By Nasim Zehra
The next morning, 12 hours after the top military command had briefed him on Op KP, the prime minister summoned key cabinet members to the PM House. Sharif chaired the meeting, which was attended by Sartaj Aziz, Gen. (r) Majeed Malik, Minister for Religious Affairs Raja Zafarul Haq, Minister for Information Mushahid Hussain and the defense secretary. The defence secretary registered his concerns, warning that escalation would be inevitable and the “Indians would not take it lying down.”
Gen Iftikhar complained that, without consulting anyone or taking any one in confidence, a “few paper tigers” had started the Kargil adventure. The foreign minister also reported that his ministry was getting panic calls from their missions abroad. Aziz complained that his ministry had no clue about this operation. Malik protested that he was Minister for Kashmir Affairs and he was shocked that he had not been taken into confidence. After hearing these outpourings, the prime minister contacted the army chief.
The army chief arrived at the PM House within an hour. There were only three people present at the time of this crucial moment of the Kargil crisis: the PM, the defence secretary, and the army chief. The PM asked Musharraf, “Did you cross the LoC?” Musharraf responded, “Yes, sir, I did.” “And on whose authority?” queried the prime minister. The army chief was quick to respond, “On my own responsibility and if you now order, sir, I will order the troops’ withdrawal.”
Nawaz Sharif turned to his defence secretary and said, “Did you see? He has accepted his responsibility!” Sharif, perhaps visualising himself as the ‘liberator’ of Kashmir, added, “Since the army is part of the government, from today onwards we will support the army.” After this rather brief meeting, the army was to get the complete support of the country’s leadership.
The public message at this stage from all stakeholders, in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and abroad, was identical: the international community must rein in India. The same day, the prime minister said Pakistan was committed to dialogue with India. On May 19, the COAS Gen Pervez Musharraf said Indian violations of the LoC would be taken seriously. On May 20, in Baku, at the Council of Ministers Conference, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Siddiq Kanju, asked the world community to help resolve Kashmir. On May 21, Pakistan’s newly-appointed ambassador to France, Shahryar Khan, assured his hosts that Pakistan was involved in “serious talks” with India.
Meanwhile, on the policy front, the prime minister, aided by his key advisers, made important decisions. After the May 17 meeting, at an informal huddle between the prime minister and his trusted men, Shahbaz Sharif, Gen Iftikhar and Chaudhry Nisar, the decision was taken to support the army. The three said that Nawaz Sharif should institutionalise the issue and bring it to the DCC. Several formal meetings were subsequently held. The informal consultations with his trusted men also continued. On May 23, a highlevel meeting was held between the prime minister, the COAS and the CGS to discuss Kargil.
In fact, once the cover blew from Op KP, the government sought regular military updates from the Kargil clique. The Kargil planners, too, were keen for a political buying to Op KP. The GHQ organised briefings for the president, senators and parliamentarians, which included special prayer sessions for the success of the operation. At one of the prayer sessions at the ISI headquarters, led by the CGS Gen. Aziz, the Minister for the Interior Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain was also present.
Stunned at Hotel Scheherazade
The prime minister sought an assessment of the situation from his senior diplomatic team before the Defense Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) meeting scheduled for the end of May. Accordingly, Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz convened a high-level meeting at the Foreign Office, formerly the grand hotel Scheherazade, to discuss the military and diplomatic developments. The participants of the May 23 meeting included senior Pakistan Muslim League leader Raja Zafarul Haq, Minister for Petroleum Chaudhry Nisar, Secretary Defence Lt. Gen. Iftikhar Ali Khan, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Siddiq Kanju, Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad Khan, Additional Secretary Prime Minister’s Secretariat Tariq Fatemi, Additional Secretary UN Riaz Mohammad Khan, COAS Gen Pervez Musharraf, CGS Lt. Gen Aziz, DirectorGeneral ISI Lt. Gen Ziauddin, Commander 10 Corps Lt. Gen Mahmud, deputy Vice Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Aliuddin, and Vice Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Abdul Aziz Mirza.
The briefing was given by Gen Aziz. Aziz said we did this to interdict the Siachen road, thereby forcing India to solve the Kashmir issue. Most of the civilian participants realised the scale of Op KP for the first time. They asked probing questions regarding the objectives of the operation. The army chief was asked about the objectives of Op KP and Pakistan military’s ability to retain the territory occupied across the LoC. The confident army chief’s response was, “We can defend every inch of our own territory and we are firmly entrenched in the positions we are holding in Kargil.”
There were many critics of the operation. For example, many questions came from Majeed Malik, who had himself commanded this area as a corps commander and, earlier on, as division commander. He said that, if Pakistan had to interdict this road, it could have been done from lower heights instead of taking our troops to the Kargil peaks, where the weather would be their worst enemy. Malik pointed especially to the difficulty of maintaining supply lines for the troops. The worried elderly Raja Zafarul Haq nearly reprimanded the Kargil planners for not taking others in the government into confidence if their objective were to highlight the Kashmir issue. All future action must now follow proper consultation, he emphasised.
The consensus among senior navy and air force officers was that opening of new fronts by India could not be ruled out. They asked why they had not been consulted earlier since any defence plan in case of Indian retaliation had to be an integrated armed forces defense plan. Criticism kept piling up. The deputy air chief also wondered, “After all, what will we achieve from all this?” CGS Aziz’s response was that, by applying pressure on the main supply artery NH1, India would be forced to the negotiating table on Kashmir.
Senior Foreign Office officials in the meeting warned that this operation would be indefensible on global forums. Additional Secretary UN Riaz Mohammad Khan categorically stated, “If it comes to the UNSC [UN Security Council], our position will be undercut.” The Chinese along with other UNSC members would simply ask Pakistan to respect the LoC and vacate the areas occupied across the LoC in Indian Occupied Kashmir, he told those gathered. Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad expressed concern regarding the possible expansion of the conflict and told the participants, “I cannot guarantee that India will not attack on the international borders.” The foreign secretary cautioned the army against repeating the miscalculation made prior to the 1965 Operation Gibraltar, when the key military and civilian officials had guaranteed that India would not retaliate across the international border. The confident army chief dispelled these concerns and maintained, “We can defend every inch of our territory.” Discussions bordered on being polemical rather than strategic. One of the generals asserted, “Whatever we may say here, our animosity with India is eternal.”
Those diplomats with an institutional memory of Kashmir questioned if the Op KP-related discussion could actually help to highlight Kashmir at the UN. Seasoned diplomat Riaz Mohammad Khan pointedly said, “If it is brought to the UN, our position will be undermined.” There had already been discussion within the international community about undermining the sanctity of the LoC. In 1965 and in 1971, when the Kashmir case was taken to the UNSC for discussion, the decision on both occasions was on the ceasefire and not on the Kashmir issue. In the case of Kargil too, had the matter been taken to the UNSC, it would have called for withdrawal and led to the further strengthening of the LoC. The army insisted that the line was fuzzy and in some places the Mujahideen were also involved in the fighting. When asked by one of the foreign office officials how the Mujahideen could fight so valiantly against the wellequipped Indian army, the army spokesperson Rashid Qureshi said, “Because the Indians from the plains are not acclimatised and they die!”
At the conclusion of the meeting, the three ministers — Sartaj Aziz, Majeed Malik and Raja Zafarul Haq — held a postmortem of the DCC meeting in Sartaj Aziz’s office. There prevailed a feeling among these experienced men that the operation was likely to cause serious military and diplomatic problems. Yet, sudden withdrawal, leading to high casualties, was not an option. Indeed, with the army already claiming it a success, who would bell the cat of asking the Kargil clique to withdraw? Nevertheless, Zafarul Haq believed the deficiencies in Op KP had to be addressed. The planners would interpret recommendations regarding the operation as a signal to continue. The civilian government may be held responsible in case Op KP failed. What followed could also be an army takeover.
The three senior ministers then shared their concerns and conclusions with the prime minister, who agreed with them on the need to take the navy and air force on board in all future discussions on Op KP.
Whose war is it anyway?
Around this time, Pakistan’s Military Intelligence (MI) also got active. Its Director-General, Major Gen Ehsanul Haq, invited the military attachés of Western countries to GHQ for a briefing on Op KP. The DG MI and the DGMO conducted the briefing followed by a question-and-answer session. The defence attachés left the briefing with the understanding that these senior Pakistani military officials had acknowledged that Pakistani troops were involved and it was not a Mujahideen operation. The Western military attachés, including the American and the British, reported back to their embassies and subsequently to their headquarters that fighting was actually taking place on the Indian side of the LoC. Publicly, however, Islamabad still maintained that only the Mujahideen were involved. The media, based on Western embassy backgrounders, reported that the DG MI had acknowledged that there were Pakistani troops across in the Indian side of the LoC. Interestingly at this time, Islamabad’s own diplomats, stationed even at the headquarters, were groping in the dark for information about the reported flareup along the LoC.
After the MI briefing, the US military attaché in the embassy informed his ambassador William Milam that fighting was going on on the Indian side of LoC. The American information until then was that it was a group of Mujahideen. The military attaché had attended the briefing at the GHQ given by the DG MI and the DGMO. Following the briefing, the attaches snooped around for more information. The military attaché met his counterpart while the political attaché met with retired military officers. With confirmation that Pakistani troops had crossed the LoC, the “really excited US diplomats” told Washington about it. The US State Department responded by issuing its first statement, calling upon Pakistan to withdraw its troops.
This statement prompted the Additional Secretary of the Foreign Office Tariq Altaf to call in Ambassador Milam and ask why Washington had accused Pakistan of fighting across the LoC. The US ambassador informed him that it was the Pakistan Army itself who had given them this information. Upon hearing Milam’s response, it seemed that “Altaf had been kicked and his face fell”, according to US ambassador Milam himself.
Following the AltafMilam exchange, Foreign Minister Aziz called the DG MI and complained about the faux pas he had committed. The MI chief said he had been misquoted. Nevertheless, the stories of the defense attaché regarding Pakistani troop presence remained in circulation.
Towards the end of May, the prime minister decided to take his cabinet into confidence on Op Kp. He convened a cabinet meeting at which the DirectorGeneral ISI Lt. General Ziauddin Butt was to present a briefing. Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad and Defence Secretary Iftikhar were also present. Although in his private meetings with the prime minister the DG ISI was critical about Op KP, at this cabinet meeting he presented broad details of the operation. He talked of the freedom fighters and held that the operation was progressing satisfactorily. The intelligence chief, however, opted to not share his own assessment of the operation. Similarly, the foreign secretary, who had expressed some reservations about Op KP at earlier meetings, at this cabinet meeting opted to pick no holes. He gave no hint of the operation being a potential source of any diplomatic disadvantage for Pakistan, and, instead, indicated that some benefit could be derived from it.
A barrage of hard questions followed Butt’s briefing. The majority present, however, was pleased with the progress reported on Op KP. The Minister for Water and Power Gohar Ayub praised the army for doing a “great job” and advocated support for the operation. Minister of Culture, Sports, Tourism and Youth Affairs Sheikh Rashid Ahmad also praised the army, while the minister for religious affairs said, “The time is now ripe for jihad.” There were also critics of Op KP. These included Minister for Communications Raja Nadir Pervez and Minister for Health Makhdoom Javed Hashmi.
The most vocal critic, however, was the secretary of defence. The retired general spoke for about 20 minutes, warning that Op KP would either end in all-out war or a total military disaster for Pakistan. … Implying that the army command had launched Op KP without clearance from the government, the defence secretary emphasised that the army was not an independent body and had to take orders from the government. He was also critical of placing jihad as the central element in Pakistan’s defence structure. He wondered, “Why have we after 52 years realised the importance of jihad?” The defence secretary’s brother, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, also raised hard questions. The thrust of Nisar’s remarks was that based on his information, Pakistan was heading for a military disaster in Kargil-Drass. “Who had ordered the operation?” the minister rhetorically asked the military presenters. Nevertheless, Nisar’s caution was against an operation already underway.
Some altercation among powerful men ensued. Reacting to the defence secretary’s presentation, the visibly distraught Gohar Ayub asked why the defence secretary was opposing the plan of the army chief. Sheikh Rashid also queried why the defence secretary was revealing “secrets.” … The prime minister called the meeting to an end. He was now facing a divided house within and mounting pressures from the outside. The Kargil planners, meanwhile, saw no reason to pay heed to any concerns expressed in the cabinet meeting.
A world of meaning in the name Ashok
By Gopa lkrishna Gandhi
We bear the names we bear forever. They are us, our identity. And yet they are the one thing about us we are not responsible for. They have, after all, been thought of, chosen for us by those who have named us — our guardians, parents, grandparents. In fact, by our generations.
And they have been determined by current trends, styles, preferences.
Ashok, as a name, is now passé. This is not said statistically but impressionistically. The school in New Delhi where I studied in the 1950s had many Ashoks in it. My own class of some thirty had three, one of them, Ashok Dilwali, being one of India’s greatest photographers today. In the class of a hundred where I teach today, there is not one Ashok. Nor, for that matter, in the university itself — of 1,400 students.
It could be just a ‘vogue’ thing. Ashoka as a name does not appeal any more.
But, first, to look at the naming of the first Ashoka.
The rock inscription at Maski in Raichur, Karnataka, discovered in 1915 by C. Beadon, a British gold-digger, that first shone a light on his name and honorifics, calls him: Devanamapiyasa Ashokasa. The one in Gujjara, Datia, Madhya Pradesh gives it more fully: Devanamapiya Piyadasi Ashokalaja.
Devanamapiya (Beloved to the Gods) and Piyadasi (Dear to Behold) are obviously names that he acquired during his regnal years. But Ashoka, meaning ‘One Without Sorrow’, obviously, was given to him by his family. Legend says, by his mother.
Generations of Indians named their sons and daughters after him.
Daughters? The ‘a’ ending in Ashoka when pronounced ‘aa’ acquires the feminine gender as in the case of the noble Ashoka Gupta (1912-2008). And she certainly did more than anyone can to stem sorrow. Born to the writer, Jyotirmoyee Devi, and Kiron Chandra Sen, Ashokadi was a freedom fighter and rescuer of women victims of the genocide in Noakhali. Later, she did more than any woman I know in our times to alleviate sorrow and distress among neglected and exploited women and girls through the Mahila Seva Samity that she founded. Jawaharlal Nehru was a student of history before he was a maker of his destiny. His daughter, Indira Priyadarshini, known to history as Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), invokes the Mauryan’s title. I do not think her father could have conjured that name without the Ashokan nomenclature in his mind.
Until a few decades ago, boys in Gujarat used to be quite frequently named Ashok. The first ‘Gujarati Ashok’ who comes to my mind is Asoka Mehta (1911-1984). The great socialist was born to the distinguished thinker, historical-novelist and writer, the short-lived Ranjitram Vavabhai Mehta (1881-1917), who is specially remembered for his as yet untranslated Gujarati novel, Ahmed Rupande, about a Hindu girl marrying a Muslim boy. And as the Gujarati litterateur, Tridip Suhrud, has unravelled, this Asoka’s mother was Shanta. Perhaps she it is who named him. A founding member of the Congress Socialist Party, Asoka Mehta kept a certain distance from Jawaharlal Nehru but accepted, curiously, a rather light ministerial office under Indira Gandhi. The other eminent ‘Gujarati Ashok’ is Ashok Desai (b. 1942), the distinguished barrister and former attorney general of India, whose appearance in Sakharam Binder famously led to the striking down of State pre-censorship of dramatic performances.
More recently, his advocacy in Nandini Sundar led the court to pass defining orders on the dilemma that surrounds the crossfire between violent Naxalites and vigilante groups supported by the State.
India’s other end, Bengal, has also had notable Ashoks.
Ashok Kumar (1911-2001), the great film star, was not Ashok to start with. His lawyer father, Kunjlal Ganguly, and mother, Gauridebi, named him Kumudlal but Bollywood renamed him Ashok. Not a bad idea that, for Kumudlal and Devika Rani would not have quite clicked as a pair in Achhut Kanya (1936). Ashok Mitra (1928-2018), a pre-eminent Marxist economist and political leader, was Indira Gandhi’s chief economic adviser, being succeeded there by Manmohan Singh, and then Jyoti Basu’s finance minister for 10 years. Ashokbabu’s acuity was matched only by his acerbic tongue, be it in explaining a nuance of economic policy or analysing recent history.
We are fortunate to have amidst us today, another ‘Bengali Ashok’, the theoretical physicist, Ashoke Sen FRS (b. 1956). His parents, Anil Kumar Sen (himself a former professor of physics), and Gauridebi, chose for their son a name from history over another from the world of science. Working in the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad and recipient, in 2012, of the world’s biggest science award, the Fundamental Physics Prize (three million dollars), Ashoke Sen is working on the ‘string theory’. I do not know and (given my cerebral limitations) can never know what the ‘string theory’ means.
But I am sure Ashoke Sen knows that in the city — Allahabad — where he and his wife, the physicist Sumathi Rao, live, is situated one of Emperor Ashoka’s most famous pillar edicts. And the life-career of this pillar contains what may be called its own ‘string theory’ — about a string of historic vandalisms.
The Ashoka pillar at Allahabad was used as a writing slate in the 4th century CE by Samudragupta of the Gupta Empire to write his own panegyrics in Sanskrit, describing himself as ‘Parakrama’ and the owner of a body which (in D.R. Bhandarkar’s English rendering) was “most charming, being covered over by the plenteous beauty of the marks of hundreds of promiscuous scars, caused by battle-axes, arrows, spikes… and many other weapons” received during his wars and conquests, including those of the south of India. The Great Gupta’s space-snatch was followed by that of the Grand Moghul, Jahangir. In beautiful Persian, this one was carved — jabbed, one should say — by the then Prince Salim’s favourite calligrapher, Qalam, to describe, in vainglory, Moghul lineage and a visit in 1575 to the sangam, of Akbar’s minister, Birbal. Actually, it does worse than Samudragupta’s engraver. It superscribes this right onto Ashoka’s text. It overwrites, by cutting its usurping text with cynical contempt on the Ashokan Edicts III and IV in the original Ashokan Brahmi. Qalam did not know — could not have known — what that Pillar Edict III says in Magadhi Prakrit. It says: “The following lead to sin — fierceness (candiye), harshness (nithuliye), anger (kodhe), pride (mane), envy (isya).” But if Jahangir had come to know it, he is unlikely to have been impressed.
Ashoka’s pillar in Allahabad became just a surface for others to try to immortalise themselves on.
And now, not on the pillar but on the city that hosts it comes the latest ‘bead’ on the ‘string’ of gratuitous replacements, displacements — the re-naming of Allahabad as Prayagraj. No one contested the place of Prayagraj in our psyche, least of all Allahabad. But there it is: Allahabad out, scratched out. Prayagraj scratched in.
This is not how it used to be.
The Republic of India adopted Ashoka’s lion capital for its national emblem. It adopted his ‘chakra’ for the central motif of its national flag. Its first president, Rajendra Prasad, renamed the Ball Room of Rashtrapati Bhavan as Ashok Hall. And the nation’s ‘peacetime equivalent of the Param Vir Chakra, awarded for the most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent valour or self-sacrifice other than in the face of the enemy’ is named the Ashoka Chakra — hugely imaginative!
The future of Ashoka’s heritage in India calls for concern.
For a certain kind of politician the Pillar Edict III quoted above will have no effect. And the following edicts of Ashoka would be a no-go: “It is verily concord of all religions that is meritorious (shamavaye va shadhu).” (Rock Edict XII)
“King Priyadarsin reverences persons of all sects… But the one root is the guarding of one’s speech so as to avoid the extolling of one’s own religion to the decrying of the religion of the other.” (Rock Edict XII)
“For upholding the dhamma I shall send once in every five years a class of officers who are not harsh (akhakhase), not cruel (achande), and are of gentle disposition (sakhinalambhe).” (Kalinga Edict I)
And he is most unlikely to name his son Ashok.
Vikramaditya, yes, or Harsha, Kanishka, Ranjit, Pratap.
As one may say in Tamil-English — chance-ay-ille.
Amit Shah more powerful than Advani ever was
By D.K. SINGH
“Who is Amit Shah?” ran the headlines when he was appointed BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh on 19 May 2013. Then-BJP president Rajnath Singh was on the defensive, arguing that it was “not a crime” to appoint Shah, an accused in an alleged fake encounter case at that time.
Two thousand days later – the landmark reached last Sunday – the rise of Amit Shah in Indian politics has been phenomenal, one of the rare instances of a political non-entity (outside the home state) making it so big on the national political scene in such a short time. Not many BJP presidents could claim to have the kind of aura and clout across the country that he has. Union ministers start shivering when they are called for a meeting with Shah ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle. In the past, many of them got news of their sacking from him only.
After Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, the only BJP president who is in so much demand among party candidates for campaigning in their constituencies is Amit Shah.
It’s quite an achievement for a leader who had been in jail for three months – in connection with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case – and who got out on bail in 2010 only to be told by the Supreme Court to stay out of Gujarat and given time till the next morning to leave the state. Few noticed him when he would get in and out of the Gujarat Bhawan where he stayed in the national capital.
Arun Jaitley, the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha at that time, was chatting with a few journalists in his chamber in Parliament one afternoon in 2013 when a bearded man entered and touched his feet. He had got relief from the apex court in one of the cases. The journalists present there recognised Shah but he wasn’t important enough for them to digress from an interesting conversation with the senior opposition leader.
Shah has come a long way since then. The last 2000 days have been a period of metamorphosis for him: from a reticent, seemingly unambitious state minister whose personal and political life appeared doomed after his incarceration in connection with fake encounter cases into a confident and outspoken BJP president who is now seen as the alter ego of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Another Vajpayee-Advani jodi is in the making as Modi makes a conscious attempt to model himself on the former prime minister, an RSS pracharak who rose over divisive ideology and politics to become a darling of the people as a ‘vikas purush’ or development man. Whether by design or default, Amit Shah is also taking after Advani of yore, a ‘loh purush’ who takes the hard line on issues perceived to be dear to Hindus.
When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat raised the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue in Delhi on 19 September, Shah ignited a debate on the same subject the next day at a book launch in the national capital. The BJP president has described Bangladeshi “infiltrators” as termites and made Assam’s National Register of Citizens a testimony of the party’s stance against illegal immigrants (read Muslims).
Soon, there will be a BJP government in Bengal and no one will dare stop Durga Puja or Saraswati Puja, he roared in West Bengal, referring to the Trinamool Congress government’s restrictions on idol immersion last year. In the run-up to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, he promised to ban slaughterhouses and liberate people “from the fear of Atiq Ahmad, Mukhtar Ansari and Afzal Ansari”. There are instances galore of how Shah doesn’t miss an opportunity to project himself as a hardline Hindutva proponent a la L.K. Advani.
Those who knew Shah in his early days in Gujarat say that he always held strong views although he didn’t articulate them publicly. He was a votary of a powerful state. Those old-timers also recall how difficult it was for the Congress to open its election office in Sarkhej assembly constituency from where Shah contested 2007 assembly election. He used to be a soft-spoken leader then, without any tinge of bitterness in his voice.
He is a changed man now. The ruling party he heads has perfected the art of using the instruments of the state while he has become unapologetic about his and his party’s pro-Hindu credentials. Opposition candidates find it more challenging to stay in the electoral game.
Shah is arguably more powerful today than what Advani was during the Vajpayee regime. Much of Advani’s larger public persona could be attributed to his image as a hardline Hindu leader and a Ram Mandir crusader. Shah can’t reach that status now even if he travels down that path. But the times are different now. Shah doesn’t need to.
Pakistan-A state in denial
By Saad Hafiz
Pakistan living in a state of denial of its extremist problem is old news. Religious extremists who are in the ascendancy hold the country by the jugular. They are allowed freedom to dictate their regressive agenda and demonise the most vulnerable in society on the back of black laws. This state of affairs seems evident to everyone, but to Pakistanis themselves.
The reaction of the state to extremist provocations now follows a predictable pattern. Initially with fierce rhetoric on ensuring the writ of the state, then meek surrender to extremist demands. We saw this absurd approach during the recent standoff on the Aasia Bibi acquittal. The state, through its defeatist response, essentially rewarded the extremists for their belligerence and intransigence.
The highly inflammatory, anti-army and anti-judiciary statements from radical clerics that incited the people to violence — uttered by anyone else — would have invited the full wrath of the state. Calling for the removal of the army chief and threats to judges of the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister are treasonable offenses. The army brass and intelligence apparatus are very tough with persons who question state policies. Non-Punjabi nationalist politicians, members of the press and civil society have found this out to their cost.
The coddling of religious extremists is an insane policy. It has plagued Pakistan from very early in its creation. The country has already paid a high price for using extremists as assets and proxies. The army, but also desperate politicians are guilty of this self-serving and myopic policy. It has contributed to a general lack of respect for law and order, domestic terrorism and poor relations with neighbours.
The extremists are adept at exploiting the divide between state and society. Their simple solution to complex social, economic and political problems is music to many. An effective extremist tactic is to accuse state institutions and individuals to religious and moral corruption. They demand the purification of Islam from corrupt western practices adopted by the ruling elite. And harping on about foreign conspiracies and agendas is part of their strategy.
Overall, Islamist political parties continue to perform moderately in elections, most recently in 2018, garnering around 10 percent of the national vote. However, the radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — led by clerics of the Barelvi sect — emerged as the top fifth religious party by vote bank in Sind and Punjab. The TLP is prominent in confronting the state on multiple occasions to further their extremist agenda.
The nexus of religion and politics has picked up a quick pace in Pakistan. The Islamist lobby is imposing their hard line views on religious freedoms and civil liberties. As a result, we can see the curtailing of personal freedoms and subordination of the role of women and minorities.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has also impacted the nature of politics in the country. Pakistan is being transformed into a hard-line Sunni Muslim state. Left on its own, the country’s small but vibrant civil society, active media, and established political parties are unable to halt the extremist advance on their own.
A chilling fact is that extremist ranks include young people from all social, economic and educational backgrounds. Endemic corruption and oligarchic control of the public sphere drives those disadvantaged by this system to look to Islam for salvation. The youth is particularly affected as the public debate is far removed from rationality and justice and more to the acceptance of a linear ideology.
It is too easy to equate the worldwide phenomenon of extremism to the rise of extremism in Pakistan. Firstly, Pakistani extremism has enjoyed state connivance to grow into a Frankenstein monster it is today. Secondly, unlike most stable democracies, the country’s constitutional and democratic institutions are arguably not strong enough to withstand the extremist onslaught. Thirdly, the extremists want to capture state power, which will have dire consequences.
Pakistan is losing the battle to balance religious tradition with the social, economic and political demands of the modern world. There is little support for a separation between religion and the state. Even fewer people see value in the idea that religion is and should be strictly a private matter.
Every country is entitled to create its favoured methods of governance. But Pakistan should allow its young people the opportunity to study the merits of liberal democracy and secularism. Just harking back for solutions from the golden age of Islam isn’t enough for a well-rounded education.
Perhaps the best antidote to extremism is to encourage free thinking and open inquiry. This progression seems the only way forward to pull Pakistanis out of the powerful grip of religious extremism.
It isn’t clear whether the generals and the civilian apparatus will ever find the will to turn back the extremist wave. They are perhaps afraid that dealing harshly with religious extremists could engulf the country as a whole. But to do nothing and stay a state in denial could mean the end of Pakistan itself.
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