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12 January 2011, Gateway House

Pakistan: At the edge of the abyss

The murder of Salman Taseer , the liberal-minded Governor of Pakistani Punjab, augurs grimly for the country. With the government mired in political turmoil, intelligentsia silenced and religious extremists integrating with the security forces, Pakistan is a state teetering on the brink of collapse.

Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies

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The January 4 assassination of the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, 66-year old Salman Taseer, was a reprehensible act and cause for concern. But of infinitely greater concern are the circumstances surrounding the killing. The incident highlights the fragility of the government in Pakistan and raises doubts about the ability of even the Army to control the Islamist radical forces. It confirms that Pakistan is at the edge of a deep, dark abyss.

It also, ominously, suggests that the mix of ‘Allah, Army and America’, with circumstances determining the priority, is undergoing a dramatic change.

The signs are evident in the reactions to Taseer’s death, and to his assassin.

Most deeply worrying to observers is that not a single member of the clergy was willing to perform the last rites for the deceased Governor. It finally had to be done by a member of the ruling Pakistan’s People’s Party who happened to know the relevant ‘kalmas’ or verses. The utterances of a leading ‘mullah’ castigating the Governor for not being a devout Muslim and supporting the cause of Aasiya Bibi, a Christian lady accused of blasphemy, were telecast nationally, thereby implicitly transmitting his message to a large audience. Outside the anti-terror court in Islamabad, over 400 lawyers showered flowers on the 26-year old assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, while numerous young supporters who had gathered outside the court premises raised slogans hailing him as a ‘soldier of the Faith’. A Facebook page went up hours after the assassination with messages of support for Qadri. One message: “nation hero u win a hearts of All muslim umaah…Saluteeeee You…!” (“Umaah” is a reference to “ummah,” or “community”). Pakistan’s media also reported that the assassin had informed his colleagues of his plans many days earlier and requested them not to shoot him dead after he carried out his plans. His colleagues did precisely that, revealing the extent of support for the assassin’s cause.

Another indication of the widespread support for Taseer’s assassination was that just hours before his funeral, 500 scholars from the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat group, normally less conservative and critical of the Taliban in Pakistan, praised his assassin and ordered their followers not to grieve or they would suffer the same fate. “We pay rich tributes and salute the bravery, valour and faith of Mumtaz Qadri,” the statement said, before going on to warn politicians and academics to learn lessons from Taseer’s death. “Also, there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the Governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.” The Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s main Islamist parties, asserted that Taseer’s assassination was justified. Pakistan’s leading Urdu-language newspaper, Jang, ran a front-page story declaring, “There should be no funeral for Salman Taseer and no condemnation for his death.” “A supporter of a blasphemer is also a blasphemer,” said a sub-heading.

Pakistani media reports reveal something about Qadri. He was born in 1984 or 1985 outside Islamabad in the Punjab province. He grew up during the rising tide of militancy in Pakistan, becoming a member of Punjab’s elite force commandos. He had some telltale physical signs of a rigid practitioner of Islam. Specifically, at his young age of just 26, he had a darkened spot on his forehead, usually a sign of piety from a lifetime of praying and touching your forehead to the ground. Hardcore youth sometimes rub rocks on their foreheads to get that mark very early on. Another indicator of religious orientation was Qadri’s beard, worn at a length practiced by hardline interpretors of Islam.

That the victim was a member of Pakistan’s elite forces is of serious concern. Salman Taseer was a wealthy land-owning, western-educated individual and long-time member of the PPP. He was a confidante of the late Benazir Bhutto and Governor of the vitally important Punjab province. His background and lineage gave him the confidence to express his opposition to the blasphemy law and also take up the case of a minority Christian.

Taseer’s assassination is a direct challenge to the authority of the Pakistani State and Army, both of which must now respond.

For there are others on the hit list of the terrorists. Sherry Rehman, the attractive and well-spoken spokesperson of the PPP and also a confidante of the late Benazir Bhutto, is at the top of this list. Security has been stepped up for her since the day of Taseer’s assassination and she has been advised to stay indoors in her residence. So far she has complied. She and a few others have also reportedly declined offers of assistance to leave Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the icy fingers of fear have reached even Pakistan’s intelligentsia – as evidenced by a number of them declining, in the days immediately after the incident, to appear on Indian TV channels to comment.

That fear is understandable. Pakistan’s policies have, since the country’s founding, depended heavily on religion as a force in domestic politics. Early on, in 1949, Pakistan sought to project itself as the propagator of Islam and convened the first World Muslim Congress in Karachi. Subsequently, during his term as president, General Ayub Khan evolved the three-cornered policy that India would be Pakistan’s eternal enemy, that Islam would be the unifying factor in Pakistan and that America would be the source of funds, influence and power. Once Zia-ul-Haq took over in 1977, he retained the formula but added emphasis to religion. During his 11-year rule, a deliberate programme of Islamisation of the Pakistan Army and police was begun. Links between Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI and the radical Islamic outfits were forged and steadily grew stronger. The latter were co-opted into waging a low-intensity conflict against India.

The strengthening of this relationship coincided with the rise of the Islamists in the Army’s ranks. It bodes ill for Pakistan – and the world – that the pool for recruitment of troops and the Islamic terrorist outfits are the same: the madrassahs across the country as also youth from Rawalpindi and the districts of Attock and Jhelum. This linkage between the radical Islamists and Islamised Army officers has come to the fore with this assassination.

The assassination has triggered widespread concern among Pakistan’s elite and in world capitals and particularly the US, China and India. The Pakistani elite is uncomfortable with the rise, in growing numbers, of the radical Islamic forces and hope – perhaps vainly – that those who have remained silent are still the majority. They feel that the next 3-4 months are crucial and the manner in which the Army deals with the situation will determine Pakistan’s future.

Washington has noted that criticism of the US among all sections of Pakistani society has increased following the assassination. There is apprehension in US policy-making circles that the Army may not be able to control the Islamic radical forces. This has serious implications for stewardship of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal as well as the conduct of the US military campaign in Afghanistan.

While China has been circumspect in its comments and opted to only provide factual accounts of the incident so far, surely its concern about Pakistan’s viability will have deepened. Reports emanating from China over the past months have clearly indicated Beijing’s worry about the growing political instability in Pakistan. China has considerable capital and infrastructure investments in Pakistan, especially in its western region, which could be endangered. Some reports have mentioned the probability of China’s Special Forces going in to Pakistan’s northern and western regions at the invitation of the Pakistan Army.  When deployed, China’s Special Forces would primarily guard Chinese infrastructure investments, like the Karakoram Highway, proposed railway and oil pipelines, Gwadar Port. They will, additionally, assist the Pakistan Army in counter-insurgency operations.

For India, the assassination has more than just geopolitical implications. New Delhi is worried about the very future of Pakistan, about the ability and willingness of its army to control the religious groups and the capacity of its civil society to even protest, let alone be an attractive enough option to counter the growth of fundamentalism. Should radical Islamic elements gain control in Pakistan, the entire region will destabilize.

Pakistan is, yet again, at a crossroads in its history. This time, though, it can’t bank on its friends or quasi-friends to bail it out. For a long-term policy of aiding and abetting the radical Islamist forces has come back to haunt Pakistan, this time posing a potent threat to more than just Afghanistan.

Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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