ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Getting Back from the Brink


Less than five minutes of president Musharraf’s address to the Pakistani nation last Saturday lasting over an hour were, it has been pointed out, devoted to direct references to the Kashmir issue and to relations with India. Musharraf was overwhelmingly concerned with containing religious fundamentalism, extremist religious organisations and violence (“the Kalashnikov and weapon culture”) in Pakistani politics and society. Acknowledging frankly the disastrous consequences for Pakistan of these outfits’ support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, their sectarian violence within the country and their espousal of ‘jehad’ internationally, he announced the decision to ban a number of them including Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba which the government of India has held responsible for the attacks on the Indian parliament and the Kashmir assembly as well as generally for ‘cross-border terrorism’ in Kashmir. Musharraf’s address included the categorical declaration that “Pakistan will not allow its territory to be used for any terrorist activity anywhere in the world”. The banning of the extremist organisations has been followed by the arrest of large numbers of their functionaries and sealing of their offices. In his address Musharraf went beyond these organisations to their breeding grounds and announced restrictions on and surveillance of the activities of madrasas (religious schools) and mosques. All madrasas and mosques are to be required to be registered and new ones to be opened or built only with government permission.

Musharraf’s address brought out how deeply mired Pakistan is in the morass of religious fundamentalism and violence which had the official blessings of Zia-ul Haq’s military regime but which succeeding popularly elected governments certainly did very little to bring under control. And precisely because it is so deep-rooted as to require corrective action to reach down to hundreds of thousands of far-flung madrasas and mosques and shadowy religious-political groups, there must remain legitimate scepticism about Musharraf’s ability to carry through the ambitious agenda that he has set out. The doubts would remain even if Musharraf’s sincerity and commitment were not to be questioned and it were to be accepted that he was not merely responding to the severe international, especially US, pressure on him. In the past Musharraf has wavered in his actions to check religious fundamentalism as when last year he retreated on the blasphemy law. But even on the most hopeful assumptions on that score, the feasibility and efficacy of the proposed administrative regulation of madrasas and mosques will remain to be seen. What will be even more problematic is the purging of the organs of the government itself – the army and the intelligence services as well as the administration at different levels – which have in the past openly and indeed as a matter of state policy promoted the very elements that Musharraf now wants to suppress.

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