Islamists flourish as Pakistan languishes

Hiranmay Karlekar
One can no longer laughingly dismiss the possibility of Pakistan coming under a fundamentalist dispensation, administering perhaps a slightly moderate version of what the Taliban had imposed on Afghanistan
Few countries have paid a greater price for their freedom than Bangladesh, which became independent on December 16, 1971. Pakistan’s Army and its local collaborators, belonging to organisations like the al Badr, al Shams, Razakars and Shanti (Peace) Committee, all spawns of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, killed over three million people, raped 450,000 women, and sent millions as refugees to India, in their savage bid to crush the independence movement. Their last diabolical act was murdering, on the eve of independence, a number of the country’s leading writers, journalists, academics, scientists and doctors-in an attempt to cripple vital areas of its post-independence life by killing leading talents in these. Pakistan’s atrocities in Bangladesh are widely known. The transformation it itself underwent in the process of committing these and the impact of Bangladesh’s liberation on its own life, have received little attention. Criminalisation of a large section of the Army and its high command’s sanctioning of even the most horrific savagery in Bangladesh, prepared the ground for the mass murders and gross human rights violations in Balochistan.
Further, Bangladesh’s liberation and Pakistan’s comprehensive defeat at India’s hands in the 1971 war, contributed, albeit indirectly, to the Islamisation of Pakistan’s military and society. From the 1960s, Islamabad’s Directorate-General of Inter-Services Intelligence had tried to prop up the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh as a counterpoise to the secular and democratic Awami League headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It failed. The Awami League swept the polls in East Pakistan, winning 298 of the 300 seats in the Provincial Assembly, and secured a majority in the whole of Pakistan, winning 167 of the 313 seats in the National Assembly, in the elections in December 1970. Yet, instead of allowing it to form the Government at the national and Provincial levels, the Army unleashed its nightmare of savagery. It failed again.
Influential sections in Pakistan concluded, albeit wrongly, that Bangladesh would not have sought independence if a strong Islam-based Pakistani identity had subsumed its cultural and linguistic Bengali identity. Concluding, as a corollary, that Pakistan needed a strong and binding Islamic identity to remain united in the face of discontent in Balochistan and Sind over the federal Government’s exploitation of both, they welcomed General-turned-dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s drive to Islamise Pakistan and its Army.
Drastic consequences followed. Zahid Hussain writes in Frontline Pakistan: The Path to Catastrophe and the Killing of Benazir Bhutto, that during Zia-ul Haq’s tenure at the helm of the Army and the country, “Islam was incorporated into the Army’s organisational fabric. For the first time, Islamic teachings were introduced into the Pakistan Military Academy”. He adds, “A Directorate of Religious Instruction was instituted to educate the officer corps on Islam.” The subjects for promotions examinations were made to include Islamic education. Officers were required to read The Quranic Concept of War by Brigadier (Later Major-General) SK Malik and were taught to be not just professional soldiers, but also soldiers of Islam.
Gen Zia upgraded the status of maulavis – until then barely tolerated by the military elite – attached to Army units and integrated them into the ethos of Army life. Zahid Hussain writes, “Scores of highly professional and secular officers were sidelined for not meeting the criteria of being a ‘good Muslim’… many conservative officers reached the senior command level. Radical Islamist ideology permeated the Army with the free flow of religious political literature in the Armed Forces training institutions. Friday prayers at regimental mosques, a matter of individual choice in the past, became obligatory.”
The character of the officers’ corps changed. Earlier, it mainly drew young men from liberal, westernised urban families and rural landed aristocracy, many of whom loved the good life and had little time for religious bigotry. Those who were exceptions and fundamentalists at heart had no impact on the general ethos. From the 1980s, officers began coming from the conservative rural or middle class and lower middle class backgrounds and were more prone to be attracted by Gen Zia’s Islamisation drive. They became his regime’s main base. The strength of such officers, known as ‘Zia bhartis’ or Zia recruits, in the Pakistani Army, is a matter of speculation. Zahid Hussain quotes a retired lieutenant-general as saying that 25 to 30 per cent had fundamentalist Islamist leanings. Shuja Nawaz, author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army and the Wars Within, states that Zia recruits would run the Pakistani Army once the senior Lieutenant Generals, commissioned between 1960 and 1980, retired. Given that it is now 2016, the process has largely been completed.
The Pakistan Army’s Islamisation drive ran parallel to the promotion, with aid from the US and Saudi Arabia, of the mujahideen groups’ jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It saw in it an opportunity for securing enhanced financial and military aid from the US, besides realising its long-cherished dream of establishing a puppet regime in Afghanistan. This led to deepening links between the ISI, which was coordinating the execution of the entire design, and Islamist fundamentalist jihadi groups like Gulbaddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami, which were loyal to Islamabad; moderate ones loyal to King Zahir Shah were marginalised.
Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban and support to Mullah Omar’s regime in Kabul continued to strengthen the Army and the ISI’s ties with the fundamentalist Islamist forces. The process continued even after the collapse of the Taliban Government in Kabul following the post-9/11 US-sponsored invasion of the country. Pakistan’s objective here was to destabilise the Afghan Government and replace it by a surrogate dispensation of its own. An offshoot was the glorification of the mujahideen as heroes. The process, which continued from the beginning of the Afghan jihad, also came to cover organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizb-ul Mujahideen and terrorists like Hafiz Sayeed and Masood Azhar, as Pakistan stepped up their unconventional war against India as result of another development following Bangladesh’s liberation.
This has strengthened enormously not only the Taliban but fundamentalist Islamist forces in Pakistan, which are now trying to forcibly impose their obscurantist ways on the whole country.
With the civilian Government’s prestige in steep decline following allegations of corruption cutting across party lines, and the Army perhaps divided at crunch time, one can no longer laughingly dismiss the possibility of Pakistan coming under a fundamentalist dispensation, administering a slightly moderate version of what the Taliban had imposed on Afghanistan. Should this happen, the crackdown in Bangladesh must be regarded as one of the factors that triggered the long chain reaction leading to it.

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