Imran – Between Hardliners And A Hard Place

It used to be hockey once upon a time, it is now cricket. Winning a cricket match against India, after all the mutual war cries on the battlefield and cricket ground, has been the best thing to happen, in a long time, to Pakistan’s cricketing hero-turned-politician, Prime Minister Imran Khan.

A true Pathan, he may keep his handsome chin up. But he is currently besieged from all sides, and analysts at home and abroad have begun to say that he may not complete his term, now into its third year.

He has goofed his way through his first-ever stint in political power, changing ministers and special assistants to man his government with a record that can better that of Donald Trump. He gained office, albeit through an election, but essentially because the all-powerful army, decided to anoint him after being disillusioned with the two earlier options, the Pakistan Peoples’ party and the Pakistan Muslim League of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

He has angered his benefactors, first by messing up governance. At this time last year, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) of opposition parties was, for the first time, attacking the armed forces and even mentioning the top brass by name at protest rallies. The movement frittered away this year because of their own competing ambitions and mutual contradictions. The military mainly, but Imran, at least partially, must get credit for this.

But the movement is back, when the military sees him as ‘interfering’ in its working. He has shown preference for Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the Director General, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is the most powerful wing of the powerful army. Hameed’s visiting Kabul, allegedly at Imran’s behest, and speaking to media, a tea mug in hand, has upset the Chief, Gen. Qaiser Javed Bajwa.

The talk in the Army GHQ, reports say, is that it is one thing to guide the whole strategy and operation that brought the Taliban back to power in Afghanistan, but it is quite another for the ISI chief, albeit a key man in it, to be seen as a peacemaker among the quarrelling Taliban helping them to form their interim government. Also, his alleged role in ensuring key posts in that government for the Haqqani family that runs a dreaded network of fighters that is proscribed by the United Nations, has upset the United States. Seething over the way it was made to evacuate from Afghanistan and looking for scapegoats, the US, holding all the aces at global financial bodies, could get bloody-minded and along with the Taliban, punish Pakistan as well.

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Getting funds from friends has been iffy. Saudi Arabia, which took back two billion it loaned last year, has just agreed to $3billion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) wants to impose severe preconditions that Islamabad is loath to accept because of their adverse impact on the domestic front, last week sent back Finance Minister Shaukat Tareen without a pact.

Bajwa transferred Hameed out of the ISI, and had an official announcement made. After a huge public debate for three weeks, Imran has surrendered in this turf war with the army. The tussle shows him up as less trust-worthy by the men in khaki, also vulnerable to his political opponents, ready to pounce upon him. The PDM has revived, this time to protest rising prices of essential commodities.

Like the opposition parties, Imran has a tough time dealing with the Islamists. Some of them have joined the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP)’s “Long March” from Lahore to Islamabad. In a way, Imran is getting the dose of the same medicine he served his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, laying a siege that lasted several weeks and was called off, again, on a telephone call from the Army GHQs.

The TLP’s demands make scary reading for Imran and his government. Besides release of its chief who has been in and out of jail, it wants the government to expel the French envoy in Islamabad because of France’s action against its radical Muslims. The diplomatic fallout of any such action could impact Pakistan’s relations, with not just France, but the entire Western world that is fearful of rising militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  

As the long marchers broke through security cordons last week, the government did the only thing it has been used to – talk with an organization it has banned, and release hundreds of marchers and their key leaders. It is readying to talk also to its own Taliban of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Although many Muslims across the globe are upset with what they perceive as Islamophobia of the West, only in Pakistan, perhaps, thousands take to the streets on this issue and some even die of police bullets.

To return to the Afghanistan developments, they give Pakistan a distinct geo-political advantage over all other stake holders. But Imran cannot rejoice at this victory that is so far proving to be Pyrrhic. The Islamists at home have become bolder and the TLP march is just one indicator. The Taliban rule has resolved nothing in Pakistan’s relations with Kabul, nor within Afghanistan. This has meant more refugees crossing over the Khyber Pass. Pakistan already hosts half-a-million, some for the last four decades. The socio-economic impact of all this is negative.

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The US wants to retain more than just a foot-hold in the region and is pressuring Islamabad to allow air operations facilities. Imran Khan has vociferously refused it, but may have to yield, angering the Taliban in Kabul who have warned of ‘consequences’. These are difficult choices and Imran Khan is no Churchill or De Gaulle.

Lastly, the India factor. In the last two decades, despite frequent upheavals, successive governments on both sides have brought phases of understanding and relative peace. But Narendra Modi believes in giving-it-back. He did pay a surprise visit to Lahore to attend a wedding in Nawaz Sharif’s family. But he has simply ignored Imran Khan, when not calling him “Mr Niazi”, an allusion to the general who surrendered to the Indian forces in Dhaka 50 years ago. Pakistan under Imran has become part of his party’s electoral arithmetic.

Khan has lost both ways. He wished for Modi’s success in the 2019 Indian elections, and when that happened, he has been attacking Modi and his government of ‘fascism’ and what not. His anti-India pitch has not worked even after Modi Government’s most provocative action against Pakistan, of dissolving the very entity of the disputed State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Facing all these woes, at home, abroad and with India, Imran Khan and his “men in green” deserve winning the cricket match.

The writer can be reached at

Pakistan Military Won Elections In PoK

July 25, 2021, will be remembered as the day when elections held for the so-called legislative assembly of Pakistani-occupied Kashmir (PoK) were marred with rigging, violence and murder under the watchful eye of the Pakistani military establishment itself.

So far 25 Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and 11 Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) candidates allegedly approved by none other than Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa have been officially declared winners taking first and second place respectively.

Ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has only been able to bag six seats. This clearly demonstrates that for the first time in the history of PoK, the Pakistani military establishment will not only be able to form a government but also have a pro-Bajwa opposition. Hence, Pakistan’s Army Chief will be able to play one against the other whenever he finds it beneficial to his political ambitions in the region.

The aforementioned elections have also proved to be a money-grabbing event. Prior to July 25, sector commander of PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan Brigadier Naeem Malik was caught red-handed accepting bribes from PTI candidates. It was reported that Malik has offered PTI candidate billionaire Ilyas Tanvir the position of the prime minister of the occupied territory for a cash lump sum of one billion rupees of which one million was taken as token money.

Brigadier Naeem has likewise been accused of selling tickets to PTI candidates and promised them a victory. He has been accused of manipulating the appointment of Judges of both the High and Supreme courts and issuing favour to selected construction companies in PoK.

The Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, Ali Ameen Gandapur was barred by the Election Commission from entering PoK after he gave five lakh rupees to a PTI candidate. The money was confiscated.

But Gandapur refused to abide by the orders of EC and continued to visit several constituencies in PoK. On one occasion when confronted by the youth he got out of his motor, pulled out his pistol and began firing!

Besides the above-mentioned tactics by means of which the outcome of the current elections has been controlled, there are other factors involved as well such.

The role of Lent officers, head of the revenue department, the patwari, and the tehsildar. Their role is to ensure that people living in their area vote for the candidate who is favored by the Pakistan military. During the last week of the election campaign, they start to pay visits to families of those who they consider are still in doubt about who to cast their vote for.

All sorts of pressures are applied to motivate them to fall in line for a meager monetary favour. And they do fall in line since they know that the price they will be paying in form of extortion and requisition of their lands by the patwari on behalf of the Pakistan army will be too much to bear.

The most important document for a government servant, serving in PoK, is his or her Annual Confidential Report commonly referred to as ACR that is prepared by senior bureaucrats. It is this ACR on which all government servants depend for promotions and any disobedience of one’s superiors means that one is side-lined for the rest of one’s life.

Here is when they become the most effective tool that is applied to bully hundreds of thousands of government servants to cast their votes in accordance with the dictates of their supervisors.

PoK is run by a troika composed of the Minister of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, Chief Secretary and the Inspector General of police. All three are non-resident Pakistanis appointed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Hence they are referred to as Lent officers. The accomplishment of the election result desired by the military establishment is fulfilled by them.

It is therefore not surprising that despite the crowd-puller public meetings held all over POK by Maryam Nawaz, PTI has managed to secure a ‘convincing’ victory pushing the ruling PML-N to third place.

Forty thousand extra troops were deployed at polling stations on July 25 to maintain peace. However, it was the very military that stood by as silent spectators as PTI goons carried on with violence and occupied the polling station where they uninterruptedly marked PTI candidates.

The hypocrisy of PPP and PML-N is now evident. Although both parties have accused PTI of applying a combination of violence, bullying and rigging yet, according to reliable inner circles who spoke to this scribe, they refuse to launch a wider protest campaign for fear of India using it as a pretext to exposing the plight of the subjugated people of PoK to those living in the valley.

(Dr Amjad Ayub Mirza is an author and a human rights activist from Mirpur in PoK. He currently lives in exile in the UK. – ANI)

Difficult For Pak To Sell Anti-India Narrative To Biden

The main focus of Pakistan as US President-elect Joe Biden gears up to take over in January 2021 does not appear to be a comprehensive reset of relations after the trauma of the President Donald Trump’s years but how to ensure that Indo-US relations do not continue to deepen.

For this, Pakistan will try and build on Biden’s regular visits to Pakistan since the 1990s, his old connections with and knowledge of Pakistan as also his experience as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and of Barack Obama’s White House. Biden, after all, was the original architect of the Kerry-Lugar bill and the policy of engagement with the civil government to support a sustainable long-term relationship with Pakistan.

The key strand in its strategy is to stress the necessity of Indo-Pakistan equivalence and the need for the US to adopt a balanced and equitable approach towards both countries. While Pakistan’s quest for parity with India is as old as a partition of the sub-continent, most recently in an interview with Der Spiegel, Imran Khan had reiterated that Pakistan expected even-handed treatment from the US with respect to India.

Another key component, signalling its own insecurities, is to warn Biden about India. Thus, Imran Khan in his interview said: ‘The US thinks India will contain China, which is a completely flawed premise. India is a threat to its neighbours, to China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and to us.’ Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Munir Akram in an interview called the US-India strategic partnership a “wrong choice,” and advised that improving ties with Pakistan could prove extremely beneficial for the incoming administration.

An adjunct to this theme is to try and chip away at a central pillar of Indo-US relationship – shared democratic values– by stressing that such values were fast dissipating in India; that India was becoming exclusivist, violating democracy and human rights and finally, the Imran Khan rant of India becoming an extremist and fascist country under the BJP government.

The greatest expectation, of course, is on Kashmir–that Biden will robustly support ‘American’ values that means a greater emphasis on democracy, human rights and freedom of expression all around the world. Translated into action Pakistan is hoping that this would mean that Biden as president would strongly address the issue of the removal of the special status of the J&K, factor in adherence to human rights and castigate India for the alleged repression there.

Much has also been made of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s statement in October 2019 that: ‘We have to remind Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping track of the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.’ Pakistan hopes that this would be translated into political action.

Another thread of concern is Washington’s China policy. Pakistan is hoping that under Biden the US would find a way of competing with China without conflict. This could ensure Pakistan not becoming totally dependent on China and the US still finding some use for it.

Pakistan is concerned that if Biden goes the Trump way in dealing with China, it would have an adverse impact on it, on its need for international financial institutions like the IMF, on trying to extricate itself from the ‘grey list’ of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and especially on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Of concern to Pakistan are the views of Kamala Harris on the human rights violations of the Uighurs. In an interview, she had said: ‘China’s abysmal human rights record must feature prominently in our policy toward the country. We can’t ignore China’s mass detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims in “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang region, or its widespread abuse of surveillance for political and religious repression.’ Were the Biden administration to make this an important element in its China policy, Imran Khan would no longer be able to feign ignorance about the Uighur problem as he has done in the past.

Pakistan would also be looking closely at the Afghanistan policy of Biden. It would look to capitalise on what then-Vice President Joe Biden had told Afghan President Karzai in 2008 that Pakistan was 50 times more important than Afghanistan for the US. However, the Biden administration is bound to look at the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020 and especially credible reports of the Taliban continuing to maintain ties with Al Qaeda, the unacceptable levels of violence and the stalled intra-Afghan dialogue. This will entail increased pressure on Pakistan to deliver on its promises.

Well aware that the new administration will be absorbed in internal issues, at least in the short term, Pakistan has devised its own strategy to get it to focus on the subcontinent. This includes, for the moment, activating the LoC with caliber-escalation firepower and producing a dossier accusing India of fomenting terrorism in Pakistan. Both are geared to put out the message that the region is a nuclear flashpoint that the incoming administration should not ignore.

However, the reality check for Pakistan is that Indo-US relations are deep and broad-based, something that was underlined by the recent signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). What Pakistan would find uncomfortable is that in 2008, Biden garnered the support of other Democrats to back the India-US civil nuclear deal. Moreover, in an interview in 2006 as a Senator, Biden had stated: ‘My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States. If that occurs, the world will be safer.’ He now has the opportunity to translate his dream into reality.

A policy paper released during the presidential campaign noted that the Biden administration would place a high priority on strengthening the Indo-US relationship by pushing India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, continuing co-operation on terrorism, climate change, health and trade, working towards a multi-fold increase in bilateral trade. The paper recalled the lead role played by Biden, both as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President in the Obama administration, in systematically deepening strategic engagement, people-to-people ties, and collaboration with India on global challenges.

Ultimately, Pakistan would have to accept that the Pak-US relations have been and are likely to remain transactional due to lack of substantive content. The US will remain engaged on issues like the safety of Pak nuclear weapons and terrorism but Afghanistan apart, there is very little that Pakistan has to offer positively to interest the US.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Imran Khan had criticized the award given by the then PPP government to Biden in 2009 for his role in pressuring President Musharraf to give up power and return Pakistan to democracy.

Pakistan will also have a hard time selling an anti-India narrative simply because of its own track record whether about ‘missing persons’, the ‘kill and dump’ policy in Balochistan, the daylight murders of Ahmadis and those perceived to have indulged in blasphemy, the rampant abduction and forced conversion of minor Hindu, Christian and Sikh girls as also the appalling persecution of the media under Imran Khan. Its charges against India on terrorism would be dismissed out of hand like similar dossiers were dismissed in 2015.

The Biden presidency is also likely to see the return of the traditional and mainstream foreign policy establishment with area specialists providing crucial policy inputs, something absent under President Trump. They will be aware of Pakistan’s past duplicity of supporting the Taliban while pretending to be a US ally against terrorism. This will not bode well for Pakistan.

Hence, despite all its efforts, it is unlikely that Pakistan would be able to succeed in trying to prevent the further strengthening of the Indo-US relationship under Biden. At best, Pakistan could look to nudge the US to restore the policy of aid that had taken a hit under the Trump presidency and hope that the deepening New Delhi-Washington relationship would not further enhance the disparity with India.

(The author is a Member of the National Security Advisory Board. Views are personal – ANI)

Pakistan’s Diplomatic Downfall, Internal Implosion

Unable to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Suleiman of Saudi Arabia, the high-powered delegation led by Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa and ISI chief has returned empty-handed to Islamabad.

In addition to the humiliation caused by failing to gain an audience with the Crown Prince, the Saudi government also cancelled its decision to honour General Bajwa, a promise that was made by the Islamic Kingdom just a few months earlier.

The trip of the Pakistani generals to Saudi Arabia comes after Saudi Arabia cancelled a USD 3.2 billion oil credit facility to Pakistan. In 2018, when Imran Khan ‘won’ the general elections, Saudi Arabia gave Pakistan a loan of USD 3 billion to help the latter with its balanced of payments crisis and issued the above-mentioned oil credit facility to Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to cancel the oil credit facility to its Muslim brother country came after Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmoud Qureshi issued a statement literally threatening the Saudi led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to convene an emergency special session on Kashmir or else he would call a meeting of like-minded Muslim ‘brother’ countries. This tantamount to splitting the Saudi led alliance.

The statement enraged the Saudis and in retaliation they cancelled the USD 3.2 billion oil credit facility and made a demand that Pakistan pays back USD 1 billion dollars that it already owes them. Pakistan had to beg China to lend her the money in order to pay Saudi Arabia. Since the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave the so-called special status to the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan has suffered an anti-India diplomatic knockout. Pakistan has isolated herself and the country has only itself to blame.

Defence analyst Major (R) Gaurav Arya says that in today’s global economic environment only a pluralistic approach would work. And rightly so. UAE and Israel establishing diplomatic and trade relations brokered by Donald Trump’s administration is testimony to the reality of pluralism in a cutthroat competitive global market. Regrouping of nation-states into new economic zones and partnerships requires new thinking and bold leadership.

Unfortunately, Pakistan is still entrapped in the obsolete political narrative of the Ottoman period and has failed to produce or even adapt to new patterns of thought and give birth to bold leadership. Pakistan and its politics is rooted in envy, dishonesty and deception and has cost her the trust of the global community.

Today, Pakistan is known for its hate of Hindus, being envious of a fast-developing India, for its corrupt and dishonest handling of foreign aid and its trickery and deception in dodging the global community in the fight to eliminate Taliban and other variants of Islamic Jihadist organisations such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Hizbul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad or the recently covert terrorist outfit The Resistance Front which Major (R) Gaurav Arya calls “secularisation of terrorism”.

The news regarding the establishment of diplomatic relations between UAE and Israel coincided with another important development. 10,000 Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) stationed in the Kashmir Valley have been directed by the Home Ministry to return to their bases in mainland India. This sends a strongmessage to the global community regarding the law and order improvement in the ill-fated region of the Kashmir Valley.

Since the abrogation of Article 370, peace has been re-established in the Valley at a more-than-expected fast pace. No bloodbath has taken place as previously predicted (read threatened) by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Scores of sleeping terrorist cells have been busted in Srinagar and many jihadi infiltrators, as well as home-grown individual terrorists, have been eliminated in deadly encounters in which our jawans have also laid down their lives. And even more interestingly, (but mostly unreported in Indian media), people of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) have been holding protests against Pakistan almost every single day.

Daily protests are now the new norm in PoK. The political and social content of these protests range from demonstrations against long durations of load shedding in Palandri for instance, to demands for justice raised in Nakyal for Ejaz Abbasi, a senior PoK journalist who was beaten up at the Press Information Department (PID) in Islamabad a couple of weeks ago, to torch-bearing rallies in Muzafarabad against the diversion of Neelum-Jhelum River for Azad Patan and Kohala Hydropower Projects, both of which are part of the illegal CPEC agreement between Pakistan (read military) and China (read Communist Party-controlled corporations).

The CPEC is illegal because PoK is Indian territory occupied by Pakistan and the later cannot enter into any defence or economic agreement that include GB or PoK until and unless the territorial dispute between Pakistan and India is resolved and Pakistan withdraws its army from GB and PoK.

Similarly, in Pakistani-occupied GB, people are protesting against cuts in wheat subsidies, illegal land grab of green pastures in Nilter, land grab for a bus stand in Gilgit as well as for the illegal extension of Gilgit airport, lack of medical facilities in Hunza, Load shedding in Skardu, and so on and so forth.

The USD 14 billion Diamer-Bhasha Dam Hydroelectric project is another issue that has generated anxiety among the subjugated population of GB. The displaced people of the villages in and around the historic city of Chillas are awaiting the deceitful promise made by the Pakistan and Chinese companies to resettle them and pay compensation for loss of their ancestral home.

For every 25 people in GB, there is one Pakistani army personnel deployed. Only last month, Imran Khan approved of an additional 100 army platoons to be sent to Diamer district to protect the construction site of the dam.

Pakistan’s high handedness and arrogance is manifest in the fact that she does not even bother to consult the real stakeholders of CPEC or so-called developmental project that are being initiated in the occupied territory of GB or PoK. Therefore, in the coming weeks and months, conflict between PoK/GB and Pakistani establishment seems inevitable. This became evident when on August 5 this year Imran Khan went to address the puppet legislative assembly in PoK.

During his speech, a rebellious PoK Prime Minister Farooq Haider, demanded that Imran Khan and Pakistan grant PoK self-determination! He said, “The world will not listen to you (Pakistan), however, if we (PoK) were free and had autonomy then they themselves would take their case to the global community!” This came as a shock to the Pakistani establishment.

Likewise, the outgoing chief minister of GB Hafiz Hafeez Ur Rehman, has been complaining about Pakistan’s high handedness in dealing with pressing issues related to GB. Hence, Pakistan has lost the goodwill and the trust of its ‘Muslim’ brothers living under occupation in GB and PoK and they now seem desperate to find a solution to end their misery.

On the other hand, Pakistan is faced with an insurgency in Balochistan that is now turning into a civil war between the oppressed Baloch people and the barbaric Pakistani army. Similar, with the resurfacing of independence movement in Sindh reignited by peasant-based Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army; a previously non-violent nationalist, anti-feudal, anti-Pakistan sentiment is now gradually turning into an armed insurgency.

While this movement has managed to catch the imagination of the youth, more importantly, it has been able to attract the Sindhi urban lower-middle and working-class since urban-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) announced that it would join the struggle to free Sindh from Pakistani occupation.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) is becoming a focal for crusade against the atrocities of Pakistan military in the tribal areas. In Punjab, a witch-hunt against those who oppose domination of civil society by military and Islamic clergy is currently underway. Sackings of Professors Pervez Hoodbhoy and Ammar Ali Jaan of Quid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and FC College in Lahore respectively are fresh examples of state-sponsored repression in Punjab.

The new Tahafuz e Bunyaad e Islam (Protection of Fundamentals of Islam) bill passed by the Punjab assembly last month is seen as part of establishments’ attempts to impose censorship on print and spoken word. 100 books were banned immediately after the bill became an Act. More than 1,000 books are being scrutinised by the state to check if they meet the Wahhabi narrative of Islam. Hence cultural and intellectual genocide has begum in Punjab. Student and workers’ protesting and striking for better pay and health and safety facilities are now holding joint protest rallies in Lahore.

The recent visit to Saudi Arabia by Pakistan Army chief General Bajwa and DG ISI that ended up in humiliation will add to the feeling of alienation and haplessness among the common people in Punjab and PoK in particular and Pakistan in general. The failure of Imran Khan to provide 50 lakh houses and 10 million jobs, a GDP showing negative growth of minus 0.38 per cent and the persecution of political opponents are all perfect ingredients of a recipe for rebellion.

However, it is the recent visit of the Pakistan Army chief and DG ISI along with other top brass military officials and Pakistan’s perpetual failure in harnessing diplomatic support that could prove to be the last bale carrying the straw that will sink the ship.

The aftermath of the downward diplomatic spiral and the impending rebellion of Pakistani society can be summed up in Major (R) Gaurav Arya’s own words “an implosion of the synthetically manufactured country called Pakistan is neigh.”

The author who is a human rights activist from Mirpur in PoK. He currently lives in exile in the UK. (ANI)

Ertuğrul – Solace In Fictional Glory

How far and deep into the past can a people go, be it history or mythology popularly perceived as history, to rejuvenate their present that is in turmoil and one that portends a bleak immediate future? Answer to this complex question may be found in the heady mix of piety and populism dished out with political support to people locked-in by Coronavirus pandemic.

After the Indian experience of Ramayan and Mahabharat television serials, it is time to see Pakistanis glued to their television sets watching an epic-size Turkish series about 13th century Muslim renaissance. Begun in the holy Ramazan month, it continues to win audiences. 

Dubbed Muslim Game of Throne, Dirilis (meaning Resurrection): Ertugrul has established viewership records with 240 million people watching it on YouTube alone. Said to be the new avatar of a 2002 film on the same subject that was an entry at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in 2002, this 2014 series is a milestone in Turkey’s entertainment world. After five successful seasons, Director Mehmet Bozdag is planning a sequel.

Its main protagonist is Osman I who rallied squabbling tribes of Oghuz Turks, won territories and paved the way for his son to establish the Ottoman Empire. It stretched to parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa and remains an enduring phase of Muslim political, military and cultural supremacy.

The end of this empire, the Caliphate, a century back post-First World War has not impacted its lure. A modern secular state that Kamal Ataturk then created stands rejected by the new political leadership and Turkey continues to reclaim its past glory.

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The Turkish prowess, past and present, attracts Muslims in general, but especially in Pakistan as it explores an identity away from a hostile India. In that quest, it is wary of a Shia Iran and an iffy Afghanistan, although Ghazanvi, Ghori and Abdali are used to remind what remains of India of the past conquests.  

“At its heart, what Ertugrul represents in this scenario is a battle for the soul of the Islamic narrative and for Pakistan’s own self-image,” Imran Khan, a Doha-based journalist writes for Al Jazeera.

He queries: “Does the country have a unique Muslim identity forged via Muslim India, or is it part of the wider history of the Muslim world?”  He concludes: “The answer to that is what informs its current self-image.”

But it is not so easy and simple. Pakistan’s largest benefactor – spiritually (being the home to Islam’s highest shrines), in terms of political influence and even financially – is Saudi Arabia. Born in the aftermath of the end of the Caliphate, it has no reason to take a secondary position to Turkey in Pakistan.

Ahmer Naqvi, a freelance cultural writer, sees Ertugrul as part of a wider agenda. “There is definitely an element of the Pakistani state pushing a certain idea of Islamic history, that focuses on conquest and expansionism and that has a long history of being used as propaganda,” he writes.

“This push has come at the expense of even acknowledging the history of what is now settled Pakistan. So, you would know about Muslim general Salahuddin but not about Chanakya, who lived in settled (present day) Pakistan, so yes, there is valid concern that the state is pushing a wider history and not its own,” Naqvi says.

Naqvi’s viewpoint is debatable, but there is no escaping Prime Minister Imran Khan’s push for Ertugrul. He watches it regularly and has even promoted it in an interview for its “Islamic values”. He thinks they are in contrast to the ‘vulgarity’ that Hollywood and Bollywood dish out to the entertainment-starved Pakistanis.  

With such popularity, political flutter is but natural. Parallels are being drawn in domestic arena. Supporters of the prime minister see in him qualities of Ertugrul – the larger-than life saviour/conquorer. Not to be left behind, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League sees such virtues in Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the imprisoned daughter and political heir of Pakistan’s three-time premier. The young and handsome Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, it seems, is yet to make the grade.         

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The Pakistani lure of a relatively more prosperous Turkey is immense. Former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, posted there as a soldier, used to be a great Turkey fan. But his being seen with his pet dog in the initial phase of his rule caused anger. Dog is a no-no for Pakistan’s Muslims.

This is only one of the reservations Pakistanis nurse about Turkish entertainment fare, going by reports of how Ertugrul is being received. The more serious one, perhaps, is the way women consorts of mighty Turkish characters live in real lives. Many viewers explore the social media for ‘more’.  The veil-less Instagram images of these actors put them off. They have taken to criticising and even counselling the female players, particularly the lead character, Esra Bilgic, on how they should dress and behave in public. It should be befitting a Muslim woman, they insist.

Pakistani feminist writer Aimun Faisal says: “If you are a Pakistani man, here’s why this Turkish woman has you simultaneously exasperated and enchanted.” She writes: “Ever spurred on by their commitment to religiosity and piety, Muslim men from Pakistan who had looked up a Turkish actress on a photo and video sharing platform, felt it their spiritual duty to educate her, or advice her, or berate her – depending on their self-confidence – on the ethics of being a pious Muslim woman.”

Faisal sees this as an act born out of misogyny. To the Pakistanis, a Turkish woman, almost-Westernized, “is desirable, but not achievable” unlike their brown-skinned compatriot who can be dumped-down into domestic social/moral milieu, but then, she becomes less ‘desirable’.

Truth be told, such conflicts have also bedevilled Indian audiences – at least they did in the past. Many were angry with Anita Guha, last century’s actor who usually played mythological characters and was Sita in Sampoorna Ramayan (1961) because she dressed and drank like any Bollywood socialite. Saira Bano and Sharmila Tagore, wives to famous, liberal Muslims, continued to act in films long after marriage, to the chagrin of their traditional audiences/admirers. They would volunteer to “protect the honour” of the bhabhi (sister-in-law) by destroying film posters depicting them fashionably clad.

Sadly, that body-shaming is now becoming rampant on the social media, also some mainstream one, as the conservatives who seek to dictate dress code for women get stronger.

Come to think of it, is it the return of “Victorian values” in the 21st century? Then, blame the British! Faisal approvingly quotes a study by Frantz Fanon and Partha Chatterjee about how “the encounter of men of colour with colonialism impacted gender ties in the colony.”

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Maulana Aziz’s Siege 2.0 of Lal Masjid

Maulana Abdul Aziz, better known as ‘Maulana Burqa’ for escaping arrest in 2007, being disguised as a woman, does it again. Despite being banned by the government from entering the premises of Islamabad mosque, also known as ‘Lal Masjid‘ for the colour of its walls, and being considered by a wide majority little more than a terrorist, the Maulana does it again and of course wins because, instead of being jailed, he has been allotted by the public administration 20 kanals of public land to build a new Jamia Hafsa, the female madrasa adjacent to the mosque.

The dispute between the Islamabad Public Administration and the Lal Masjid has been going on for a couple of years, but whoever thinks it is only a land dispute would be totally wrong.

The mosque, and the madrasas linked to it, were managed until 2007 by two maulanas: Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The two brothers were actually two former government officials, who were fired for illegally possessing firearms, being open supporters of the Taliban, of the Islamic strict observance law, and detractors of the then president Musharraf and his foreign policy.

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At that time, they had kept the government in check for months, threatening to send their followers to commit suicide attacks across the country. Incidentally, the government-financed and still continues to finance the mosque with public money.

The female madrasa of Lal Masjid is called Jamia Hafsa and was managed by Abdul Aziz’s wife. Its girls, about two thousand black maidens dressed and armed with sticks and Kalashnikovs, had at the time kept the police in check to prevent the demolition of an old city mosque, and had particularly distinguished themselves in typically female activities such as trying to shut down shops selling movies and music destroying CDs, tapes and VHS, beating men and women who wore western clothes and even the unfortunate drivers, who insisted on driving their cars in person.

In 2007, Musharraf commanded an anti-terrorism operation against the mosque, besieged for days by the Army. The operation costed the lives of an unknown number of people, marked one of the darkest pages of the former General’s presidency and is still considered one of the main reasons for his fall.

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Abdul Aziz, who escaped wearing a burqa and then arrested, was released in 2009. Since then he is free, free to continue his ‘religious activities’ in Islamabad and surrounding areas. Free to support and train jihadi, propagate sectarian and racial hatred. An open supporter of IS, he is the only one who has refused to publicly condemn the Peshawar massacre in which 130 children were killed.

This time, claiming that the present government is as bad as the Musharraf’s one, he did it again. Using female students once more to occupy the place. The Army besieged the location but apparently after Burqa obtained to discuss the issue with prominent people in the public administration, the girls started to leave while he ‘promised’ to leave by tomorrow.

A success for Islamabad authorities? Not really. Being in fact blackmailed by terrorists and their supporters is a new normal in the country. A few days before Maulana Aziz entered the Lal Masjid. In fact, the former TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan had escaped from the safe house where the Army and ISI were keeping him with his wife and children.

From Turkey, where apparently he escaped, Ehsan released a statement in which he talks of a deal struck with the Army and blames the authorities because they did not keep their word: the promised money had not arrived, so he simply left. Most probably with the connivance of the same people who were supposed to guard him.

The past week has seen the country open its doors for Ehsanullah, allowing the Taliban to demonstrate for freedom of Kashmir in the streets, having a deal with a terrorist for land reasons. At the same time, the Army has also been cracking down on peaceful demonstrators who demand their constitutional rights and PTM members being arrested for no reason.

The Loralai location in Balochistan, where PTM was to commemorate the killing of the poet Arman Loni by the Army, has been flooded with water, internet been blocked and PTM members have been stopped from entering the region.

With no results, because thousands of people joined the demonstrations in Loralai and Karachi. But showing again the real face of Imran Khan’s ‘Naya’ Pakistan: ordinary citizens and their demands are worth less than nothing, while terrorists are allowed money, freedom and bargaining power.

(The views expressed in this column are strictly those of the author)

Pulwama: Pre-emptive strike, counter-strike and after

By Amitabh Mathur

Tension between India and Pakistan, following the Pulwama terror attack on February 14 and its aftermath, seems to be subsiding. Pakistan has begun some sort of crackdown on terrorist organisations; banning some and arresting a few elements related to the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) leader Masood Azhar.

Time will tell whether what is being done is cosmetic and tactical, as on earlier occasions, or is it because of international pressure and Pakistan’s precarious economic situation has led to more lasting action.

Some basic questions surrounding the turn of events that triggered the face-off between the two neighbours have however got lost in the political squabble over electoral gain. To recap, Adil Ahmad Dar, an unemployed indoctrinated Kashmiri youth, posted a video of communal rant and deadly intent. On February 14 he carried out his threat by ramming his explosive-laden vehicle into a convoy of the CRPF Jawans near Pulwama- killing over 40.

The JeM, a proscribed terrorist organisation that operates with impunity, if not also immunity from Pakistan, claims responsibility for the carnage. Given the well-known ties between Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and JeM, the understandable assumption is that Rawalpindi has been complicit in the dastardly attack and Islamabad answerable for what has been conceived, planned and executed by Pakistan-based handlers of Dar.

That India would retaliate to this grave provocation, so close to the Lok Sabha polls, was inevitable. Having suffered Mumbai in 2008 without anything more than appeals to the international community no government now could merely beat its chest and wring its hands in helplessness- certainly not the one led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and advised by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

In a muscular message on February 26, Indian Air Force went deep into Pakistan, successfully bombed a JeM training camp in Balakot and returned safely.

Pakistan Army and Prime Minister Imran Khan too could not take the Indian action lying down. They simply could not afford a repeat of the Operation Geronimo, which took out Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad in Pakistan.

Islamabad responded, albeit feebly, on February 27 when its Air Force crept into Indian airspace and when challenged by air defence and interceptors, hurriedly dropped bombs in stray isolated areas before trying to return to safety.

In the ensuing dog fight, though a Pakistan aircraft was downed, dynamics of unfolding events changed as India lost a MIG 27 and its pilot was captured by Pakistan. Imperatives for New Delhi altered to bring the pilot back as the narrative of a successful muscular message to Pakistan would not have washed with images of the brave young Wing Commander in enemy hands.

This provided the international community with an opportunity to put pressure on Pakistan and defuse the rising tensions. Realising his limited options, Imran Khan quickly made the best of a difficult situation. Appearing magnanimous and conciliatory, he ordered unconditional release of the pilot, returning him on March 1 in civilian clothes quickly stitched by some Pindi tailor.

Pakistan has pleaded, with some support from China, that it has been implicated in the suicide bombing prematurely. Its apologists point to the country’s impoverished state which has led Khan to go around with a begging bowl to potential benefactors.

They argue such a provocation risking war would be most untimely and so Indian accusations are implausible. This has found no takers. The entire operation of spotting a disgruntled Kashmiri, targeting, cultivating, motivating, training him and arranging the explosives and vehicle is beyond the capability of indigenous militants.

It has the imprint of Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence. Pressured by Indian security forces, especially in south Kashmir, sagging morale of the militants needed boosting. Confident of China’s support and smug over Washington’s desperation for Pakistan’s help to exit Afghanistan with its face intact, Rawalpindi thought it could get away with cheekiness once again. So when frequent convoys presented opportunity, the green signal would have been given.

Fall out of this episode has not been to Pakistan’s advantage. Its nuclear bluff has been called. It did not receive the kind of support it expected from China which asked it to cool things down.

The US accepted India’s right to defence implying Pakistan was the aggressor. It realised prolonging the standoff was not to its advantage. Yet, by retaliating to the Indian strike on Balakot, downing and taking an Indian pilot prisoner, Pakistan has been able to claim it stood up to India. It has once again brought the world’s focus on Kashmir. How much it will succumb to international pressure to crack down on Islamic terror groups that target India remains to be seen.

For India too it has been a mixed bag. Measures announced to punish Pakistan such as cancellation of the MFN status and withholding water in excess of the Indus Treaty are meaningless. Export of a mere $400 million is not about to cripple the security apparatus in Pakistan. It will only hurt businessmen who have a vested interest in trade with India. Nor does India have the infrastructure to store excess water or divert it to its arid areas.

All claims of isolating Pakistan too should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. While there was no condemnation of India’s foray into Pakistan and bombing the JEM camp, also some acknowledgement of its right to self-defence and pressure on Islamabad to cool down, no country is about to disturb normal relations with Pakistan- certainly not China, US or Saudi Arabia, who all have a vested interest in stable Pakistan. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation may have overruled Pakistan’s objections in inviting Sushma Swaraj but that did not prevent it from crediting Imran for diffusing the faceoff and condemning “Indian terrorism” in Kashmir!

The important point is India has discarded its policy hitherto of appealing to the world and seeking the high moral ground whenever provoked by Pakistan. It has announced that it will take care of its own security and deal with its recalcitrant neighbour in the manner it chooses.

This will make some tanzeems fear reprisal the next time they indulge in trans-border terror. Yet, one strike across the border may placate domestic public opinion but it is unlikely to deter Pakistan and Islamic terror outfits operating from there. Brokers of the world order will have to be convinced India will not hesitate to raise the ante. Only that will impel them to pressure Pakistan into rolling the terror network down.

Lastly, there needs to be an acknowledgement that Pakistan is only taking advantage of our own cleavages in the Valley and such incidents will recur. Adil Dar, the perpetrator of the dastardly suicide bombing, was a Kashmiri youth who was indoctrinated by radical Islam.

The Youtube video he posted is disturbingly communal and reference to Ghazwa-e-Hind is particularly frightening. As noted by the keen observer Arshad Alam, with rampant unemployment in the valley, the alienated youth is caught between a coercive security apparatus on one hand and a very conservative interpretation of Islam on the other.

This leaves him very little space to indulge in any creative pursuit of his choice. There is disaster looming if he is not engaged. Hopefully, Pakistan, chastened if only temporarily, will provide the opportunity to do so which policymakers will not miss.