Questions begged of military’s role in Pakistan’s political chaos

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A passerby takes a selfie in front of a police prison van destroyed during clashes with police near the Faizabad junction in Islamabad, Pakistan, on November 26, 2017.  Photo: Reuters / Caren Firouz

The military-led agreement with Pakistan’s religious fanatics that ended a three-week siege of Islamabad last week is no victory for secularism. It guarantees the radicals a role in the nation’s statehood, affording  impunity to those who kept the lives of millions hostage to their theological rigidity.

A six-point agreement between the Tehreek-i- Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) party and the government was signed after police action proved ineffective in dispersing the mob that had over-run the capital.

Major Gen. Faiz Hamid, director general of the counterintelligence wing of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was, surprisingly, one of the signatories. The Islamists, mistrustful of the weak and disoriented civilian government, insisted on the army’s endorsement of any settlement.

While calling off the protest, TLYRA leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi confirmed to a group of journalists, in front of a chanting crowd of 3,000 supporters, that “we are ending our protest upon the assurances of the chief of the army staff.” Rizvi sounded a warning that if the government went back on its promises, his supporters would start  a country-wide protest again.

Any assessment of the agreement leaves a bad taste. Those parts of it that were made public include the resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid (over his role in moves to slightly alter the wording of the oath sworn by election candidates in relation to the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, or finality of prophethood), the withdrawal of criminal charges against TLYRA members, and a separate stipulation that the provincial government of Punjab dispose of senior minister Rana Sanuallah. In a recent television talk show, Sanuallah made “controversial” remarks that were interpreted as being equivocal about the constitutional status of the Ahmadis, a persecuted community considered non-Muslim by hardliners and indeed the state.

Those parts of the agreement which were not officially announced – but which were made public by TLYRA leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a signatory – are even more concerning. The government has, it is claimed, agreed to further toughen Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, with anyone convicted of blasphemy being automatically placed on the country’s Exit Control List (ECL), meaning they are unable to travel abroad. And blasphemy are to be made easier to lodge with police, according to Rizvi.

If there was any justice, the compensation would have gone to those whose livelihoods suffered from the sit-in

The cleric also claims the government has agreed to include TLYRA members on boards for devising curricula for schools and colleges.

Asia Times was unable to reach Talal Chowdhry, minister of state for the interior, for comment. However, on a TV talk show over the weekend, he said: “The process of selecting contents for the textbooks is a very lengthy and intricate process. The curricula board is one of the many sections where the contents are reviewed, evaluated and subsequently approved.” A few TLYRA members on boards would hardly make any difference to the final curricula he insisted.

The saddest part of the whole saga was encapsulated in images of a major-general distributing cash envelopes to frenzied zealots who had openly challenged the state’s writ and made a mockery of the country’s constitution. If there was any justice, the compensation would have gone to those whose livelihoods suffered from the sit-in.

With the army acting as facilitator in a truce with the forces who locked down the capital, serious questions must be asked of the role of the military and security agencies in engineering and manipulating Pakistan’s political direction.

Last month, two rival factions of the Muttahida Quami Movement announced a reconciliation in Karachi. Within 24 hours, however, the merger broke up, with leaders of both parties claiming that the security agencies had “facilitated” a deal. Claims over the military’s role were corroborated by a major-general in the Sindh Rangers.

The Karachi case and the Islamabad “settlement” may seem unrelated, but both reveal something about the identity of the real powerbrokers in an increasingly unstable nation.

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