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Deference to the Mullahs, Iron Fist for the Rest

Musharraf and his generals are determined to stay in power. They will protect the source of their power (the army); they will accommodate those they must (the Americans); and they will pander to the mullahs. They will crush those who threaten their power and privilege, and ignore the rest.

Letter from South Asia

Deference to the Mullahs, Iron Fist for the Rest

Pakistan under Musharraf

Musharraf and his generals are determined to stay in power. They will protect the source of their power (the army); they will accommodate those they must (the Americans); and they will pander to the mullahs. They will crush those who threaten their power and privilege, and ignore the rest.


pattern is emerging in Musharraf’s Pakistan. Like so many governments before it, both military and civilian, an insecure regime, fearful of its legitimacy, and uncertain of the future, is determined to stay in power. It, therefore, does whatever it must. On the one hand its critical dependence upon the west requires that it be seen as a liberal regime pitted against radical Islamists but, on the other hand, it recognises the need not to disturb the status quo or anger Islamic fundamentalists.

The staged conflicts between Musharraf and the mullahs are therefore a regular part of Pakistani politics. The religious parties needed no demonstration of muscle power for winning two major victories in less than a fortnight; just a few noisy threats sufficed. From experience they knew that the Pakistan army and its sagacious leader – of “enlightened moderation” fame – would stick to their predictable pattern of dealing with Islamists. In a nutshell: provoke a fight, get the excitement going, let CNN and BBC get their clips, and then beat a retreat. At the end of it all the mullahs would get what they want, but so would the general.

Hudood Ordinance

The most recent casualty of this cynical staged fighting has been the rights of Pakistani women. At issue was a recent government initiative that sought modification of the “Hudood ordinance”, an imposition of Zia-ul-Haq’s government, unparalleled both for its grotesque cruelty and irrationality. Enacted into the law in 1979, this presidential ordinance was conceived as part of a more comprehensive process for converting Pakistan into a theocracy governed by sharia laws.

Under the Hudood ordinance, Pakistani law prescribes death by stoning for married Muslims who are found guilty of extra-marital sex (for unmarried couples or non-Muslims, the penalty is 100 lashes). The law is exact in stating how the death penalty is to be administered: “Such of the witnesses who deposed against the convict as may be available shall start stoning him and, while stoning is being carried on, he may be shot dead, whereupon stoning and shooting shall be stopped”.

Rape is still more problematic. A woman who fails to prove that she has been raped is automatically charged with fornication and adultery. Under the Hudood law, she is considered guilty unless she can prove her innocence. Proof of innocence requires that the rape victim must produce “at least four Muslim adult male witnesses, about whom the court is satisfied” who saw the actual act of penetration. Inability to do so may result in her being jailed, or perhaps even sentenced to death for adultery.

Terrified that they may be accused of speaking against Islam – a crime for which death is legally the minimum penalty – all but a few Pakistanis have shied away from challenging laws that have now been in place for over a quarter century. Forlorn and sporadic protests by women’s groups have reminded the country that such laws exist, but also that there is little hope for change. Nevertheless, concern over the international image has forced every government after general Zia to attempt token reform.

Amelioration has been proposed for those features of the Hudood ordinance, which are ready instruments for personal and tribal vendettas. Proposed amendments have included items such as removing the need to produce four witnesses to an act of rape, making extra-marital sex a bailable crime (so that the accused do not languish for long periods in jail), giving authority only to a sessions court for issuing arrest warrants against suspected adulterers, etc.

Aborted Amendments

President and chief of army staff general Musharraf, and his Citibank prime minister, Shuakat Aziz, also proposed amending the Hudood ordinance and opened it for parliamentary discussion in early September 2006. Some suspect that the real aim was to split the parliamentary opposition to government policies in suppressing the Balochistan insurgency. In any case, the amendments were not expected to cut any ice with fundamentalists of the MMA, the main Islamic parliamentary opposition. Indeed, their reaction to the government’s initiative was precisely as anticipated. MMA members tore up copies of the proposed amendments on the floor of the National Assembly and threatened to resign en masse. The government soon scuttled its own initiative, dooming it to obscurity.

Did the government’s shameful retreat before the mullahs show lack of strength or resolve? Or was it yet another antic to boost the general’s international image as a reformer? One can argue this both ways, but there are other telling examples that establish a clear behavioural pattern.

Examples from Past

Example: on April 21, 2000, Musharraf had announced a new administrative procedure for registration of cases under the Blasphemy Law 295-C. This law, under which the minimum penalty is death, has frequently been used to harass personal and political opponents. To reduce such occurrences, Musharraf’s modified procedure would have required authorisation from the local district magistrate for registration of a blasphemy case. It would have been an improvement, albeit a modest one. But 25 days later – on May 16, 2000 – under the watchful glare of the mullahs, Musharraf hastily climbed down: “As it was the unanimous demand of the ulema, mashaikh and the people, therefore, I have decided to do away with the

Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006

procedural change in the registration of FIR under the Blasphemy Law”.

Example: in October 2004, as a new system for issuing machine readable passports was being installed, Musharraf’s government declared that henceforth it would not be necessary for passport holders to specify their religion. Expectedly this was denounced by the Islamic parties as a grand conspiracy aimed at secularising Pakistan and destroying its Islamic character. But even before the mullahs actually took to the streets, the government lost nerve and the volteface was announced on March 24, 2005. Information minister Sheikh Rashid said the decision to revive the religion column was made else, “Qadianis and apostates would be able to pose as Muslims and perform pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia”.

But even these climbdowns – significant as they are – are less dramatic than the astonishing recent “peace accord” in north Waziristan where the Pakistan army’s “iron fist” inexplicably softened into a pulpy handshake.

In 2002, presumably on Washington’s instructions, the Pakistan army established military bases in south Waziristan, which had become a refuge for Taliban and Al Qaida fleeing Afghanistan. Combat soon followed, with the army making extensive use of artillery and US-supplied Cobra gunships. By 2005 heavy fighting had spread to north Waziristan. Even though soldiers rarely ventured out from guard posts and heavy fortifications, the army was taking losses whose extent has never been revealed. The senior army leadership, safely removed from combat areas, officially ascribed the resistance to “a few hundred foreign militants and terrorists”. But morale continued to sink, with junior army men wondering why they were being asked to attack their ideological comrades – the Taliban. Reportedly, local clerics refused to conduct funeral prayers for soldiers killed in action.

Miramshah Treaty

The half-hearted war failed, leading to the signing of a “peace treaty” on September 1, 2006 in the town of Miramshah – which was by now firmly in the grip of the Pakistani Taliban. Army officers, and the militants they had fought for four years, hugged each other while heavily armed Taliban stood guard. Although the military governor of the province, Ali Mohammad Aurakzai, praised the peace agreement as “unprecedented in tribal history”, in fact it was reminiscent of the 2004 Shakai agreement in south Waziristan, which had made the militants immensely stronger. The Miramshah treaty was blessed – and reportedly engineered – by Maulana Fazlur Rehman who (quite falsely) claims to be the father of the Taliban.

The Miramshah treaty met all demands made by the militants: the release of all jailed militants; dismantling of army checkpoints; return of seized weapons and vehicles; the right of the Taliban to display weapons (except heavy ones); and residence rights for fellow fighters from other Islamic countries. As for “foreign militants” – who Musharraf had blamed exclusively for the resistance – the militants were nonchalant: we will let you know if we find any! The financial compensation demanded by the Taliban for loss of property and life has not been revealed, but some officials have remarked that it is “astronomical”. In turn they promised to cease their attacks on civil and military installations, and give the army a safe passage out.

Washington and London have cautiously welcomed Musharraf’s move, an indication of how well he has refined his persuasive powers for the west. But will hardened militants stop their jihad, and will foreign militants return to their countries as the agreement stipulates? After winning such a stunning victory, and with certain arrest and torture awaiting them in their home countries, this is about as likely as Al Qaida turning itself in en masse to the nearest FBI centre.

Some argue that the army had no choice. After all, on the other side of the Pakistan-Afghan border even the combined might of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and US forces have proved insufficient against the resurgent Taliban. So how could the Pakistani army ever win? But this hides the fact that the army’s high command demonstrated appallingly bad judgment and strategy by venturing into terrain where guerrilla warfare is extremely effective. It was far better not to have engaged in combat, than to fight and lose.

Yes, there was an alternative – a political one. An intelligent use of force combined with traditional tribal diplomacy would surely not have led to such a humiliating capitulation. While the army has extricated itself, the locals have been left to pay the real price. Expectedly, the militants have closed all girls schools and are enforcing harsh sharia laws in all of Waziristan, both north and south. Barbers have been handed 6-foot long death shrouds – shave and die. Taliban vigilante groups patrol the streets of Miramshah. They check such things as the length of beards, whether the salwars are worn at an appropriate height above the ankles, and attendance of individuals in the mosques. Primitive tribalism in the area has now been written into stone.

Deference to the mullahs, the iron fist for other foes. The army’s approach is most visible in Balochistan, as is the deterioration that this has brought about. Eight years ago when the army seized power, there was no separatist movement in Balochistan, which makes nearly 44 per cent of Pakistan’s land mass and is the repository of its gas and oil. Now there is a full blown insurgency built upon Baloch grievances, most of which arise from a perception of the Baloch being ruled from Islamabad and of having too small a share of the extracted mineral wealth. But although the demands of the secular-nationalist insurgents are far less radical than of the Taliban – they do not ask for any fundamental restructuring of the state or society – nevertheless the army has spurned negotiations. Force is the only answer: “They won’t know what hit them”, boasted Musharraf, after threatening to crush the insurgency.

Balochistan Crisis

Musharraf’s personal interventions in the Balochistan crisis have been responsible in large measure for igniting a new phase of the insurgency. A major crisis erupted when a woman doctor employed by Pakistan Petroleum at the Sui Gas fields was allegedly raped by an army officer. Dismissing the notion that any officer could have been responsible, Musharraf went on to suggest that the doctor had invited rape to become eligible as a political refugee in a western country. A still bigger crisis came when the charismatic 80-year old Baloch chieftain and former governor of Balochistan, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, was killed by army bombs. Musharraf outraged the Baloch by calling it “a great victory”. No other senior political leader – with the exception of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who was hanged by general Zia – has been physically eliminated by the army establishment.

Reconciliation in Balochistan now seems, at best, a distant dream. Punjabis have been warned to leave Balochistan or face the consequences. Rumours that Musharraf had been overthrown – occasioned by an extended electricity outage on September 24 – led to wild celebrations in Quetta.

Musharraf and his generals are determined to stay in power. They will protect the source of their power – the army. They will accommodate those they must – the Americans. They will pander to the mullahs. They will crush those who threaten their power and privilege, and ignore the rest. No price is too high for them. The Pakistan army has now become the only instrument that can keep Pakistan together. It is also the reason why Pakistan fails.



Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006

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