Monday, March 29, 2010








In what was perhaps a Freudian slip, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, while addressing a public meeting in Lahore expressed surprise over Taliban attacks in Punjab despite the PMLN government sharing the stance of the Taliban of opposing the person and policies of the former dictator Pervez Musharraf and not taking any dictation from the US. Almost on cue, the Taliban issued a statement said that the organisation would stop targeting public and government places in Punjab if the provincial government gave an assurance that the Taliban would not be attacked.


Predictably, all hell broke loose after the craven statement of the Punjab 'strongman'. The very next day after the statement, Shahbaz Sharif held a meeting with the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, where he was reportedly given a dressing down. Clearly, Shahbaz Sharif's remarks were seen to undermine the military operations against the Taliban, sending out wrong signals to the international community, weakening the morale of the people and the armed forces and belittling their sacrifices, exposing the lack of consensus in Pakistan over treating the Taliban as enemies. Worst of all, it appeared as though Sharif had set Punjab apart from other parts of Pakistan.


Although Sharif did try to wriggle out of the situation by saying that he had been misquoted and issued a detailed clarification, it did little to assuage the Pakhtun members of parliament who launched a broadside against the PMLN leader. After all, going by Sharif's logic, it was alright for the Taliban to launch attacks in NWFP because the government of that province was following Musharraf's policies and was taking dictation from the US. But in all fairness to him, the double-standards that Shahbaz is being accused of in the context of Taliban attacks on Punjab, are actually quite similar to the double-standards that most Pakistanis adopt in the context of Islamist terrorists striking against other countries and peoples of other religions. Instead of being unequivocal in their condemnation of terrorists and their murderous acts in the name of religion, the general refrain of most people in Pakistan is that the terrorists should go and attack the Americans or the Indians and should spare fellow Muslims. One TV anchor who appears of Aaj TV even went to the extent of saying that the terrorists should be attacking India and Hindus and not Pakistan! Clearly, the public opinion in Pakistan doesn't abhor terrorism per se; it only abhors the terrorism that affects it directly. It is kosher for them if hundreds of people are massacred in Mumbai or thousands in New York.


Be that as it may, the episode has once again raised questions over the Sharif brothers Islamist leanings. Their closeness to reactionary and regressive Islamists like Jamaat Islami and the Wahhabi Jamiat Ahle Hadith, and the right-wing, conservative ideological positions that the PMLN takes are well known as is the desire of Nawaz Sharif to become the Amirul Momineen (something he tried during the fag end of his second term as Prime Minister). After their return from exile, the Sharif's have tried very hard to shake off their reputation of having a proclivity for radical Islam. This they did by taking on the mantle of being the defenders of all things democratic. They have been in the forefront on the issue of independence of judiciary, implementing the Charter of Democracy, undoing all amendments to the constitution made by the former military dictator, and taking a strong position against army intervention in politics. But the mask is wearing thin, especially after Shahbaz Sharif scurried to explain himself to the army chief – so much for the new found democratic values of the Sharifs and their 'resolve' to not allow the army to interfere in politics!


Not surprisingly, the detractors of the Sharif's were quick to latch on to his slip-up. Addressing a lecture in Seattle, Gen Musharraf called Nawaz Sharif a closet Taliban. Closer home, the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, said Shahbaz is a true heir of Gen. Zia, while a senior PPP leader in Punjab called the PMLN 'the soft face of Taliban' and demanded that the party be put on a UN watch-list. In NWFP, there was a furore in the provincial assembly over Shahbaz's remarks. MQM supremo, Altaf Husain too did not spare Shahbaz and said that it appears that Shahbaz doesn't consider other provinces a part of Pakistan and wants Taliban to carry out attacks in Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan.


The fact of the matter remains that notwithstanding self-serving condemnation of Taliban for public and political consumption, the PMLN continues to adopt an ambivalent attitude towards the Islamists. So much so that Shahbaz Sharif is not even willing to accept that there is something called the Punjabi Taliban. According to reports, he has even refused to accept the information given to him during a special meeting of the federal cabinet that it was indeed the Punjabi Taliban who were behind the spate of terrorist attacks in the province. He kept insisting that the "Punjabi Taliban could not do it as no such league of terrorist existed in his province". Not to be left behind, the Punjab law minister, who was recently involved in a controversy after he was seen openly moving around and soliciting the support of the banned Sunni extremist outfit, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) during the recently concluded by-elections in Jhang, criticised the use of the term Punjabi Taliban since it links militants with a province or a community.


The existence of the Punjabi Taliban is however undeniable and the huge cache of arms and explosives – nearly 8500 kgs – that were recovered in Islamabad and Lahore are proof enough of the extensive network of Islamist militants in the Punjab. The ANP has been crying hoarse for a long time now that the problem of terrorism in Punjab was in fact making the situation worse in NWFP. A large number of the militants fighting in NWFP and FATA are believed to be Punjabis. The Punjab is not only a fertile recruiting ground for the militants but also provides financial support, and sanctuary to the Taliban. While earlier it was believed that the Taliban phenomenon is limited to South Punjab, there is now increasing evidence that in fact the Taliban are present all over Punjab.


Given that the spread of radicalism is now a pan-Pakistan phenomenon, it would be natural to suppose that the efforts to curb the activities of the Islamists and crackdown on their networks would be undertaken with equal vigour in all the provinces of the country. Not so, as is apparent from the attitude of the Punjab chief minister and law minister. This is now fueling resentment especially in NWFP, more so after reports that Pakhtuns all over Punjab were being singled out and harassed and apprehended by the law enforcement agencies. Cutting across party lines, Pakhtun lawmakers have accused the Punjab government of victimising innocent Pakhtuns. If this feeling grows, then it is bound to poison relations between different ethnic groups and put tremendous strain on Pakistan's federal structure.


The tragedy of Pakistan is that rather than realising the folly of using Jihad as an instrument of state policy, the ruling establishment (civilian and military) is once again slipping back into the jihad mode. While the Pakistan army is working overtime to place its taliban proxies in Kabul and reactivating groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to strike against India, Pakistani politicians like Shahbaz Sharif are trying to appease the Islamists by openly proclaiming that their policies are in conjunction with the demands of the taliban. Clearly, if this trend is not reversed soon, no force on earth will be able to stop Pakistan's descent into chaos.


    < 1290 Words >                    22nd March, 2010



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