All of Pakistan’s problems seemed to have converged on Sunday with horrific intensity — a violent march by tens of thousands of supporters of Mumtaz Qadri, hanged last month for killing Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, from Rawalpindi to the capital’s high-security “red” zone, so out of control that the government had to call in the army; a suicide bombing claimed by a faction of the Pakistani Taliban in a Lahore park that killed more than 70 people, many children, perhaps the deadliest in that city since the 2010 Data Darbar bombing; an attack by armed men at the Karachi Press Club; and the roughing up of the well-known singer, Junaid Jamshed, apparently for remarks he made a year ago that were construed as blasphemous. Though Qadri’s Sunni Tehreek supporters are opposed to the Taliban, the incidents are not entirely unlinked. While Qadri is being hailed for killing a man who defended a Christian woman charged with blasphemy, the Taliban have declared Christians as targets. Sunday was by no means Pakistan’s worst day. The Taliban have inflicted worse horrors, including the 2014 cold-blooded killing of schoolchildren in Peshawar. But every incident goes right back to the Pakistani security establishment’s studied decision to use religious extremism and its foot-soldiers as a strategic arm in the region, and for nation-building — one goal feeding the other.
A functioning democratic government since 2008 has not been able to overcome the extremist narrative. If anything, the space for alternate viewpoints has steadily shrunk, from the killing of Taseer to the killing of Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi last year. Neither the Pakistan Peoples Party, which has sometimes called itself secular, nor the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (N), has been able to sell a modernist, progressive vision of the country. It is true that religious political parties do not win elections; some of them do not win enough votes for seats in Pakistan’s parliament. This is often cited as evidence that the entire country is not in the grip of regressive religious preachers. At the same time, it is a fact that 3,00,000 people attended Qadri’s funeral and hailed him as a martyr, an estimated 30,000 marched into the heart of the country’s capital, leaving a trail of destruction behind them, and are now camping outside the seats of political power, demanding that Qadri be declared a martyr, that Pakistan implement the Sharia, and Ahmadis be removed from government jobs.
It is not as if this contradiction cannot be resolved by a democratic government in Pakistan. Indeed, given the Pakistan army’s own long relationship with extremists, and its continuing desire to retain its central national role, only a democratically stronger Pakistan can find the way forward. India should hope that this happens sooner rather than later. Because on this depends, too, improvement in relations between the two countries.