The Pakistani people are living through turbulent times and, General Musharraf, the self-styled President, is under tremendous pressure. The United States-led anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan has shaken Pakistan's polity like no other event in its troubled history as US and NATO forces have been launching cross-border forays into Pakistan in hot pursuit of fleeing al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Hundreds of Uzbek and other foreign militants have established strongholds in the NWFP and are now being forcefully opposed by the Pashtuns with the army's help. Mired in a virulent madrasa-Kalashnikov-narcotics smuggling-terrorism culture, Pakistan is embroiled in internal instability that might gradually spin out of control.
And, as if to rub fresh salt into General Musharraf's wounds after the government's disastrous showdown with the lawyers over the dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March, burqa-clad, lathi-wielding female students of the Jamia Hafsa madrasa, attached with the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, have launched an aggressive back-to-the-dark ages agitation in Islamabad, Pakistan's showpiece capital. Abundantly endowed with misplaced enthusiasm to defend Islam and perform a "community correction role," these intrepid young women raided a house and kidnapped an old woman, her young daughter and daughter-in-law for indulging in "immoral" activities in the area and then stood their ground against the police for several days. When the police took two female teachers and two male students into custody, the girls reacted by kidnapping two policemen.
Earlier, in a showdown with the administration of the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) over the demolition of a part of the Lal Masjid for illegal construction, they had occupied a nearby students' library, started a round-the-clock vigil armed with Kalashnikovs and lathis and had threatened to fight to the death if the police tried to evict them. The administration backed down, reconstructed the demolished portion of the mosque and offered to talk. Almost for a month now, the teachers and students of the Jamia Hafsa seminary have been going around the markets exhorting shopkeepers to stop selling audio and video CDs, DVDs and cassettes that promote a "vulgar and un-Islamic" culture or else they would stop the shopkeepers physically from doing so.
In the latest development is that Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid has announced the establishment of a parallel Islamic court to be headed by Qazis (judges) who will be appointed by the Ulema to enforce Islamic law or Sharia. In its first "verdict" the court has condemned a woman minister for hugging her male instructor after a short joy ride in a paraglider. The management of the Lal Masjid has also launched an illegal FM radio channel to broadcast fiery speeches and religious music. The mosque, that is said to have links with the Taliban in Waziristan, has posed a direct and stunning challenge to the government headed by Gen. Musharraf. The maulana has threatened to launch hundreds of suicide terrorist strikes if the government tries to evict the students from the library or take over the mosque by force.
Though the leaders of the ruling Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) alliance have condemned the antics of the radical cleric and the misguided youth to enforce Islamic law and carry out moral policing, they have done so on the specious grounds that Islam does not "permit women to lead such campaigns." They have failed to speak up against the forced imposition of the Sharia. Such political ineptitude cannot but encourage other Islamist hardliners across Pakistan to promote similar courts. Having burnt his fingers in the Chief Justice dismissal case, Gen. Musharraf has reacted with caution and expressed a desire to resolve the issue amicably even while emphasising that the Constitution already guarantees that no laws will be enacted that are violative of Islamic injunctions.
The picture that emerges is clearly that of a society at war with itself and a government that is slowly but inexorably losing control. The government of Pakistan is desperate to ward off the creeping Talibanisation of the state but is unsure of the course of action that it must adopt and of what the consequences might be. It is time for the Indian government to also take note of the developments and formulate a pro-active response to ensure that India's secular fabric is not singed by fundamentalist yearnings.