even when suicide bombings had continued unabated. The horrific December 2014 attack by militants on a school in Peshawar followed in which over 140 students were killed.

The country was stunned. The new military chief Gen Raheel Sharif had had enough. As PML-N and PTI waited for the other to fully condemn the attack, Gen Raheel bulldozed the navel-gazing “peace” exercise. He pushed PML-N and PTI to sit with all other parties and reach a consensus on an all-out military operation against the militants.

The operation was a success. In September 2015, newspapers reported a 70 percent decrease in suicide attacks. But there was also the matter of addressing the non-militant expressions of the same extremist mindset. This was to be tackled through a National Action Plan (NAP).

The religious parties moaned that NAP was a ploy to change the “Islamic character” of the country’s constitution. The PML-N government feared that NAP might offend its more conservative constituencies. PTI was never really on board with any such plan. Gen Raheel often exhibited his frustration. But the truth is, the many actions suggested by NAP can never be fully enacted without at least reforming the sensitive amendments and laws enshrined in the constitution.

Today, even when one batch of militants have been sidelined, another has risen, but this time armed with the constitution and men willing to slay anyone who even alludes to some reform in this regard.

It’s the metaphorical elephant in the room. That’s why, whenever the politicians as well as the military sit to discuss religious militancy, they continue to ignore the larger issue, even when it continues to trample them under its hefty feet.