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Pakistan after Lal Masjid

By Ayesha Siddiqa
July 17, 2007 15:54 IST
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The Pakistan government wrapped up the Lal Masjid operation by killing Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his followers who seemed all too willing to challenge the writ of the State. The excitement, which lasted about eight days, was almost like a leaf from history.

It reminded one of another operation which had taken place in the Indian subcontinent many years ago. This is a reference to the Indian army's June 1984 attack against the Golden Temple and the dissident Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

The similarity between the two cases is amazing. In both situations, the rebels were created by the establishment to be later killed at the government's hands. While Bhindranwale was a product of the Indira Gandhi regime's policies, the Ghazi brothers in Islamabad and more of their ilk are products of the intelligence agencies who used them for years to fight covert wars.

It is hoped, however, that the Lal Masjid operation does not result in the assassination of a leader and the killing of hundreds of innocent people like it occurred in India in October-November 1984. The understanding, thus far, is that there will be no more excitement and life in Islamabad will return to normalcy.

Indeed, not many people in Pakistan are unhappy with the government's action. In fact, the dilemma that people face today is that the job of eliminating extremists was achieved by a military dictator rather than a democratic leader which is actually not odd. Civilian leaders have never had the power and control over the decisions to manage or eliminate extremists.

What a lot of people are saying and rightly so is that Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his brother were monsters created by the security agencies themselves who went out of control and then had to be eliminated. The connection between the agencies and the two brothers is possibly what explains the bunkers inside the mosque and the arsenal.

The operation against the Lal Masjid is significant in terms of the military's decision to eliminate the terrorists it had created itself. It is another significant point in the nation's history in which the army tried not only to establish the writ of the State but sent a firm message to all sorts of militants that any action against the will of the State will not be tolerated.

From this perspective, this is indeed a turning point because the operation will discourage all potential extremists about the patience of the establishment which seems to have run very low.

In the view of one analyst, the manner in which the Lal Masjid crisis was handled will discourage all extremists from challenging the State. There was no one willing to come out on the streets to mourn Abdul Rashid Ghazi's death. The people, in fact, are quite relieved that these extremists are no more.

However, what continues to amaze people is the time the government took in carrying out the operation. Many believe the action should have been taken earlier. This, of course, is the perspective of the silent majority. There are others like the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amaal -- a congregation of religious parties -- who continue to be unhappy with the government action. Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the Jamaat-i-Islami was vociferous in his criticism of the government for killing what he termed as 'our sons and daughters'. What is certain is that the operation and what will follow will result in polarisation of society.

The end of the Lal Masjid crisis happened in the wake of the all-parties conference in London where the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami tried to emphasise the government's operation against the mosque.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, it seems, hopes to form a political alliance with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and a few others against a possible coalition comprising of Benazir Bhutto, President Pervez Musharraf, the MQM, perhaps Maulana Fazlur Rehman and some others. This would not be just an ordinary coalition but a union of people who will rally for a pro-Islam agenda versus an anti-West coalition.

The team led by the former cricketer and Nawaz Sharif will try to portray the agreement between Musharraf and Benazir, which everyone thinks is likely, as a partnership driven by the US. Such a view is bound to result in the polarisation of society.

It is certain that Pakistan is not likely to turn more extremist than what was seen in the past. The perception that the extremists have got a clear signal from the establishment regarding its threshold to tolerate such nonsense will keep others in check. But it is also a fact that a political division of the ultra-conservatives against the less conservatives posing as liberals is bound to create divisions within society.

What is even more important is that the successful operation against the Lal Masjid comes at a time when President Musharraf's popularity was at its lowest. Operation Silence is bound to improve his popularity graph, which does not say much about the future of democracy in the country. The people will be divided between supporting Musharraf for what he has done and the issue of opposing him for things he has not done right like the sacking of the chief justice.

The chief justice issue, which took centre-stage before the Lal Masjid crisis, will return but not with the zest we had witnessed before. The dilemma facing the people now will be to support a leader who has taken decisive action against the extremists or to oppose him for thwarting the rule of law and democracy. This is certainly a difficult decision for the people.

The operation against the Ghazi brothers must be applauded but the action is also significant in terms of the message it sends out to people which is that the establishment will not tolerate any opposition, especially where it is against the army.

The whole scene, in fact, has pushed the country to a square one situation which means that it has to live a few more years with a powerful military that will not be willing to leave control of the State or its governance because it has yet again proved itself to be a much more robust institution in the country.

The entire society stands at an interesting juncture when there is very little insulation between the State and society, or extremist elements and society. The government's coercion, of course, will solve some of the problem in the short term but the continuation of military-led authoritarian rule is bound to generate greater extremism.

What Pervez Musharraf must understand is that it is not just military action which will end extremism in Pakistan. Society needs to return to a more normal existence and stronger democratic practices to save itself from extremism and the resultant terrorism.

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa is the author of Pakistan's Arms Procurement and Military Buildup, 1979-99: In Search of a Policy and Military Inc, The Politics of the Military Economy in Pakistan

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Ayesha Siddiqa