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Over recent days, news from Pakistan has been dominated by the siege at the Red Mosque, which ended late yesterday. Scarcely a mile from the seat of power in Islamabad, the madrasa students and their two leading clerics inside the mosque first claimed attention with kidnappings, threats of suicide bombings and demands for the imposition of sharia law. The Musharraf regime mounted a military operation against the militants which led to the loss of numerous lives, among them one of the clerics, Abdul Rashid Ghaz. A number of questions arise. Why was action not taken immediately? How were militants and arms able to get in under the gaze of the police and intelligence services? And why were other measures, including shutting off electricity at the mosque, not exhausted earlier?
The episode appears to have been drawn out deliberately by President Musharraf. Since he sacked the chief justice in March, a movement led by lawyers, journalists and opposition parties has been clamouring for democracy on Pakistan’s streets. As Musharraf faces his biggest crisis, he is desperate to prove his indispensability to the west in the war on terror.
But this use of force is likely to produce unintended and dangerous consequences, as it has in Baluchistan, Waziristan and Bajaur. It may be salutary to recall how Indira Gandhi’s order for troops to attack the Golden Temple, where Sikh militants were holed up, not only failed to subdue the militants but triggered a wave of violence, including her assassination. While few Sikhs may have sympathised with the militants, many came to deeply resent the government’s high-handedness.
Suicide bombing and other noxious forms of terrorism were once alien to Pakistan. After eight years of military dictatorship, radicalism and fundamentalism are in the ascendant everywhere. Musharraf is perceived among radical elements as the west’s instrument in a “war on Islam”–there could be no greater failure in the battle for hearts and minds.
Terrorism requires a political solution. Extremists can be marginalised through debate and political dialogue in a democracy. Military dictatorship, as we are now seeing, only exacerbates the problem. It has become obvious to every Pakistani that, far from presiding over a transition to genuine democracy in the country, Musharraf is intent on dismantling every democratic institution in his way. Over recent months he has assaulted the judiciary, restricted freedom of the press, and put hundreds of members of the opposition behind bars.
The roots of the most shocking incident so far, however, can be found in north London, where the chairman of the Musharraf-allied Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, resides. When Pakistan’s chief justice decided to address the bar in Karachi, a vast welcome was expected in the city. This worried Musharraf and his MQM allies, who control the Sindh government–and especially Karachi, the provincial capital. They decided to organise a rival rally the same day, despite protests by the opposition. What followed on the blood-soaked May 12 could be described in two words: state terrorism.
While the police stood aside, the terrorist arm of the MQM sprayed bullets into a peaceful procession of the opposition parties. Some 48 people lost their lives and 200 sustained bullet wounds. Among them were 10 members of my party. Most callously, Musharraf later that evening triumphantly claimed that the people had shown their “force”. None of the opposition parties believe MQM’s denials that they were involved in turning this peaceful protest violent. It was then I decided to launch legal proceedings against Altaf Hussain, who has been living in exile in London since 1992 and became a British citizen in 1999.
The MQM came into existence in the mid-1980s as a genuine people’s movement in Karachi, representing the immigrant community that had arrived from India shortly after the creation of Pakistan. This community had serious grievances, the most significant being that educated young muhajirs could not get jobs because of imposed quotas. But within a few years it had degenerated into a thuggish mafia outfit, controlled by one man, Altaf Hussain.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even the US state department and the European Union have issued reports about the MQM’s terrorist activities. The only independent provincial assembly in Pakistan recently denounced the party as a “terrorist organisation”, and last weekend the conference of opposition parties jointly resolved to support the legal proceedings against Hussain.
While Musharraf maintains that he is at the frontline of the war on terror–in which thousands of Pakistani soldiers and citizens have lost their lives–he has allied himself with the country’s number one terrorist. And Tony Blair’s government, which was at the fore of this war, gave Pakistan’s number one terrorist citizenship.
It is impossible to embark on any quest for the hearts and minds of Pakistanis when these blatant double standards exist. Are dictators somehow fine when they exist to serve US interests, even if they destroy hopes of democracy in the process? And are terrorists only a problem when it is western blood that is shed?
IMRAN KHAN is the leader of the Pakistan Movement for Justice and a member of parliament