Protests by the Right-wing Islamists, led by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah and its Islamist allies that disrupted daily life in the Islamabad-Rawalpindi belt, ended after the Pakistan government capitulated to the Right-wing Barelvi bigots demand that law minister Zahid Hamid resign. He was accused of committing blasphemy. The role of the Pakistani army was quite mysterious, proving once again that the military-mullah nexus, promoted by the former dictator General Zia ul-Huq, was active and flourishing.
Hamid’s resignation became the central demand of the protesters who had blocked a major highway and could not be dispersed either by negotiations or by the police. The court had ordered their dispersal and even threatened the interior minister with contempt of court, if the government failed to act. The protest leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, invoked an assurance from army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa while agreeing to call-off the protest. Surprisingly, the protesters beat back the police with a dozen deaths and hundreds injured. The whole episode again raised questions of Pakistani army’s intervention in domestic politics and the role of the Right-wing bigots and terrorist organisations, as allies of the army.
Last month, the government pushed through an amended election bill in the National Assembly amidst protests by Opposition benches. The amendment facilitated former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to regain his position as head of his PML(N). In the same bill, the textual change in the oath was made. Thereafter, events spiralled out of control, though the government backtracked. By then the protesters dug in and refused to budge. The Pakistan government sought the army’s help. The army’s refusal to help can be interpreted in two ways – the army being hand-in-glove with the Islamists or reluctant to use force against its Right-wing allies. General Bajwa went public by asking the government to resolve the issue peacefully and took the position that using violence against the people would be damaging to a national institution like the army.
Blasphemy in Pakistan has led to frequent killings and is also a tool for applying pressure by the army and its Islamist allies. Even judges and lawyers involved in blasphemy litigation have not been spared. The army leverages the blasphemy tool to intimidate anyone who crosses its path, including politicians. A stray rumour floated by an interested quarter can lead to protests and murderous assault on those accused of blasphemy. Hundreds of people have been arrested and killed after being accused of blasphemy, many on false and flimsy charges.
At the core of all these problems is the ongoing power struggle between the PML(N) and the army. The ouster of Nawaz Sharif as PM was seen by many as a backroom conspiracy in which the army played a prominent role. The army wants to see the back of Sharif but the latter is not giving up without a fight, relying on his popular political support. The army remains uncomfortable with any popular civilian leader. No PM in Pakistan has ever served a full five-year term. In an earlier era, the army would simply move in and eject a civilian government in the old fashioned coup d’état.
The direct coup is now passé. The army has developed more sophisticated methods of removing elected PMs who they feel have become too independent. Any PM who shows any independent streak in areas like policy towards Afghanistan and India swiftly becomes a target for destabilisation. That is how the army maintains its centrality in the power structure in Pakistan, with allies drawn from the Islamist parties whose agenda suits the army.
The military-mullah alliance is fundamental to the pervasive role of the army in Pakistan’s polity. This trend has led to many Islamist and terrorist organisations seeking the status of political parties, a move dubbed as ‘mainstreaming of terrorists’. Hafiz Saeed, the head of LeT and JuD, and an internationally designated terrorist, was recently released by a court, ostensibly on lack of evidence. The prosecutor was blamed by the court for not producing adequate evidence, undoubtedly under pressure from the army.
Saeed has now petitioned the UN that his name should now be removed from the international list of terrorists. Former dictator General Pervez Musharraf has publicly extolled the virtues of LeT and JuD and expressed his admiration and love for Saeed. Clearly, the army has been emboldened by China’s consistent support and is again trying to re-engineer domestic politics and undermine Sharif’s PML(N). In this current scenario there seems little hope of any improvement in India-Pakistan relations.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty is distinguished fellow, ORF, Delhi, and served as the last Indian Consul-General in Karachi
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