Through Democracy Alone...

Letter from New Delhi: Through democracy alone
By Kuldip Nayar: Dawn, July 7, 2007

ISLAMABAD is a broad city with wide roads and deep runs of thick trees and green grass. Houses are expansive, neatly tucked into self-sufficient sectors, with markets, eating places and mosques. General Mohammad Ayub Khan who founded the city had a neighbourhood concept, with people from different provinces and thoughts living as a community.

Lal Masjid, where radical Islamic students and government forces clashed this week, is one of the mosques not far from the diplomatic enclave, the president's house, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. The mosque has become more of a seminary than a place for praying. Nobody expected that the students studying there would one day copy the Taliban, demanding that the Sharia be imposed in Pakistan.

The posture of students, who have become increasingly militant over the last few months, would not have brought the security forces to confront them if Lal Masjid had not become a state within a state. The slogans of jihad against the General Pervez Musharraf’s government and the threats of using suicide squads were bad enough. The worst was when the students began kidnapping policemen to prove that their writ ran whenever they wanted to prove it.

When seven Chinese nationals were whisked away by seminary students, they went too far. No doubt, they were released but the government lost face because the Chinese government behaved as if it did not have enough confidence in the authority of the Musharraf government.

The students did not sit still and some 100 of them attacked the adjoining government building and a security picket. This was the official version. When confrontation converts into a clash, it is difficult to say who fired the first shot. Curfew in the area had quietened things at the time of writing. Except for stray incidents in Abbottabad and a couple of other places, the clash at Lal Masjid had no visible effect.

I feared a strong reaction by the religious parties or its conglomeration, the MMA. Apparently, President Musharraf had discussed the matter with them before taking action. Otherwise, the state governments in Balochistan and the NWFP would not have been intact since the religious parties rule there with the help of the Musharraf-blessed Muslim League (Q).

This also proves that the religious parties are opposed to what the Lal Masjid crowd, including burqa-clad women, had been doing. It is difficult to imagine what kind of pressures would be brought on the religious parties to part company with Musarraf. But the Lal Masjid incident has infuriated the radicals to do their best to wean away the MMA from the Muslim League.

The religious parties may themselves be facing a dilemma. They realise that the public wants a liberal, democratic Muslim state while the Lal Masjid crowd wants to impose bigotry and a system which people are not ready to adopt.

In fact, even religious parties have little support from the public. But for Musharraf's help in the last election, the religious parties would not have secured so many seats as they did. His strategy was to stall as many members of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the then Muslim League from entering the National Assembly.

The religious parties, which supported Musharraf in retaining his uniform, may not want to demolish their bridges with Musharraf in case he turns towards them if and when his efforts for rapprochement with Benazir Bhutto fail. Musharraf's confrontation at Lal Masjid definitely suits the PPP because the spread of radicalism affects the democratic temper.

Benazir Bhutto has been saying repeatedly that only the return of democracy — through free and fair elections — can stop fundamentalism from taking root in Pakistan. My impression is that once Musharraf contains the Lal Masjid crowd and its sympathisers, he might go for an election with Benazir Bhutto if possible or without her if necessary. He has realised that the genie of religious chauvinism he had released to fight progressive and democratic forces was not going to go back into the bottle and is turning its attention on him. Probably, he saw the ground reality when there was a fatal attack on him same time ago.

America may have applied too much pressure. US Vice-President Dick Cheney, during his visit to Pakistan earlier this year, reportedly reprimanded Musharraf for failing to rein in the militants. The CIA is said to have told Islamabad that the Lal Masjid crowd was being guided by the Al Qaeda and that the Taliban-like students constituted the bulk of the radicals.After giving an extra $750 million, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said that “the development of Pakistan” was what they had in view and it was spelled out as the defeat of Talibanisation.

Islamabad has itself been worried over a report which was presented to its National Security Council. The report, has said that the Taliban have reorganised themselves and their influence was spilling over to the areas other than those bordering Afghanistan, to the detriment of the security forces’ morale. The report may have been the last straw. It looks as if Musharraf had no option except to act when Talibanisation was taking place right under his nose in, the Lal Masjid in Islamabad.

Military action is all right as far as it goes. With a sullen middle class, following the lawyers’ courageous agitation, and with alienated political parties, Musharraf cannot fight the Taliban or their type.

This has to be done by a people who can be harnessed by political parties through a democratic set-up. Weapons do not represent democracy, public response does. In fact, the Lal Masjid crowd would not have gained importance — and strength — if Pakistan had a democratic structure.

Yet, democracy does not come by holding free and fair elections alone. Institutions have to be strengthened so that they can assert themselves. For example, the manner in which Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been dismissed shows that the president’s fiat rules, not the law.

Former Chief Justice of Sindh High Court Wajihuddin Ahmed has aptly said: “If the full court restores the Chief Justice, it would be a salutary step in the direction of an independent judiciary. If that comes about, it is a bitter pill that those in power have to swallow. A bitter pill because they are not used to dealing with an independent judiciary. They will need to make changes in order to be able to live with it, and they will have to live it.”

Unless democracy is restored in Pakistan to full length — Washington should note it — religious militancy cannot be fought. Today there is one Lal Masjid, tomorrow there will be many more. Only democratic credentials can retrieve Pakistan.

The writer is a senior columnist based in New Delhi

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