The stark horror of what is happening in and around Ahmedabad must alert Pakistanis to their own reality. In India, at least, extremism can be combated by the public will.
Gujarat has been brought to its knees over the month of March. The gory developments in the state, however, do not come as a surprise. It is the naked communalism and bigotry propagated by the government at the centre over the past couple of years that has allowed extremists, who would otherwise be isolated, to engage in massacres with the patronage of local law enforcement officials. The magnitude of the killing in Gujarat, as in other incidents in the past, has been enough for many in Pakistan to announce how thankful they are that Pakistan exists. Many have started freshly espousing the virtues of the two-nation theory. But this is faulty analysis.
In the first instance, it is well worth remembering that safety from the clutches of religious fanatics is something that Pakistan’s Hindus and Christians have not had the pleasure of experiencing. After the eruption of violence in Gujarat, extremists in Rahim Yar Khan district of Punjab attacked and seriously injured two men from the Hindu Siraiki community, which forms part of the region’s true indigenous population. Rather than bask in a false sense of security, the stark horror of what is happening in and around Ahmedabad should remind Pakistanis of what has been a reality in their own country for too long. There is no cause for any feeling of relief when we know that the Pakistani establishment – just like India’s newly-risen parochial parties – has systematically patronised extremist groups since the late 1970s.
Not long ago, Gen3ral Pervez Musharraf promised the people a clampdown on armed groups operating in the country and an end to the insane cycle of violence. Instead, the situation is getting worse: as if to make a statement, Sunni supremacists have repeatedly targeted Shi’a doctors in Karachi (see page 22). These killings would not have happened if the government had in fact taken firm measures as promised. Intelligence agencies that are not able to prevent such murderous sectarian incidents should be disbanded. The attack on a church in the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad proved to be a big embarrasment to the government because of high-profile casualties, but even here the law-enforcement and intelligence officials were proven hapless.
It is not that the intelligence agencies cannot deal with extremism if they want to. It is just that they are busy with what has preoccupied them for the past 30 years—keeping a strict watch on political activity and agitations of any kind. This leaves the murdering fanatics free to run riot. Clearly, the promises made by Gen Musharraf are not being kept, and the military regime is proving to be as repressive as any that has come before it – despite loud claims of moving Pakistan on the road to genuine democracy.
With political parties muted, one may well wonder whether the government really needs political intelligence. Sadly and ominously for Pakistan, the little political activity that remains is inviting the wrath of an establishment and elite-dominated state intent on preserving the status quo. Whether it is the movement of squatters, or activism by landless tenants or fisher-folk, the state has moved to ruthlessly suppress the disempowered. The government has condemned civil dissenters to the zone of terror by bringing them under the ambit of antiterrorism legislation.
It is difficult to be anything other than skeptical about the true intentions of the military government. The rumours about jehadi groups simply having camouflaged their operations while remaining hand-in-glove with the establishment cannot be dismissed out of hand. However much the Pakistani-on-the-street badmouths India, and seems to be almost (shamefully) gleeful at how Gujarat has degenerated into chaos, we must understand that the Indian polity stands on much firmer ground than Pakistan’s.
Extremism in India is rearing its ugly head, but is neither institutionalised nor patronised by the state establishment as it is in Pakistan. It is the current political dispensation in India that has given rise to the carnage in Gujrat, but the Bharatiya Janata Party government does not represent an irreversible trend, while extremism in Pakistan is permanent until such a time as the Pakistani establishment abandons it. The country’s civil and military administrations have been responsible for propagating violence over a period of time, and unlike in India, the general public in Pakistan is largely powerless to do anything about it.
Indian democracy is hardly perfect, and it is that democracy that has given a party like the Bp, the chance to inject its destructive ideology into the political mainstream. But the BJP coming to power had as much to do with the Indian public’s disillusionment with almost 50 uninterrupted years of Congress rule as it did with the politics of the BJP itself. The shameful events in Gujarat have compounded the frustration the Indian public has been feeling toward the BJP government on account of a number of unpopular policies, and it is likely that the BJP will not survive the next general election – the debacle in the Uttar Pradesh state elections suggest as much. The Indian public at large does not generally identify itself on communal or religious lines, and Gujarat has probably convinced people that it is time to accept the failure of the BJP experiment.
This does not mean that extremism does not and will not continue to exist in India. Rather, it shows that should the average Indian reject it through the electoral process, extremism can be combated by the public will. The point lies not in refuting the multitude of contradictions that make up the Indian state and society, including the marginalisation of minorities—whether religious or otherwise. Instead, it rests in the idea that the vast Indian public has some level of control over the kind of politics and society that it wants, with Kashmir being the obvious exception.
The decision of the Indian Supreme Court to prohibit the extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad from starting a planned shilanyas of a temple on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid is yet another example of the built-in self-correcting mechanism in India that ensures the reign of public interest. The last time Pakistan’s own Supreme Court was called on to make a decision of major significance, it decided that a military coup against an elected government could be legitimised for three whole years. It is plausible to assume that if a situation similar to that of Gujarat were to exist in Pakistan and the Pakistani government was as supportive of extremists as Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government was of the VHP, the Supreme Court in Islamabad would have gone with the government.
At the end of the day, there are many similiarities between extremists in India and Pakistan. Both overseas Pakistanis and Indians inexplicably support extremist groups; and extremist parties are able to mobilise more street power than other parties. However, Indian democracy does give ordinary Indians some possibility of rejecting extremism. Furthermore, the Indian intelligence agencies do not manipulate the electoral process to bring extremists into government, nor can the extremists count on the judiciary remaining hostage to the establishment’s wishes. Pakistanis, in the government and intelligentsia alike, never tire of reminding one another (and others who care) that parochial parties in Pakistan have never garnered more than 7 percent of the total vote during elections. In that case, it is an even bigger indictment of the military establishment for having pandered to the extremists and made them what they are today.
India has not experienced an increase in poverty over the last decade and a half like Pakistan has. India is not mired in foreign debt on such scale that it has had to surrender economic sovereignty to the West and the Bretton Woods institutions. It would be inaccurate to say that all of these differences exist because India is a democratic state and Pakistan never has been one.
But it is high time that Pakistan too was finally allowed a continuous political process. At least, then, citizens could feel responsible for who and what they bring to power, and not have extremism imposed on them by those who presume to dictate what is right and what is wrong.