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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Army, religious extremists return to centre in Pakistan

The return of the Pakistani army front and centre to Pakistani politics will, once again severely destabilize the region.

Written by Jyoti Malhotra |
Updated: November 28, 2017 7:00:36 pm
The Army has always been Pakistan’s most powerful institution Khadim Hussain Rizvi thanked Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa for his “special efforts” in brokering the agreement. (Source: AP photo)

As India marked nine years of its Mumbai horror on Sunday, the mastermind of the attack Hafiz Saeed was released from house arrest in Lahore three days before, even as thousands of religious hardliners from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Party (TLYRA), brought Islamabad-Rawalpindi to a standstill as they protested an amendment in the parliamentary oath which says that Muhammad is the final Prophet (Khatam-e-Nabuwwat).

By Monday morning, TLYRA led by hardliner Barelvi cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi had extracted his pound of flesh. Law minister Zahid Hamid was forced to quit for overseeing the change in the parliamentary oath – this has now been returned to its original form, meaning, every Pakistani parliamentarian must return to believing in the finality of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon Him.

Leave alone the minorities in Pakistan, this deal firmly puts an end to any wayward hopes the Ahmadiya Muslim community in Pakistan may have begun to entertain of being equal to their fellow Muslims.

Towards the end of a chaotic year which was highlighted by the removal from power of prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the collusion between the Pakistani establishment – read, the ISI intelligence agency and the Army – as well as the religious fundamentalist Sunni factions to which Rizvi and Hafiz Saeed belong, has become as clear as light of day.

Rizvi thanked Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa for his “special efforts” in brokering the agreement. Late last week, as the situation around thousands of protesting hardline clerics grew volatile, it was the ISI spokesperson who called for talks. When six people died in the firing, the government requested the Army to bring back the peace, but the army chief said it would not be a good idea to fire on “their own people.”

The Army has always been Pakistan’s most powerful institution – more than half of Pakistan’s 70 years as an independent nation have been run by the Army – and it demonstrated its power this weekend. It sent its infamous 111th Brigade to the protest which had held the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi hostage for over a week.

Last time the 111th Brigade was ordered out, it was to help local police bring an end to the Lal Masjid siege in 2007, when hardline clerics and militants had threatened to take on the writ of the state from inside the mosque. The first time it was brought out on the streets was in 1958, when then army chief Ayub Khan deposed president Iskander Mirza.

The return of the Pakistani army front and centre to Pakistani politics will, once again, severely destabilize the region. When Nawaz Sharif was removed from power in July, on corruption charges, the army was widely rumoured to be behind the ouster. With elections scheduled to be held six months from now, question now is if they will be delayed, or held under the shadow of the military-fundamentalist gun ?

As for the message from the release of Mumbai attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed, the following is clear : Nawaz Sharif had thrown the man under house arrest in January, in the hope the Modi government would be persuaded to take up the talks baton. With Nawaz out, the ISI-Army have been able to persuade novice prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to release him.

Modi had had his own reasons for not responding to Nawaz Sharif’s gesture on Hafiz Saeed – he wanted real movement on the Mumbai attacks, to show his own audience that the BJP had done what the Congress-led UPA had failed for nine years, since the attacks, to do. But the prime minister also failed to see that Nawaz was under severe pressure and was even accused of being an “Indian agent” at home.

With Nawaz Sharif gone, Delhi must now learn to deal with a much more hardline Pakistan, one that has no compunction making deals with both Shia and Sunni hardliners.

From the political ashes of Nawaz Sharif rose the Milli Muslim League (MML), a political party floated by Hafiz Saeed’s men, which contested the Lahore NA-120 seat Nawaz had vacated. The MML candidate lost, of course – Nawaz’s ailing wife, Kulsoon, won — but got a sizeable chunk of the vote. Around this time, former Pakistani general and known India-baiter Ahmed Shoaib announced that the ISI had a secret plan to bring Hafiz Saeed into the political mainstream, and that the Milli Muslim League was a result of that.

Alongside the MML had fought another religious hardline party, the Tehreek-i- Labaik Ya Rasool Allah party (TLYRA). This had been formed in the wake of the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri in February 2016 – Qadri had killed former Punjab governor Salman Taseer because he had defended a Christian woman against the charge of blasphemy.

It is TLYRA, alongside extremist groupings like the Tehree-i-Nabuwwat and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan, which led the protests across Pakistan last week. It is now planning to participate in the 2018 elections with the blasphemy law as its main plank.

So as Pakistan celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, two conclusions are manifest. First, an extreme-right wing political group, hardly a political party, has forced the government to back down and got the Pakistani army on its side. Second, the release of Hafeez Saeed on the eve of the Mumbai attacks anniversary means that Pakistani’s ISI-Army is upping the hostility ante with India.

As for the moderate right-of-centre space once represented by Nawaz Sharif, it has all but collapsed. Certainly, Nawaz had once flirted with religious clerics, but had latterly decided it was his life’s mission to restore normalcy with India, while moderating the collaboration between religious extremism and militancy at home. In fact, he hoped the growing relationship with India would strengthen the centrist space, which would then feel further emboldened in taking on extremists.

In this context, the Donald Trump administration’s angry rhetoric on Hafiz Saeed is hardly likely to set the Ravi river on fire. The Pakistani establishment is quite content to ignore the Americans, because it knows it is a declining power. Moreover, it is backed by China in its gambit.

Nine years after Ajmal Kasab and his gang of nine held Mumbai by the jugular, the region has become a far more dangerous place.

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