Sharif hounded by trouble and strife

 

Two significant episodes have been plaguing Pakistan’s government in recent times. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports.

 

The surprise decision by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to allow former President General (Ret’d) Pervez Musharraf to go abroad for medical treatment and strife in the ranks of the ethnic-based political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) were the two most important events in Pakistan’s politics in recent weeks.

The government faced criticism in and outside Parliament for allowing Musharraf to leave the country. Some of the opposition parties alleged that Musharraf was allowed to go abroad as part of a deal. The government, however, denied that there was a deal and instead claimed that he was allowed to go for medical treatment on the orders of the superior courts.

There was a sense of disbelief that Musharraf was able to walk to the aircraft and climb the stairs because until then, it had been reported that the retired general was so seriously ill he needed to be flown abroad in an air ambulance. Also, his lawyers had been pleading with the judges that he should be exempted from personally appearing in court due to his poor health.

Musharraf further provoked many Pakistanis by calling a meeting of his party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), in Dubai on the day of his arrival.

His political activities and apparent wellbeing have prompted many people to allege that he had cheated the courts by exaggerating his health problems. In the last three years he has made just one appearance in the court, and that only after strict orders from the judges. He was admitted to one hospital after another in Rawalpindi and Karachi, apparently suffering from a number of ailments of the heart and limbs, including severe spinal-cord pain that affected his mobility.

The former Pakistan Army chief was also accused of bringing a bad name to his institution and putting the military command in a difficult position. Being a former commando soldier, Musharraf was supposed to act courageously in the face of his troubles.

The government later said that Musharraf would have to come back to Pakistan to face the charges against him, including one for treason for abrogating the country’s constitution in November 2007, when he imposed an emergency to pre-empt the challenge to his government from agitating lawyers and political and social activists, and to prolong his rule. It warned that Interpol would be approached to arrest and send him back to Pakistan if he refused to return. Musharraf himself has said he will return home and face the trial in the courts once his medical treatment is concluded.

Despite living in the UK in self-imposed exile since 1992, Altaf Hussain (pictured) ran the MQM with an iron-grip
Despite living in the UK in self-imposed exile since 1992, Altaf Hussain (pictured) ran the MQM with an iron-grip

Few believed either him or the government, as both sounded equally unconvincing due to their track records. In fact, the Nawaz Sharif government was accused of taking refuge under the court orders to hurriedly remove Musharraf’s name from the exit control list so that he could leave the country as soon as possible. Musharraf did just that and got his papers quickly processed so that he could leave post-haste for Dubai on March 18. The Sindh High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan had repeatedly asked government prosecutors not to grant the request made by Musharraf’s lawyers to allow him to travel abroad for medical treatment, but they failed to firmly oppose his plea.

Musharraf had returned to Pakistan before the May 2013 general election, as he was expecting a warm welcome and hoped to do well in the polls from the APML platform. It was a huge miscalculation, as his party found it difficult to field candidates and attract voters. There was little interest among the people to bring Musharraf back to power after they had witnessed his disappointing and authoritarian military rule for more than eight years. Once he was back, the election tribunals disqualified him from taking part in the election and soon cases were instituted against him for high treason and for the murders of Baloch tribal elder Nawab Akbar Bugti and the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) cleric Abdur Rasheed Ghazi.

For the next three years, Musharraf faced unending trials in different cities. He was recently acquitted in the murder case of Nawab Akbar Bugti, but the other cases are pending in the courts and are unlikely to conclude any time soon. He will either have to return home to face these charges if he wants to pursue his uncertain political career, or stay away from Pakistan to avoid humiliation.

The other issue that hogged the limelight in Pakistan was the struggle between the mainstream MQM, led by London-based party supremo Altaf Hussain, and dissidents headed by Mustafa Kamal and Anees Qaimkhani to attract the support of the Urdu-speaking Mohajir community living in Karachi, Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas and other urban centres in Sindh province.

Until now, Altaf Hussain, despite living in the UK in self-imposed exile since 1992, had run the MQM singlehandedly with an iron-grip. Nobody dared criticise him, but Mustafa Kamal and Anees Qaiimkhani, on their return to Pakistan from three years of self-imposed exile in Dubai, openly accused him of being a drunkard, corrupt and in the pay of India’s intelligence agency, RAW. This was unprecedented because Altaf Hussain had been promoted as a cult figure beyond reproach.

The MQM is blaming the so-called civil and military ‘establishment’ for bringing the two dissident leaders from abroad and backing them to challenge Altaf Hussain and split and weaken the party.

There are fears of renewed violence in Karachi if the dissidents manage to trigger major defections from the MQM.

Some defections have already taken place, but the MQM is still quite strong and capable of withstanding the pressure. The size of public meetings being staged by the two MQM factions and the outcome of two forthcoming assembly by-elections will determine the level of success of the dissidents to wean the Mohajirs away from the mainstream MQM.

Though sporadic acts of terrorism—including one targeting a courthouse in Charsadda and another a bus transporting government employees, which killed 40 people—continued in the country despite the ongoing military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, against militants in North Waziristan and intelligence-based raids in rest of the country, the Nawaz Sharif government wasn’t deterred as it has taken certain bold steps in recent months. This surprised its critics, who have dismissed it as a weak conservative government incapable of undertaking independent decisions. The government made overtures to both India and Afghanistan, particularly to India, contrary to beliefs that the powerful Pakistan military won’t let it to do this. At home, the government took on sectarian extremists in Punjab, Nawaz Sharif’s native province, and killed important leaders of sectarian outfits in police encounters.

The government also executed Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Punjab’s liberal former governor Salman Taseer, despite dire warnings that this could lead to violence inspired by religious parties. TV channels were instructed not to show coverage of Qadri’s huge funeral and the protests against his execution. This kept things under control. The government also passed the women’s rights bills from the Punjab Assembly in the face of opposition from religio-political parties, and got Parliament to pass a bill that criminalised sexual assault of minors, child pornography and trafficking, and enhanced sentences for these offensives.

Amid all these hectic political activities and acts of terrorism, the family of the slain Punjab Governor Salman Taseer received a surprise piece of good news when Taseer’s young son, Shahbaz Taseer, returned home on March 8 after more than four and a half years of captivity, first in North Waziristan and then in Afghanistan. The militants affiliated to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) had kidnapped him from Lahore and demanded a huge ransom and the release of a number of militants held by the Pakistan government. However, Shahbaz Taseer fell into the hands of the Afghan Taliban when they became involved in fighting in Afghanistan’s Zabul province with the IMU after the latter’s decision to align with the Islamic State, or Daesh. The Afghan Taliban fighters, loyal to their new leader Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, freed Shahbaz Taseer unconditionally after coming to the conclusion that he wasn’t an IMU member but was the son of the late governor of Punjab in Pakistan. Shahbaz Taseer suffered a lot in captivity, but he was lucky to return home alive.

Another important hostage still in the custody of the Pakistani Taliban is former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son Ali Haider Gilani, who was kidnapped from Multan in May 2013. His family is asking all concerned to now make efforts for his release.

 

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