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Home > News > Columnists > Irfan Husain

Musharraf battles the odds

May 25, 2007

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The recent suicide bombing at a Peshawar restaurant that killed 25 people underlined yet again what a dangerous place Pakistan has become.

Days earlier, on 12 May, daylong riots and pitched battles claimed 36 lives in Karachi, over 1,500 kilometres to the south.

While the causes for the two deadly incidents of violence were very different, they remind us of the tenuous nature of General Pervez Musharraf's grip on power.

Outsiders often think that a military dictator enjoys absolute powers over his people, but the reality is somewhat different. Indeed, Musharraf, Pakistan's ruler for nearly eight years, and army chief for a decade, discovered the limits to his powers when he tried to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court on March 9.

Normally, Pakistan's higher judiciary has not enjoyed a reputation for asserting its independence in the face of the army: time and again, it has legitimised military takeovers, and permitted dictators a free ride.

But in Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, Musharraf encountered that rare breed, a fiercely independent judge who refused to resign despite enormous pressure brought to bear on him by the junta.

Musharraf, on the advice of his prime minister Shaukat Aziz, then sent a reference to the Supreme Court, giving reasons why Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry should no longer serve on the country's highest bench. But in the public eye, the chargesheet was flimsy, focusing as it does on Justice Chaudhry's alleged abuse of office in getting his doctor son appointed an officer in the police service.

In a country where nepotism is the norm rather than a scandalous exception, nobody was particularly shocked by this revelation.

While the Supreme Court ponders over this case, the chief justice has made a number of speeches, addressing jam-packed meetings of lawyers and fellow judges. His appearances have drawn large crowds of Opposition workers. In fact, he has acted as a lightning rod for the anti-Musharraf feelings that have been building up for years.

What disturbed Musharraf and his allies was his increasing popularity: Large crowds along the way stretched his drive from Islamabad to Lahore, normally a comfortable four hour drive, to nearly 24 hours.

So when his team of lawyers announced that on May 12 that he would address the bar association in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial centre and biggest city, the government panicked.

Musharraf's coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, announced that it, too, would hold a rally on the same day. The ruling faction of the Muslim League also arranged a rally on May 12 in the capital. But while the Islamabad rally, consisting as it did of people trucked in at state expense, passed off peacefully, the Karachi event proved to be a bloody contest between the MQM and the opposition.

Since its creation in 1985 with the blessings and support of another military dictator, Zia-ul Haq, the MQM has had a reputation for violence. Opponents have long accused it of using fascistic tactics. But since it was inducted into a power-sharing arrangement in 2002, it seemed to have mellowed. Indeed, throughout the current standoff in Islamabad over the Lal Masjid, it has displayed a consistently secular stance.

However, it showed on May 12 that the leopard has not changed its spots. On that day, its followers engaged the opposition in a series of gun battles that left 36 people dead in a single day. Six more were killed the next day. The political fallout of these events is likely to be serious for Musharraf as the lawyers' movement will gain momentum.

But this is not the only problem he is facing. Three months ago, women seminary students residing in the Jamia Hafsa madrassa located in Islamabad's Lal Masjid, occupied a nearby children's library. They were protesting against the destruction of seven mosques that had been illegally constructed on state land in the capital.

The resultant stand-off has been hugely embarrassing for Musharraf, with people asking how he can possibly combat the Taliban and Al Qaeda if he cannot put down a rebellion of a few hundred girls in burqas a couple of kilometres from the presidency and army headquarters.

This incident, too, has been a reminder of the limits of his power. Since most of the girls are from the tribal areas, there is a fear that a death or injury to one or more of them would result in a ferocious backlash from armed tribal warriors.

Apart from occupying the library, the students have also forced owners of shops selling DVDs and CDs to shut down, as well as swooping down on a house they insist was a brothel. They kidnapped the owner and her niece, forcing them to confess to prostitution. As soon as they were released, the women recanted.

In the face of this open challenge to the authority of the State, Musharraf has been reduced to sending emissaries to negotiate with the two brothers running the mosque and the seminary who are now demanding the immediate imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law, on the entire country.

Continuing clashes with Afghan troops on the border, and criticism over perceived inaction against the Taliban, is complicating relations between Islamabad and Kabul. Washington, thus far solidly behind Musharraf, has now begun questioning their ally's reliability and legitimacy. These doubts are being raised more loudly after the Democrats took over the United States Congress.

In energy-rich Balochistan, a low-level insurgency has been going on for the last two years, with Balochi tribesmen demanding a bigger share of the royalties for the gas being pumped from their province.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, hundreds of young Balochis have 'disappeared' into a gulag of prisons and safe-houses being run by intelligence agencies. Some who have been released have alleged they were tortured.

Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry made himself unpopular with the government by taking up the cause of these and other Pakistanis illegally detained by the State.

Thus, Musharraf's problems keep multiplying, and as elections approach, he finds himself fighting for his political survival. But generals do not let go of power easily. Their instinct is to cling on at all costs.

In this case, the danger is that before he leaves the scene, Musharraf might do even greater damage to the country.

Irfan Husain writes weekly columns for the Dawn, Karachi, the Daily Times, Lahore, and the Khaleej Times, Dubai.

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