India vision Don’t give up on Pakistan yet

Even after the violent events at Lal Masjid, Pakistan seems compelled to continue its self-avowed battle against jehadi extremism. If the London Sunday Times is right, Al-Qaeda has opened a new front in Pakistan and Ayman al-Zawahiri recently directed the Lal Masjid militants, including 18 foreign fighters.

By Praful Bidwai

Published: Sun 22 Jul 2007, 8:55 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

Al-Zawahiri certainly exhorted Pakistanis to revolt against President Pervez Musharraf. Since then, scores have perished in fidayeen bombings in the Frontier Province, Sindh and Islamabad.

Pakistan-baiters believe Islamabad's support for jehadi militancy has come back to haunt it; they're delighted that Pakistan may plunge into violence and chaos. But on a rational view, Pakistan now has a unique chance to embrace moderation and democracy.

Musharraf exudes confidence -- for the first time since his disastrous sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. He's trying to redirect the domestic debate from "democracy vs military rule" to one between "extremism vs moderation".

However, Musharraf is on shaky ground. He's responsible for allowing Lal Masjid to turn into a fundamentalist fortress. Had he acted resolutely earlier, especially after Jamia Hafza's students went on a rampage in January, he could have averted Operation Silence, which killed nearly 100 people.

But he gave the militants a free hand. It's only when they "arrested" foreign nationals for "immorality", and China protested, that Musharraf stopped appeasing them.

Meanwhile, there's political regroupment, with the formation in London of the All-Party Democratic Movement alliance between the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the religious parties' MMA.

Although Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party kept out of it, APDM's formation will make it difficult for her to cut a deal to return to Pakistan and contest parliamentary elections -- in exchange for supporting Musharraf's presidency bid.

It seems increasingly likely that the general will have to allow both Sharif and Bhutto to return and contest elections. The elections would have to be credibly free and fair in order to produce a legitimate government.

The only way Musharraf can prevent this is by precipitating a fresh crisis and declaring a state of emergency -- to postpone elections. This would only aggravate his crisis of legitimacy, and strengthen the jehadi militancy, with grave consequences.

It will also greatly erode his USP (unique selling proposition) for the West-namely, he's its best ally against Al-Qaeda/Taleban. Such a devious manoeuvre will probably prolong the stagnation in and complicate the peace process with India. And it will seriously weaken Musharraf's attempt to redefine Pakistan's political debate along "extremism vs moderation" lines.

There is an alternative. Musharraf can grasp the nettle by boldly opening up the political process and setting Pakistan on the road to democratisation, while decisively severing the quarter-century-old link between the state and jehadi extremism consolidated under Gen Zia-ul Haq.

This means holding genuinely free and fair, internationally monitored, elections, with the participation of all parties, which represent significant social groups and regions.

Pakistan's next, elected, government will have to grapple with the three major contradictions that have marked the country's evolution.

These include: tension between Islam as official religion, and the requirements of a modern state presiding over a culturally diverse society; fundamental imbalance between military and civilian power; and gross disproportions in regional power distribution, skewed in favour of Punjab. All three contradictions are interrelated, and feed upon one another. For instance, the importance of religion in politics cannot be reduced unless the state acquires independent popular legitimacy. A genuine reform agenda must try to resolve all these tensions. If Musharraf has an enlightened vision and believes in moderation, he must embrace this agenda with enthusiasm, and help begin Pakistan's structural transformation.

This won't be easy -- certainly not for a general who wields power by virtue of heading the army. As Ayesha Siddiqa shows in her remarkable study, Military Inc, the army is deeply integrated into Pakistan's economic and industrial power structures. It is Pakistan's biggest landowner. It runs vast predatory operations through countless enterprises like the Army Welfare Trust, Fauji Foundation and Frontier Works Organisation. It has an entrenched interest in maintaining these institutions.

So Musharraf will have to launch something akin to Pope John Paul XXIII's Second Vatican Council of the 1960s -- a quiet revolution in the Catholic Church to make it relevant to the contemporary reality of a diverse world divided along ideological lines, which judges faith not just by a theological, but a social, yardstick.

This is a tall order. Musharraf may never rise to it. But we must hope that Pakistan's intelligentsia and its more enlightened political leaders will take up the task.

India has a big stake in a Pakistan that pursues political and religious moderation, is strongly pluralist and inclusive, and is firmly committed to subordinating its military to civilian control. Contrary to what India's Right-wing "security experts" never tire of saying, Pakistan is not destined to be a military dictatorship.

Pakistan's Islam, like all South Asian Islam, is marked by Sufi influences and diversity. It's eminently amenable to moderation, modernism, and the idea that different religions and non-religious traditions can coexist and enrich one another.

Pakistani Islam's extremist reinterpretation is recent and artificial and must be combated -- even as enlightened rationalism is promoted.

India too has a vital interest in this outcome. Ultimately, its own destiny is bound up with that of Pakistan.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

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