Certain interesting developments cry out for comment. The Punjab Assembly has unanimously passed the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill. The federal government rejected the mercy petition of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed assassin of ex-Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, and executed him. The government has lodged an FIR in Gujranwala against unnamed terrorists who crossed the border from Pakistan to attack the Indian airbase in Pathankot. The NAB has not only reopened inquiries into the alleged corruption of the ruling Sharif family in the 1990s but is also sniffing around Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s ongoing pet development projects.
On the face of it, each of these facts is significant enough. But there seems to be an invisible thread tying them together that makes the sum of these parts greater than the whole. Consider.
The passing of the pro-women bill in Punjab is no mean achievement. The list of crimes includes abatement of an offence, domestic, emotional, psychological and economic abuse, “stalking” and cyber crime. The bill was proposed in May 2015 but lay in cold storage because of in-house objections even by those belonging to the ruling party. Now, suddenly, amidst meek protests by the religious parties and groups, including the mullah-led Council of Islamic Ideology, the assembly has woken up to unanimously pass the bill without any amendments. The Sharifs are known to tread warily in matters close to the hearts of the mullahs. How come they have suddenly mustered the courage to pass such “liberal” legislation?
Much the same question came to mind when the Punjab police suddenly swung into action some months ago to contrive “police encounters” to eliminate key sectarian terrorist leaders who had for years gone scot free. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s public gesture to showcase Sharmin Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar winning documentary on honour killings in the PM’s Office, followed by the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, is in the same mould. All these actions risk the wrath of the mullahs from the pulpit and street. How come the mullahs haven’t reacted violently? Indeed, there is not a peep from the Defence Council of Pakistan comprising all the jihadi forces that has hitherto spilled over into the streets whenever “Islam has been in danger”? In fact, the lodging of a case in Gujranwala against jihadis for attacking the Pathankot airbase in India was tailor-made for provoking them, yet not a leaf has stirred in their headquarters in Muridke or Bahawalpur.
Clearly, the government has been encouraged by the military establishment to get on with all such actions and the message has also gone out to the Fundos not to make a “cause celebre” out of these developments. Without such assurances, the Sharifs would not have risked instability by alienating them. The clearest exposition of this is not the tacit admission (case in Gujranwala) by the military establishment that some jihadi cross border activity does indeed originate in Pakistan but, more importantly, that it is frowned upon and will be curtailed in the larger national interest. This is a message not just to India but also to the larger international community that the Pakistani military establishment is keen to woo. The appointment of Lt Gen (retd) Naseer Khan Janjua as National Security Advisor and the key negotiator with India and Afghanistan is aimed to sending this message no less than the strategic dialogue between Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington.
If the military establishment under General Raheel Sharif seems keen to amend the contours of its historic alliance with the mullahs in the formation of a national narrative, the mainstream parties also see merit in challenging the same for the sake of stabilizing Pakistan. This “national narrative” spawning Pan Islamism has led inevitably to the religious radicalisation of Pakistanis – from the Mujhahideen of the 1980s to the Jihadis of the 1990s to the Taliban of 2000s and finally to Daesh — and now poses an existential threat to the nation-state. This realisation has dawned on the military since the outgrowth of the Pakistani Taliban in an internal war that continues to exact a heavy toll of soldiers and civilians alike.
The military’s strategic views on the future of Afghanistan are also changing. The consolidation of Afghan nationalism makes it impossible for Pakistan to see Afghanistan as some sort of strategic adjunct. Similarly, the military’s view of the Afghan Taliban is now realistically framed in an Afghan-led Afghan-owned reconciliation process instead of the earlier policy in which the road to Kabul led through GHQ in Rawalpindi. In order to establish its own credibility, the military under General Sharif has spurred the NAB to spare no one, neither the prime minister nor an ex-army chief and assorted retired generals.
It is too early to say that these developments are more than mere tactical tweaks. But we should know for sure if General Sharif accepts an extension in service or when a new army chief takes over and pursues the same path as his predecessor.
Republished with permission from The Friday Times, Lahore, where this article first appeared as an editorial on March 4, 2016. The Friday Times is edited by Najam Sethi.