Religious extremism in Pakistan (Part XVI)

After Zia’s death, the military top brass decided against imposing yet another martial law and opted for holding elections and transferring power to a civilian government. One thing that the establishment did not want though was to compromise on a civilian government going against its wishes, especially against its Afghan policy. Since it was apparent that the 1988 elections would result in the victory of late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, the military united all the right-wing parties under the leadership of Zia’s protégé, Nawaz Sharif. Thus the Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA), more commonly known as the Islami Jamhoori-Ittihad (IJI), with an Islamist agenda, was formed and pitted against the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) manipulated the elections in such a way that despite winning the majority of the seats in three provinces, the PPP was unable to form a government in Punjab, the most important province. Benazir Bhutto did manage to become the prime minister of Pakistan, while Nawaz Sharif became the chief minister of Punjab.

The return of civil democracy was a cause for celebrations for the Pakistani people, who had long been thirsting for democracy after having suffered immensely at the hands of General Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation during his 11 years of cruel dictatorship. The tragedy is that the 11 years of ‘democratic rule’ following Zia’s death were not much different from that of any Machiavellian rule. Those who heaved a sigh of relief at the end of Islam-infested-military rule had high expectations from a ‘moderate’ PPP, but the irony is that Benazir did nothing to reverse Zia’s extremist policies. Instead she tried her best to mollycoddle the mullahs, as she was the first woman prime minister of Pakistan and faced strong resistance from the religious elements. In the elections she faced an appalling campaign by the IJI aimed at her credentials for the office of prime minister because of her being a ‘woman’.

Her government did nothing to repeal the draconian Hudood Ordinances under which women who were victims of rape were being treated as adulteresses. Despite estimates that the population would double in the next 20 years if family planning was not introduced, Benazir did not introduce family planning so that the mullahs would not be offended. And no legislation was passed to end bonded labour. The Blasphemy Law also remained intact and the persecution of minorities continued.

“…[even] after they [the PPP] took power, the killings and intimidation of Ahmadis continued, while the Minister of State for Religious Affairs, Khan Bahadur Khan, declared that the restrictions placed on Ahmadis would not be removed even if the 1973 Constitution was restored and Zia’s amendments annulled…The Ahmadi organisation alleged that Bhutto agreed to keep to Zia’s ordinance in order to persuade religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) to drop their insistence that a woman cannot be head of government under Islamic law” (‘Persecution of Ahmadis and their Response’, Press and Publication Desk, Ahmadiyya Muslim Association, London). It was also during Benazir Bhutto’s first term that the anti-Salman Rushdie riots took place in Islamabad, where the American Centre was attacked. Some opine that had her government not been dismissed in 1990, her government “would almost certainly have had the Shariat Bill forced on it. Passed by the Senate in May 1990, this would bring everything from media to education to economic policy under the purview of the Shariat committee (an Islamic body set up in 1980 by Zia, chosen by the president) and enable them to question any government action” (Lamb, Christina, Waiting for Allah: Pakistan’s struggle for democracy, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1991, p. 275).

On the international front, Benazir tried to normalise Pakistan’s relations with India, but the army would have nothing of it. An insurgency was launched by the ISI, who “used the extensive intelligence and militant network that it had built up during the Afghan war to support a new jihad against the Indian forces in Kashmir” (Hussain, Zahid, Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 25). Benazir denies that she had any prior knowledge of the ISI’s plans vis-à-vis Kashmir.

Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed on charges of corruption by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan through the 8th Amendment on August 6, 1990. Fresh elections were announced and the stage was set for the IJI to form its government. The IJI issued an electoral manifesto that laid down its central objective as the supremacy of the Quran and Sunnah in every sphere of life. Nawaz Sharif became the prime minister in November 1990, and in 1991, the IJI-proposed Shariat Bill became law.

It was also during Nawaz’s first term that the ISI’s involvement in the Kashmiri ‘jihad’ increased. The ISI supported Pakistan-based militant groups such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The ISI is also alleged to have masterminded the bomb blasts in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1993. “The ISI’s involvement was not limited to India, however. Under General Nasir’s instructions, the ISI violated the UN embargo on supplying arms to the warring parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina and airlifted heavy weapons and missiles for the Bosnian Muslims. In 1993, several Arab countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, had complained about General Nasir extending support to radical Islamic movements in their countries” (Lodhi, Maleeha, ‘The ISI’s new face’, Newsline, May 1993).

Nawaz Sharif’s government was ideologically closer to the military establishment; thus it did not stop the ISI from carrying out any of its covert operations. But some of his policies did not bode well with the Islamists or the ISI. “On at least three occasions Sharif’s relatively moderate views on international affairs clashed with the radical pan-Islamism of his Islamist allies. During the 1991 Gulf war, the Islamists backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq while Sharif continued to support Saudi Arabia and the US. When Hindu nationalists in India destroyed a historic mosque [Babri mosque] at Ayodhya, Pakistani Islamists attacked Hindu temples in retaliation. Sharif’s government cracked down on the Islamists for attacking the temples. In the case of Afghanistan, too, Sharif’s government started tilting in favour of the moderate mujahideen groups though the Islamists and the ISI continued to support the fundamentalists” (Haqqani, Husain, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, USA: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005, pp. 225-26).

Due to Nawaz’s ‘relatively’ moderate views, which owed to the fact that he was after all an industrialist who wanted to integrate with the global economic system by opening up society, his alliance with the religious parties ended in 1993. Shortly after that, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed the Nawaz government on charges of corruption and mismanagement. Nawaz’s removal brought in Benazir, but she did not provide any glaring evidence of her progressive thinking in her second stint in power either. She remained hostage to the establishment and by virtue of that to the religious militants, who formed the military’s informal units to carry out jihad in Occupied Kashmir. She also adopted the so-called ‘strategic depth’ notion vis-à-vis Afghanistan and consequently abetted the jihadis operative in that country.


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