Musharraf’s trials and tribulations are of little concern to most of us. Indeed his name now evokes a sense of boredom…what, him again? He had a great time of it when in power. Down and out on his luck, and if he made the mistake of coming back to Pakistan, it’s his outlook, not ours.
But the murder charge against him, stemming from the Lal Masjid affair, is a different matter. It concerns him but, more than that, it sheds light on the contours of our national confusion when it comes to militancy and extremism in the name of Islam.
Those events should have been etched on our memory but trust us to do a good job of forgetting them. What seemed pretty obvious at the time has been covered by layers of fantasy and myth-making, making martyrs of desperadoes and turning the army into an object of loathing, at least insofar as this event is concerned.
Lal Masjid is in the centre of Islamabad, St Paul’s or Notre Dame on a smaller scale. What had it become by the summer of 2007? It was a place of worship all right but also a militant stronghold, a centre of jihad, led by Maulana Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric, and his younger brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
As in so many things Pakistani they were first close to the intelligence establishment, playing a role in picking up recruits for the ISI’s various jihads. Under the impact of the American attack on Afghanistan their understanding of jihad changed. From being close to the ISI they drifted away from it. By 2007 they were following their own agenda, defying state authority and spurning pleas for calm and moderation.
Pictures of armed men standing guard outside the mosque, some wearing gas masks, were splashed on TV screens around the world. Islamabad’s newly-empowered media, the empowerment a gift from Musharraf which he had ample reason to regret later, was at its most hysterical, calling for action against the clerics and criticising the government for lacking the spine to restore the ‘writ of the state’, a cliché much used and abused in Pakistan.
Musharraf was in a double bind. The lawyers’ movement had brought lawyers out on the roads, denouncing him and calling for the restoration of the deposed Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry; and there was the Lal Masjid standoff, both events played out at inordinate length on live television, the media never more free than under Musharraf’s quasi-military regime.
Lawyers loved the oxygen of publicity, the leading lights of their movement becoming instant household names. Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulders, was also very media savvy. It was a great time to cut a striking figure on television… “…Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive…” And the whipping horse was Musharraf.
As the tension mounted a Rangers man was shot outside the mosque, the bullet fired from Lal Masjid. Musharraf came under more pressure to do something. Various busybodies tried talking to the Ghazi brothers but on a high, probably because of all the attention they were getting, they set down impossible demands.
Unless the state was to abdicate its authority, that too in the capital, some kind of an operation had become inevitable. How the operation was carried out, whether the amount of force used was adequate or excessive, whether casualties could be minimised or not, are matters of detail. The main thing is that unless the Pakistan Army was to become a branch of the Salvation Army it had to do something. This, after all, was not north or south Waziristan…and the whole world was watching, Pakistan’s attitude to radical militancy under intense international scrutiny.
So the inevitable – or call it tragedy, depending upon one’s viewpoint – came to pass. When it was over and much before the acrid smell of the phosphorescent shells used in the operation had cleared, the Lal Masjid saga became a rallying cry for the armies of jihad, and in the election campaign that soon followed the emotions sparked by this event played no small part in contributing to the rout of pro-Musharraf elements.
But not to lose perspective, Musharraf may have been at the helm of affairs but what was at stake in the Lal Masjid affair was not his person but the authority of the state. Hence whoever ordered the operation – X, Y or Z – ultimately it was the state acting, suppressing a challenge to its authority.
On what grounds of logic then can a murder charge be instituted against Musharraf, whatever his role in the carrying out of the operation? To charge him, in this instance, is to charge the state of Pakistan.
No doubt the case against him was registered on the directions of the Islamabad High Court, and we know that since the restoration of the Chaudhry-led judges, some of the judiciary’s decisions have aroused controversy. But there is no need to enter into that debate here. After the case was registered, the Islamabad High Court’s work was done. It was now up to the Islamabad Police, falling under the control of the Ministry of Interior, to proceed further in the matter.
At stake was the country’s image. Were we serious or merely playing games on the extremist issue? To signal seriousness, the case against Musharraf after preliminary investigation should have been dismissed, for by no stretch of the imagination can the deaths in the Lal Masjid affair, tragic as they were, fall under the rubric of murder. If that was murder then every action undertaken by the state resulting in individual or collective death becomes murder.
Lingering on with this investigation, and not bringing it quickly to a close, convinces no one. It merely signals our dithering and equivocation on the larger threat that we face.
This is absurd enough. But what takes the prize is Musharraf’s stance before the investigation team. He has said that the operation was not his responsibility and that the orders were issued by the then government. This is not only unworthy of him as a person. It is unworthy of any Pakistani chief of the army staff. As president and army chief, he was the chief officer of the state. No action such as that against the Lal Masjid could have happened without his knowledge and approval. So what is he talking about?
If he had any regard for the uniform he once wore, he would have said, yes, an operation had become necessary and acting in defence of the republic he had given the orders. And if he had to do everything over again he would still give the same orders. Just goes to show the kind of leaders we have produced.
To put the leadership question in a wider frame, we now have a prime minister talking endlessly of only one issue: drone strikes, as if that is all there is to our extremism problem. To hear him, and geopolitical strategists like Imran Khan, wax indignant on the subject is to get the impression that the moment drone strikes end, peace will settle on our embattled borderlands. We are no strangers to insults, but to have our intelligence thus insulted…
We could do with some truth for a change. We could be told, for example, that look, drone attacks are bad but with what face do we make a big issue out of them when our sovereignty, where drone strikes occur, is a figment of the imagination? Only when we retake our sovereignty there can we expect the Americans to take us seriously. But l’audace, boldness, or even some measure of it…from where do we get it?
Tailpiece: The political class, it seems, will never learn. The delimitation of local council seats in Punjab is turning into quite a farce. I can speak for Chakwal where villages have been tossed here and there in an absurd manner to suit the passing whims of the ruling party. Union councils which have been around for the last 50 years are being broken up arbitrarily. City wards are being redrawn with the same abandon…and this is their idea of a fair election.
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