Lal Masjid ≠ Golden Temple (2007)

Lal Masjid ≠ Golden Temple

Wide differences are revealed between contemporary Pakistan and India by these two superficially similar military assaults on armed religious civilians


First published in The Sunday Statesman, July 15 2007,, Editorial Page Special Article

There is a superficial similarity between what happened in Pakistan’s “Operation Silence/ Sunrise” at the Lal Masjid a few days ago and what happened in India’s “Operation Blue Star” at the Golden Temple in May-June 1984. In both cases, heavily armed religiously motivated civilians were holed up in a place of worship, and were laid siege to and then killed or arrested by an assault force sent by the national government.

That, however, is about as far as the similarity goes, and it would be a gross error to equate the two and suppose General Musharraf has been only doing something similar to what Indira Gandhi did twenty three years ago. In fact, revisiting the Golden Temple case allows a vivid contrast to be drawn between the very different kinds of national societies modern India and Pakistan have become.

Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was an unexceptional preacher who shot into prominence and fame after first being used by Sanjay Gandhi and Zail Singh in Punjab politics, and later causing the Akali Dal itself to become more communal in nature. Bhindranwale was initially set up by the Sanjay-Zail Congress Party in 1978 to oppose the heretic Nirankari sect, in an attempt to make the Congress gain local electoral support relative to the Akalis by seeming more chauvinistic and less secular in outlook. By July 1982, Bhindranwale, whose associates had been implicated by the police in a number of murders, was holed up in the Golden Temple complex and apparently never left again until he was killed in Operation Blue Star in early June 1984.

Officially, “minimum force” was to be applied in Blue Star: soldiers went in barefoot “with humility in our hearts and prayers on our lips” and sustained heavier casualties than they would have otherwise. Fierce fighting saw Vijayanta tanks and armoured cars being attacked by Chinese-made rocket-propelled grenades that had been smuggled in from the Afghan war. Innocent civilians and surrendered prisoners came to be killed (see Mark Tully and Satish Jacob, Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, 1985.)

Yet even so, India’s military had only an instrumental role to play in the Golden Temple siege and assault. The root causes that made the siege inevitable had nothing to do with India’s military itself but were a result of the myopic, ignorant and rather evil nature of our democratic politics during the Indira-Sanjay era ~ something which has continued in slightly milder form to this day throughout the country.

By contrast, the current Pakistani situation is one in which the assault was ordered by the retired head of the Pakistan Army, Pervez Musharraf, who has refused to quit office since being dismissed eight years ago by the last civilian Government headed by Nawaz Sharif. Instead he carried out a coup d’etat against Sharif, and has maintained himself in office claiming, like Ayub Khan, he will one day restore democratic institutions better than the nascent ones he has destroyed. To his credit, Pakistan’s press has been freer than before.

Pakistan’s generals and retired generals have seemed to occasionally grumble, especially when Nawab Bugti of Balochistan was killed, but not do more. This may be because Musharraf has made clear, most poignantly in his January 2002 speech, that any price would be paid by him, including succumbing entirely to American pressure on all matters, so long as the paramount goal of the Pakistan military was maintained, which has been, after all, that of trying by hook or crook to wrest Jammu & Kashmir from India.

J&K has remained the external objective of the Pakistan military as an institution even while, internally, officers have amassed vast personal fortunes over the decades and become major businessmen involved in innumerable foreign collaborations, especially with the Chinese. Musharraf, when asked by an Urdu TV channel not long ago what would happen if India did not relent on J&K, even murmured that war could then continue for a 100 years. Such has been the ostensible driving force of the Pakistan military and the raison d’etre of its domination of all aspects of the economy and society of the country.

At the same time, Pakistan’s military has constituted an Anglo-American reserve bastion for decades, and been a major destination of Western and Chinese armaments ~ paid for often by soft loans or grants from the Gulfs states and Saudi Arabia where thousands of Pakistani personnel serve to staff Arab militaries. Many commentators (e.g. Ayesha Jalal and WE James and myself in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Husain Haqqani and Ayesha Siddiqa today) have pointed to the smothering effect the military has had on all matters of modern Pakistan’s political economy.

The French diplomatic scholar Frédéric Grare has described the situation bluntly: “The fear of an Islamic threat has been the driving force behind most Western countries’ foreign policies toward Pakistan in recent years. The possibility that violent Islamists will kill President Pervez Musharraf, throw Pakistan into turmoil, take over the country and its nuclear weapons, and escalate regional terrorism has dominated the psychological and political landscape. Such fears have usually led to support of the Pakistani military as the only institution able to contain the danger. But the Islamist threat is neither as great nor as autonomous as many assume. True, Pakistan has experienced more than its share of religious violence, both sectarian and jihadi. But serious law-and-order problems do not mean the fate of the state is at stake. No Islamic organization has ever been in a position to politically or militarily challenge the role of the one and only centre of power in Pakistan: the army. On the contrary, the Pakistani Army has used Islamic organizations for its purposes, both at home and abroad. Islamist organizations balance the power of rival mainstream political parties, preserving the army’s role as national arbiter. The army has nurtured and sometimes deployed violent Islamists in Afghanistan (with US support at first), Kashmir, and other hot spots on the subcontinent.” Pakistan: The Myth of an Islamist Peril, Carnegie Endowment, February 2006. Pakistan’s Army may be effectively beyond anyone’s control other than itself. The fox has placed itself in charge of the hen-house.

Indeed, unlike the Indian case during the Bhindranwale period, where religious differences were attempted to be marked between Sikhs and Hindus to allay the perpetual Sikh fear of being reabsorbed into the Hindu fold, the present Pakistani case has had less to do with religious differences than it has to do with the concentration and dispensation of political power. By kidnapping Chinese masseuses in Islamabad, Lal Masjid protestors were hardly making a large religious point but rather one of political powerlessness and lack of voice or exit.

As for the people of J&K on both sides of the Line of Control, if they are objective in their assessment of the histories of India and Pakistan that they see before them, they may conclude once more as they did in the past that, all things considered, their political ancestors especially Sheikh Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad were prescient indeed back in 1947-1951 in pressing the future of J&K with the new secular democratic India and not a Pakistan that remains petulant and militarist. Pakistan’s military has expanded itself using J&K as the ostensible cause, yet the more unpleasant Pakistan’s political economy becomes because of that military, the less attractive modern Pakistan becomes to all the peoples of the subcontinent. As the present author said in these pages on 3 September 2006, “To be a man of destiny, Musharraf must transcend the military-business complex he rules over and reduce its role in Pakistani life, not increase it.”