Lal Masjid and Golden Temple - Comparisons are Inevitable

Lal Masjid, Islamabad, 2007; Golden Temple, Amritsar, 1984 - Some of the similarities between the confrontation in the Lal Masjid and the 1984 clash between Sikh extremists and the Indian authorities are obvious.

As in Islamabad over the last few months, there was also a slow build-up of the militant menace in the Indian state of Punjab in the eighties when the Sikh malcontents under Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale virtually occupied the Golden Temple, the holiest of the Sikh shrines in Amritsar.

Just as the Pakistani establishment had no alternative but to call in the security forces to flush out the fundamentalists from the Lal Masjid after all appeals for a settlement failed, the Indian government, too, had to forcibly evict the Sikh rebels from the Golden Temple with the help of the army. 

The prelude to these tragic events entailing the loss of lives, including those of the misguided young men and women, was also similar in the two countries.

In India, the previously unknown Bhindranwale was virtually the creation of the Congress party, notably of Sanjay Gandhi (Indira Gandhi's younger son who later died in an air crash) and Zail Singh (former Punjab chief minister who later became India's president), who tried to use his fundamentalist stance to erode the appeal of the Akali Dal among religious-minded Sikhs.

In Pakistan, too, the growth of Islamic radicals is the result of official and political patronage. They were used, first, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan - an enterprise that enjoyed America's support. Then, the terrorists proved handy to Islamabad for deployment in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

But, in both cases, the cynical ploy of trying to play with religious sentiments backfired. Bhindranwale turned on his backers to pose as the champion of Sikh rights, which included a new homeland of Khalistan.

He, too, preached a back-to-basics philosophy of puritanical Sikhism, unleashing a period of terrorism mainly against the Hindus although Sikhs were also the victims. It lasted for nearly a decade, continuing even after Bhindranwale was killed in 1984 and died down only towards the end of the eighties.

If there was a delay on the part of the authorities in the two countries in using force against the rebels, the reason was, first, their earlier connections with them and, secondly, the fear that quelling the fundamentalist uprising might offend the religious sentiments of the ordinary people.

In India, before the army moved into the Golden Temple, there was an apprehension that an operation against the Sikh militants would be resented by the officers and soldiers belonging to the community. That the fear was not unfounded was tragically proved by the gunning down of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards five months after the army attack on the Golden Temple.

In Pakistan, the suspected links between sections of the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with the extremists inspired by the Taliban may have also played a part in dissuading the authorities from taking any precipitate step. The attempts on the life of President Pervez Musharraf by the bigots had confirmed the threat posed by these elements to the establishment.

However, as may be expected, there are also certain differences between Islamic militancy in Pakistan and its Sikh counterpart in India. While the latter was a secessionist movement by one of India's many communities, as could also be seen in the northeast, the defiance of authority by the radical clerics of the Lal Masjid was a call to replace the existing system by one guided solely by the Islamic principles outlined in the Shariat.

In effect, therefore, it represented a potential uprising inspired by religion, as was witnessed, for instance, in Iran against the Shah in 1979. However, if the Pakistani clerics didn't seem to have any public sympathy, unlike the case in the initial stages in Iran, the reason was that even the country's military-dominated 'democracy' left enough space for civil society to express its divergent views, as through the media, for instance, and also via the political parties.

It is possible that as long as the fundamentalist menace remained confined mostly to the northwestern region bordering Afghanistan, Islamabad was not in a hurry to act. But it was the virtual takeover of a mosque in the heart of the capital by the Taliban-style mullahs, which meant that the authorities could not allow things to drift any longer.

The occasional forays by the young radicals into the city to close down video and massage parlours were a sign that official inaction was making them bolder. The turning point was apparently the kidnapping of Chinese tourists, which evidently embarrassed the authorities if only because China is a fast friend of Pakistan.

President Musharraf may have also realised that his claim of introducing 'enlightened moderation' in the country's polity was being mockingly contravened by the sight of hundreds of burqa-clad and lathi-wielding militant women, who had made the Lal Masjid their home and were uninhibitedly preaching jihad and extolling suicide bombers. It made Pakistan look like what its critics said it was - an epicentre of terrorism.

The firmness shown against the Lal Masjid bigots is undoubtedly a major blow to all the extremist outfits operating in Pakistan, for it has exposed the hollowness of the fundamentalist claim that they represent a sizeable section of public opinion.

If the authorities act with equal determination against the other militant organisations, Pakistan may yet escape from the trap it had set for itself by its overt and covert encouragement of terrorist groups.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)   


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