Why India should be concerned about Pakistan’s marathons

Musharraf’s government consistently fails to deliver enlightened moderation

Lahore Police beat peaceful protestors: Picture from the Daily TimesTo their credit, some brave women and men challenged the increasingly stifling grip that Islamic fundamentalists have on Pakistan’s society. The issue that brought several leading members of Pakistan’s civil society was, of course, the right for men and women to participate in marathons, which members of the MMA, the Islamist opposition alliance, oppose as being un-Islamic. Several weeks ago, after the controversy first erupted, the government of Pakistan’s Punjab province put up an initial show of bravado, promising to stand up to the MMA’s bullying. It then chickened out almost as quickly. This in spite of General Musharraf advocating ‘enlightened moderation’ not just for Pakistan, but for the entire Islamic world.

So when members of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and another NGO decided to put Musharraf’s words to the test by holding a ‘mixed’ marathon, Asma Jahangir, HRCP’s chairperson, received a threatening phone call from an organisation called Shabab-e-Milli (a youth wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a MMA constituent). But soon after the marathon started, it was Ms Jahangir and her colleagues that the police roughed up.

Asma Jahangir was roughed up and her clothes were torn in the melee. One policewoman was heard abusing her: “We have orders to strip you in public and teach you a lesson”. Three other women were slightly injured.

Ms Jahangir told Daily Times: “I received a threatening call on my cell phone from someone claiming to be the president of the Shabab-i-Milli, Ahmad Salmaan, but when I later returned the call to check its authenticity, the person at the other end told me that the police had come to his tyre shop and called her from there”. [DT]

Asma Jahangir found out, to her dismay, that the police and Shabab-e-Milli were hand in glove.

And its not just cops — as Dr Farrukh Saleem points out, judged from their actions, there is little to distinguish the ruling party (a Musharraf production) and the Islamist opposition. The gap between Musharraf’s rhetoric and the actual reality, never close, is ever widening. That begs the question — if the General cannot muster up sufficient will to challenge the Islamists over an issue where he has the backing of civil society, is there reason to believe that he can strike a difficult compromise with India over Kashmir, where public support is less certain? Why was it that the non-violent organisers of the marathon that were arrested, while the police ignored or colluded with those that threatened violence against them?

One argument that is often brought up in Musharraf’s defence is that he cannot be expected to change everything at the same time. There are two counters to that. First, he has had plenty of time since he seized power in 1999. Six years is a long time for even democratically elected governments, and as a dictator he has little to worry about such trifles as democratic norms. Second, even if he has to move sequentially, unless he dulls the influence of the religious opposition parties at home, it is unlikely that any compromise he makes with India over Kashmir will outlive his rule.

3 thoughts on “Why India should be concerned about Pakistan’s marathons”

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  2. In a recent series of articles, Arun Shourie made the same point, that Musharraf’s regime is indistinguishable from Zia’s in its support of fundmentalists. And our ‘peaceniks’ are out, daggers drawn. One such specimen wrote in Indian Express today: The extent of militant Islam in Pakistan is always difficult to gauge, but there are reasons to think that its influence is exaggerated… This is not to deny that Pakistan has the capacity for serious cross border mischief, but it is far from being a society that will go lock, stock and barrel over to the mullahs.

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