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Terror becoming mainstream of Pakistan politics is threat to region

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The mullah-military nexus is the biggest challenge to democracy in Pakistan. Instead of looking through a narrow prism of military dominance, the Army must keep long-term national interest in mind

The release of Hafiz Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) and chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), and the launch of a political party by him, have aroused suspicion in India that our neighbour is trying to rehabilitate ‘good’ terrorists. A similar concern was raised earlier too in 2014, when the state facilitated his famous rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, where he threatened Ghazwa-e-Hind. Saeed has been one of the strategic assets for Pakistan, which has embraced terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

Mumbai terror mastermind Saeed is responsible for spreading the tentacles of Pakistan’s terror factory not just in Kashmir but across India. His organisation is supported and funded by the Pakistan Army, whose support to Saeed and also to other ‘good’ terrorist organisations is no secret. But what is worrying is the way it is trying to mainstream these terrorist organisations into Pakistani politics.

Pakistan Army’s desperation to provide political legitimacy to terrorists was evident during the two by-elections held to the National Assembly from Lahore and Peshawar. What has surprised the analysts is the number of votes garnered by the candidates of these Right-wing Islamic parties (which contested as independents since their parties had not been recognised by the Pakistan Election Commission), surpassing those of candidates of mainstream political parties.

Undoubtedly, Pakistan was born out of two-nation theory, as an Islamic nation. Its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, toyed between the idea of a modern Islamic state vis-à-vis a conservative Islamic state, but was unable to give a clear cut direction to the Constituent Assembly. Pakistan remained a dominion till as late as 1956 and was renamed as Islamic Republic of Pakistan on March 23, 1956, declaring Islam as the official religion, but did not take any further measures to adopt Islamic laws. Gen Ayub Khan (1958-69) and Gen Yaha Khan (1969-71) continued a secularist tradition and repressed much of Islamic political activism.

Islamisation, in the true sense, began in 1971, after the bifurcation of Pakistan since the political class sought help of themullahs to strengthen its hold. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who assumed control of Pakistan after bifurcation, could not withstand pressure from Islamic parties and declared Ahmadiya community as non-Muslim, besides banning alcohol, gambling and night clubs in the Constitution of 1973.  Gen Zia-ul-Haq overthrew Bhutto. During his tenure from 1977-1988, he can be credited with Pakistan’s rapid Islamisation and setting up the stage for the rise of Right-wing religious parties. Since then, the mullah-military combine has been trying to dominate the political narrative in the country.

Post Zia, the civilian Governments, led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif made no effort to undo the process of Islamisation set in motion by Zia. In fact, religious radical elements were allowed to grow and often supported by the bureaucracy, leading to large segments of civilian population coming under the influence of radical ideology. Political parties became dependent on Right-wing religious parties for vote-bank. Many Islamic laws were introduced during Sharif’s regime.

In October 1999, after leading a military coup, General Pervez Musharraf changed the very concept of democracy in Pakistan by legalising the role of Army in running the Government. During his regime (1999-2008), the final power did not rest with elected representatives of the people but with military officers and Musharraf himself. He gave a hope of checking the rapid growth of radicalisation and Islamisation, as he portrayed himself as a secular and moderate leader on the pattern of Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. After 9/11, under American pressure, he did launch a crackdown on thejihadi outfits but his policy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists backfired.  Musharraf, true to his character, was playing a double-game while actually remaining inclined to the Islamists.

Sharif returned to power in 2013 with a huge mandate, convinced that for once Pakistanis have chosen economics over religion. Sharif visualised that without changing the nation’s image, he would not be able to attract foreign investments. He decided to carry out political and social reforms, including secularisation and improving relations with India, for which dismantling terror infrastructure was necessary. This did not go well with mullah-military combine. The military also did not support Sharif. He was thus unable to deliver his electoral promises, creating disenchantment among the public. The combine also ensured his secularisation project fails, preventing foreign investment in the country.  In a survey carried out in 2016, it was revealed that more than 79 per cent of Pakistanis wanted implementation of Sharia’h laws. The Panama Gate scandal made Sharif a lame duck Prime Minister with the Army calling the shots.

Pakistan is not a country with an Army; it is an Army with a country. The Army maintains tight control over security and foreign policies and hijacks almost a third of the national Budget, leaving other Governmental functions starving for funds. Anti-India bogey forms the main ideology of nationalism in Pakistan and the Army has donned the mantle of protecting the nation’s ideology, thus ensuring that India and Pakistan remain foes forever, precluding any chances of improved bilateral trade, so essential for propelling growth in Pakistan’s economy. The Army harbours the ‘good’ terrorists and encourages radical groups like the Tehrik I Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, JuD and Difae Pakistan Council as countervailing forces to Tehrik-I Taliban Pakistan and other ‘bad’ terrorists.

The Army is keen on rehabilitating some of these groups following the strategy of ‘accommodation’ rather than ‘action’ to prevent them from challenging its authority itself. Sharif opposed mainstreaming and the Army successfully organised a ‘judicial coup’ against him.

Sharif’s ouster created a political turmoil in Pakistan. Mainstream political parties are struggling to keep their vote-bank intact. The Milli Muslim League (MML) and Tehreek-e-Labaik’s surge is eating into their vote-bank and the Army is hoping to further strengthen its hold over the Government through these proxies. Musharraf is also feeling safer with Sharif’s ouster and is planning a grand alliance of 23 political parties to contest the 2019 national election. And to ensure the Army’s backing, he is trying to woo Saeed. However, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is opposed to mainstreaming of JuD and has approached the Election Commission to not to recognise MML.

Mainstreaming experiment has been successfully implemented in Colombia, Spain and Ireland. However, in renouncement of all forms of violence and surrender of all weapons were agreed as pre-conditions. In Pakistan, though mainstreaming is being visualised as rehabilitation of ‘good’ terrorists, it is a dangerous trend, evident in the streets of Rawalpindi when agitating Barellvis forced the Prime Minister to dismiss a democratically elected leader from ministership.

Allowing terrorist groups to maintain their militant capacities whilst bestowing political power to them has the potential to backfire. A one-sided bargain is likely to lead to destabilisation and set the stage for future conflicts. The Pakistan Army will be well advised to not to look through narrow prism of military dominance and rather keep the long-term national interest in mind. The best place for Saeed and likes is a jail and barracks for the Army.

By  Anil Gupta

(The writer, a BJP State spokesperson, is a Jammu-based strategic and security analyst)

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