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Arms and the man

2 Jan 2002

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Musharraf launches "half a revolution"

By Praful Bidwai

It is a measure of the cynicism that pervades Indias political climate today that many commentators have responded to Pakistan President General Pervez Musharrafs major ad- dress to the nation of January 12 with the question: "But will he be able to deliver results? Can he change ground realities? Will he really be able to stop cross–border terrorism and bring Pakistans jehadi fanatics to heel?"

This in itself may not be an irrelevant question. But in the circumstances, its the wrong question to ask. More precisely, it puts the cart before the horse. The real issue is, what is the true meaning, import and significance of Musharrafs speech? Does his address constitute a major transformatory change of intent, or a radical shift of purpose, or is it only a trivial or marginal change from the "normal" rhetoric that Pakistans officialdom resorts to when it is in crisis? Whether Musharraf can actually translate his intent into practical results logically comes after this question.

To honestly answer the first question, we must recognise, and frankly acknowledge, that on January 12, Pervez Musharraf did something few heads of states ever do — especially when they are beleaguered and in deep crisis. He subverted a major component, if not a pillar, of the ideological foundation which has sustained the edifice of Pakistani society and politics for two decades. He began a major surgical operation on the tumour of militant, political Islam which has long afflicted that countrys body politic. And he launched an ambitious programme of reform of society, the like of which South Asia has never seen before

Musharrafs January 12 address will go down as a landmark in this regions history — even if it were to remain a catalogue of the many disorders that affect Pakistan and a list of pious intentions. But it is likely to turn out to be much more than that. It was preceded, and followed, by South Asias biggest–ever crackdown on communal bigots and terrorists. Already, some 2,000 "terrorist" suspects have been rounded up, five organisations including Lashkar–e–Toiba and Jaish–e–Mohammed banned, and 300 of their offices closed down, locked and sealed.

Some of our leaders have slowly, reluctantly, grudgingly, begun to acknowledge the significance of Musharrafs reform agenda, although they see it purely in terms internal to Pakistans domestic politics. Thus LK Advani, fresh from a visit to the US, said (Jan. 16) the address was "path–breaking" from the internal point of view. And AB Vajpayee has finally said (Jan. 17) that Musharrafs address has many "positive elements". Yet others, especially hawkish media commentators, have called it a successful and effective "public relations" exercise.

It will not do to minimise Musharrafs address as a defensive or diversionary tactic aimed at appeasing Western powers on the terrorism issue. More than two–thirds of his speech was devoted to diagnosing the pathology of Pakistani society and politics and to outlining an agenda for internal reform, rather than on making concessions on "external" issues like Indias demand to take "decisive" action against its list of 20 terrorists. Of course, there was a degree of flamboyance that went with Musharrafs much–publicised speech, but PR considerations, alone or mainly, cannot explain its thrust.

What Musharraf has unveiled is a plan to put Pakistan on the road to modernisation and secularisation by severing the links between political Islam and the state, between the military and the mullahs, and between Kashmir and terrorist violence. At the heart of the plan is trenchant criticism of Pakistans dangerous mix of religion and politics, and the disastrous consequences this has had on the state and civil society. Whether the general succeeds in achieving his objectives or not, and how soon, it must be conceded that his agenda represents perhaps the most ambitious reform programme undertaken in any country, barring Turkey under Kemal Ataturk, to deal with the issue of religion and politics.

It is certainly the boldest such agenda ever outlined in South Asia since Nehrus Tryst with Destiny speech at Independence.

Musharrafs reform programme represents a complete reversal of the Islamisation project launched by Zia–ul–Haq to acquire a figleaf of legitimacy for his brutal military dictatorship and to transform the very character of Pakistan. The logic of Zias project eventually unfolded in its most developed form through the Taliban, through Pakistans attempt to virtually annex Afghanistan and acquire "strategic depth", and through the promotion of a variety of militant groups in West and South Asia, especially in Kashmir.

Musharraf has started cutting the umbilical cord between the Pakistani state and jehadi terrorism. One can argue that this is only the beginning of what is likely to be a prolonged process which will inevitably involve purging the army of pernicious religious–political influences, and even cleansing the ISI. It is by no means certain that Musharraf will succeed. The Pakistan situation is fraught with uncertainty, strife and danger. His agenda will antagonise some of his own military colleagues. He has hit out at the bigoted mullahs who for years have been the mainstay of fanatical groups. Successive governments, including Musharrafs, have found it hard to rein in such men. Numerous jehadi militants, inflamed by the Talibans defeat in Afghanistan, are only waiting to get their claws into Musharraf.

Musharraf has thus embarked on an extraordinarily bold and risky mission. He may have done so under pressure, even compulsion. But that should not detract from the importance of his endeavour and coherence of his purpose. Far–reaching changes are sometimes brought about not because there is a "genuine" change of heart, but because "soft" options vanish, and there is a compelling need to change.

It is tempting to argue, as some Pakistani commentators have themselves done, that only a General (Musharraf) could have undone the legacy of another General (Zia). It is also easy to draw parallels between Musharraf and Algerias secular military junta, which a decade ago prevented radical Islamicists from taking power despite their clear victory in elections.

However, that would be trivialising the importance of the overall plan for Pakistans political reform, which started unfolding within a week of Musharrafs address. This has a strong democratisation component, linked as it is with preparations to hold elections by the Supreme Court-stipulated October 2002 deadline, the abolition of communal electorates, and a 48 percent increase in the strength of the National Assembly, along with a new political initiative on Kashmir. So, while Ataturk never succeeded in democratising but only in secularising Turkey, and the Algerian junta forcefully snuffed out Democracy, Musharrafs broadly secular reform comes coupled with a momentum in favour of democratisation of Pakistans polity.

Therefore, it would be sheer nitpicking and pettifogging to fault Musharraf for the many omissions in his speech. True, he didnt refer to the "Lahore process" or the "Shimla agreement". Of course, he didnt own up the damage that Islamabad militants have caused to Kashmiri civilians, or apologise for it. But that was hardly the function of his address. Did Jaswant Singh and Vajpayee ask if he apologised for what the Taliban had done in Afghanistan when he joined the US-led "anti–terrorist" coalition which New Delhi uncritically supports? What is relevant is that Musharraf unconditionally condemned all forms of terrorism and the "Kalashnikov culture" of all religious extremism. Of equal significance was his insistence that Pakistani groups must not mess around in other countries — no matter what the cause.

It is wrong to make a rigid separation between the internal and external components of Musharrafs address. They are strongly, organically, inter–connected or related. Implicit in the insistence on limiting Pakistans external role is the view that the country has paid dearly because it pandered to pan–Islamic ideas and the vision of an ummah or Islamic brotherhood at least in this region. Musharraf wants Pakistan to be seen as a normal, moderate, non–aggressive, responsible nation in the region and the world.

Backing this up is Musharrafs internal agenda, including the redefinition of jihad as a fight against poverty, illiteracy and backwardness, and strict regulation of madrassas and mosques through a system of registration. His radical plan can potentially transform Pakistan into a modern, forward–looking, open society which is no longer obsessed with religion, or crude, intolerant, interpretations of it. He has clearly posed the choice between this future, and a grim fate for Pakistan if it chooses to be a paranoid, closed, religion-obsessed, backward society.

And yet, despite all its far-reaching, courageous, bold and radical content, Musharrafs agenda is flawed on two counts. One, it lacks the strong energies that can only come from a "perspective from below", one that arises from the struggles and daily activities of the working people. It is thus very much a revolutionary reform "from above". Secondly, it relies for its self–actualisation on the agency of the Pakistani state, itself a thoroughly corrupt, compromised and unreliable entity. Thus, on a demanding view, Musharraf is attempting only "half–a–revolution" although it is infinitely more ambitious than the conservatism and timidity of Vajpayee & Co.

Musharraf of course asserts that Kashmir "runs through our blood". But he has been careful to decouple Kashmirs "freedom struggle" from terrorist militancy. And he has offered a dialogue on Kashmir. India must accept this in a spirit of openness, good faith and generosity. It just wont do to acknowledge — as New Delhi does — that Kashmir is an issue, a dispute, a problem, albeit a bilateral one, and then refuse a bilateral dialogue on one pretext or other. There is a real danger today that failure to discuss Kashmir bilaterally, which India agreed to do at Lahore and Agra, will invite external intervention, with unpalatable consequences.

The US is in a uniquely powerful position today as a hegemonic power which is courted by both New Delhi and Islamabad. India has used the US as the central interlocutor in its post–December 13 strategy of brinkmanship. Having allowed America such a pivotal role, it cannot easily resist its friendly (or not–so–friendly) involvement in Kashmir — if bilateralism fails. Bilateralism must be made to work in its authentic spirit.

Equally important, India must immediately de–escalate its military build–up on the western border. It would be illadvised to wait for Pakistan to "surrender" any of the 20 terrorists it has named. Musharraf cannot be easily pressurised into handing over any of the Pakistani nationals in that list to Interpol, leave alone to India. Equally unlikely is the surrender of Dawood Ibrahim or Chhota Shakeel, who in any case are gangsters rather than terrorists. India could perhaps get some former Khalistanis exiled in Pakistan handed over to some external agency. But that would be a minor consolation in relation to the substantial gain from Musharrafs outlawing of JeM and LeT.

It would be unwise as well as unrealistic for India to cast itself in the mould of a superpower by demanding that Pakistan give up the 20 suspects, or else… For one, India has not established convincing links between them and the Parliament attack; it has just cited or raked up old cases. For another, the US was itself wrong, as this writer has earlier argued, to use military force in Afghanistan, without exhausting legal and diplomatic possibilities. It has ended up killing at least 3,700 innocent Afghans — 500 more people than were killed in New Yorks Twin Towers. And for a third, India cannot bend its near–strategic equal Pakistan to its will, as the US could with its adversaries in Afghanistan. India is not a superpower which can arrogate to itself the "right" to crush terrorism outside its borders.

It is in New Delhis own interest to de–escalate the current eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The present buildup is the largest ever, with half a million armed men pitted against one another. Anything can go wrong: a terrorist attack inspired by a rogue agency out to sabotage Musharrafs plans, an overzealous local commander on either side getting hyperactive, or a plain South Asiastyle goofup. The consequences would be disastrous.

The longer India waits, the greater the chances of a mishap. Today, the Vajpayee government can draw some satisfaction from the fact that Musharraf has taken concrete action against JeM or LeT — although not entirely under Indias muscleflexing. Colin Powell during his visit has delivered a message in favour of dialogue and de-escalation. If the government acts on its own, rather than under US goading, it might even claim a minor victory and hope that this will help BJP a little in Uttar Pradesh. But Vajpayee must draw the line here. Instead of indulging in more brinkmanship, he should try to find an imaginative solution to the Kashmir issue by widening the opening that has emerged in the Valley both as a result of the Talibans ignominious defeat and Musharrafs new turn against jehadi terrorism. But first of all, Vajpayee must deescalate.

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail info@alliancesouthasia.org

2 Jul 2007

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