An unbridgeable division that casts an ominous shadow

“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists, indeed the passion is the measure of the holders’ lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.”

—Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays

What could be the possible future of a people who remain irretrievably divided along religious and sectarian lines? Unfortunately, this division that was orchestrated immediately after the creation of the country has only become more pronounced and more lethal with the passage of time. Today it sits there like an uncontrollable monster casting an ominous shadow on the future of a country that remains perennially bedevilled by its debilitating effects.

Where did the rot begin? How did it begin? There could be many analyses, but the one that would be difficult to repudiate is it all started when the state was forced to wear the religious apparel that compromised its neutrality in dealing with its citizens across multiple divides and considerations.

The narratives that various incumbent dispensations have since followed flowed directly from this botched move. Along the way, there were those, both of the dictatorial and democratic hues, who exploited this to deal with challenges from the opposition within the country and threats from outside. Nothing worked to Pakistan’s advantage, but the spectre that was generated in the process has become a monolith monster.

The division has now reached a point where it has started impacting the authority and relevance of the state to defend its people. The unsavoury controversy about who is a martyr and who is not is just one of the countless derivatives of this malaise which is likely to intensify in view of the hardening stances of the parties. The conflicting perceptions have already pitted the army against the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) whose chief had dubbed Hakimullah Mehsud as a ‘martyr’ but was reluctant to grant this status to the Pakistani soldiers because, according to his ‘logic’, they were fighting the US (read infidel) war. This elicited a sharp response from the ISPR which demanded an apology. The apology did not come. Instead, JI questioned the ISPR’s right to “make a political statement” saying that they will not accept the army’s intervention in politics. Lest we forget it is the same JI whose militant wings Al-Shams and Al-Badr were accused of murder, rape and carnage against the Bengalis during the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Their involvement in gross human-rights abuses in the former eastern wing of the country in the name of religion is the poisonous fruit that the sapling planted so early after the creation of the country has started bearing. The paradox is that it was the very same JI that opposed the creation of Pakistan and dubbed Quaid-e-Azam as the ‘Kafir-e-Azam”. But, it felt no shame in exploiting the newly-born state to its advantage by using religion as an unsavoury tool.

There has been no direct criticism of the JI chief’s outburst from the government or any of its functionaries. The interior minister, in his endless harangue in the national assembly, called the debate “extremely damaging in the current circumstances” and that this would “distract us from our target” (read negotiations with the militants). During a visit to the GHQ, the prime minister refrained from condemning the JI chief’s comments. A statement issued at the end of his visit quoted him as having said that “those who have fought for Pakistan, Ghazis and the Shaheeds, have sacrificed their today for ensuring a better tomorrow for our future generations and all of them are our benefactors”.

I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s lethal comment appropriate to such premeditated cowardice: "I seem to smell the stench of appeasement in the air". Nothing could be more demeaning than this which effectively failed in quelling the controversy that had been generated with regard to according the status of Shaheed to a terrorist. It even failed to create a distinction between the functionaries of the armed forces who are fighting to defend Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty and the terrorists who are waging a violent war against the state of Pakistan and its people. Appropriately, it reflected the prime minister’s inherent softness for the militants and their collaborators who have been assiduously nurtured in Punjab and with whom the ruling PML-N had even concluded political bargains.

In the current context, the problem started when, at the All Parties Conference (APC), various bands of terrorists were elevated to the status of being ‘stakeholders’ and the government was asked to initiate the process of dialogue with them. In effect, these militant and criminal outfits were accorded the status of a party on a par with the government to commence the process of dialogue. The leader of a political party that is heading the coalition government in the KPK had even suggested the opening of a Taliban office in the country and another of the party’s stalwarts had recommended the induction of the Taliban representatives in the federal and provincial cabinets.

This megalomaniac infatuation with the militant mindset is partly the result of the government and the military’s espousal of their role in various pursuits, be that the role that the militant wings of the JI played in the former East Pakistan, or a role that the remnants of the militant outfits from the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that Pakistan entered under the draconian tutelage of General Zia-ul-Haq continue to play. These interventions, in turn, shaped a regressive narrative that not only refuses to go away, but necessitates a religiosity-fuelled espousal of an extremist philosophy in statecraft.

This is what the proponents of initiating a dialogue process with the militants do not understand and instead repose faith not only in the success of an interaction with the terrorist bands who have wreaked havoc in the country, but forging an alliance with them in fulfilment of their desire to rule. Nothing could be more simplistic than this notion and nothing could be more regressive. Entering into a dialogue with these criminal outfits will only strengthen their self-righteous resolve to overcome the state of Pakistan and turn it into a theocratic dictatorship where the writ of the obscurantist will rule and where not the slightest bit of rational discourse would be allowed.

At a different level, this freshly-created controversy about who is a martyr and who is not followed by a weak and ineffective intervention of the government to correct the misperception is only going to further dent the state’s resolve in fighting the menace of terrorism and militancy. The religious sentiment is deeply etched in the military’s psyche and taking it out may leave behind a battered and bruised skeleton. There is a pressing need to go after the militants now that they have been weakened and their ranks are apparently divided over the selection of Mullah Fazalulluh as their leader. This is the time to strike with all of the state’s might and weaken them to a point of submission. But, if they are given time and space to regroup, as it appears is the case, they’ll hit back more venomously than ever before. That may also take care of any chance of subduing them in the future and the only option remaining will be to surrender before their onslaught and live as citizens perpetually caught up in a theocratic frenzy.

Holding the US responsible for Pakistan’s woes is childish. Blaming the drones for an unending spree of violence is counterproductive. It is Pakistan’s policies and its investment in militancy which has marginalised it to its present state. The question is not about what Pakistan has to do. The question is about so much that Pakistan has to undo including its patronage of the militant Islam that continues to come forth through organisations like the JI, JUI, PML-N and the neo-religious parties like the PTI.

For any change of narrative to take shape, and with the value and relevance of the political leadership having been grossly compromised, the army has a pivotal role to play. In response to the query whether it has learned to do that or not, my guru Amin Mughal strongly contends that it has not. He goes on to say that the proof lies in the ISPR's paean to Maulana Maudoodi: “While they have taken umbrage at the JI chief's remarks, they have not gone the whole hog and have not dumped the source of his thinking. While we do not want to vilify our soldiers, we also do not want to give up the Maudoodi ideology of which the Jihadis are the most logical and inevitable offshoot. We do not realise that Munawar Hasan has only thought consistently from the first principles laid down by Maudoodi through to the denunciation of his own army”.

The army, it appears, neither understands this in totality, nor is it geared to confronting the challenges that this mindset will continue to throw up. This, critically, could render the spectre beyond the threshold of manageability.