Religious extremism in Pakistan (Part XIII)

Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964. Soon after his death, elements in Pakistan tried to start an uprising in Indian-held Kashmir by sending in infiltrators in 1965. ‘Operation Gibraltar’, as it was known, failed miserably because there was no assistance for these Pakistani infiltrators from the local population in Kashmir. The Indian army crushed the infiltrators and then launched a war against Pakistan. Religious symbolism and calls for jihad were used by the Pakistani military. When India launched its offensive, in his address to the nation, General Ayub said, “…The 100 million people of Pakistan whose hearts beat with the sound of ‘La ilaha illallah, Mohammad-ur-Rasool-ullah’ [There is no God but Allah and Mohammad (PBUH) is His messenger] will not rest till India’s guns are silenced” (Jafri, Rais Ahmad, Ayub: Soldier and Statesman, Lahore: Mohammad Ali Academy, 1966, p. 139).

The official media led the public into believing that Pakistan was doing well against the ‘enemy’, but when General Ayub suddenly halted the war and the Tashkent Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan, the public was unable to understand why Pakistan was forced to opt for an “unfavourable” settlement due to “objective reality on the ground”. Ayub’s foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – who it can be argued was more responsible for the war than General Ayub – saw this as a great opportunity to strengthen his political career after leaving Ayub’s cabinet and launched his party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). He shirked responsibility for this failure and instead blamed Ayub for ‘selling out’ by signing the peace agreement while omitting that had Ayub not signed the agreement, Pakistan would have suffered greatly. One interesting thing to note here is that although the public sentiment gravely turned against the US for not coming to Pakistan’s aid, there was no mention of how no Muslim country came to Pakistan’s rescue either. The notion of ‘Muslim brotherhood’ was thus not tarnished.

In March 1969, Ayub Khan announced his decision to leave public life and passed the presidency to General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. Yahya announced his intention to hold elections and hoped that all political parties would maintain the integrity of Pakistan and Islam’s glory. Yahya Khan’s minister for information and national affairs, Major General Sher Ali Khan, came up with a strategy that would divide the political parties. The plan was to favour parties committed to Pakistan’s (religious) ‘ideology’, engineer infiltration of the left-wing and regional parties by intelligence agencies, spread disinformation against them and mobilise attacks by religious groups against the un-Islamic beliefs of these left-wing and regional parties. The Ministry of Information also started a ‘Pakistan and Islam are in danger’ propaganda campaign, thus putting the Islamists and/or Islam-lovers on one side and the communists, socialists and secularists on the other side of the divide. The July (1969) Martial Law Regulation No. 51 included “a maximum penalty of seven years rigorous imprisonment for any person who published, or was in possession of, any book, pamphlet, etc., which was offensive to the religion of Islam” (Feldman, Herbert, The End and the Beginning: Pakistan, 1969-1971, London: Oxford University Press, pp. 46-47). This granted the state the authority to censor any material by citing it as un-Islamic, which consequently led to the curtailing of freedom of academic thought. There was great ambiguity about what constituted offence to Islam. Questions were now being asked whether or not the views held by the Shia community or the Ahmadis were ‘offensive’ to Islam.

Religious dogma was also being pumped into the political arena during the campaign for the 1970 general elections. The establishment-funded parties that advocated a religious ideology, Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami, greatly benefited from this, as it was campaigning for the protection of Pakistan’s (Islamic) ideology. The intelligence agencies colluded with many ulema to sign a joint fatwa that declared secularism and socialism as kufr, leading to a battle between Islam and socialism. This was to thwart the growing influence of the secular Awami League and the socialist PPP. Radical Islamists targeted the leftists in universities and trade unions, and the media was also largely taken over by such orthodox elements.

When the results of the general elections came out, the Awami League swept the polls in East Pakistan while the PPP came out as a winner in West Pakistan. The Islamist parties only secured around 10 percent share of the popular vote across the country. In view of Awami League’s clear majority, it should have been allowed to form a government but the military and the PPP denied the Bengalis their rightful share of power. Thus a military operation was launched in East Pakistan to crush the secular Bengali leadership, which eventually led to the 1971 war. In its editorial on March 31, 1971, The New York Times wrote that the Pakistani forces’ vicious military campaign against the Bengalis “in the name of God and a united Pakistan” would not be able to achieve any unity. To fight against an expected Indian threat, the bulk of the army was kept in West Pakistan, thus the army needed non-army men to carry on the operation. “The army decided to raise a razakaar (volunteer) force of 100,000 from the civilian non-Bengalis settled in East Pakistan and the pro-Pakistan Islamist groups. The Jamaat-e-Islami and especially its student wing, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), joined the military’s effort in May 1971 to launch two paramilitary counterinsurgency units. “The IJT provided a large number of recruits” (Jalalzai, Musa Khan, Sectarianism and Politico-Religious Terrorism in Pakistan, Lahore: Tarteeb Publishers, 1993, p. 258). Madrassa students were also used in the military operation.

The prophecy that it would be difficult to keep Pakistan united under the circumstances came true and after India intervened, the 1971 war resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, aided in no small measure by the atrocities committed by the radical student wings of JI, Al Shams and Al Badr. Yahya Khan was removed from power after the humiliating defeat and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the new President of Pakistan as well as the Chief Martial Law Administrator.

Having failed to prevent the dismemberment of Pakistan due to manifestly poor military planning and political blunders, the military establishment took recourse to the religious card to keep the remaining Pakistan united. “After the 1971 war, in the original country’s western wing, the effort to create national cohesion between Pakistan’s disparate ethnic and linguistic groups through religion took on greater significance, and its manifestations became more militant. Religious groups, both armed and unarmed, have become gradually more powerful as a result of this alliance between the mosque and the military” (Haqqani, Husain, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, USA: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005, p. 3). A socialist Bhutto’s ascendancy to power accelerated the simmering tensions between the Islamists and the socialists. The tussle became the key factor in shaping Pakistan’s body-politic in the coming years.

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