Pakistan needs a Beant Singh

Islamabad’s surrender to the Taliban in Swat is terrible news. A moribund Islamabad cannot stop Islamic terrorists from attacking India even if it wants to.

It is another matter that Pakistan has long nurtured groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba to target Kashmir. Pakistan is now learning what India learned in the 1980s–you can be devoured by monsters you create to wound others.

Indira Gandhi nurtured two monsters–Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab and Prabhakaran of the Tamil Tigers. When the monsters got out of control, she (and later Rajiv Gandhi) tried quelling them. Result: Indira was killed by disgruntled Sikhs, and Rajiv by disgruntled Tamil Tigers. The lesson for Pakistan is clear.

The Taliban’s rise in Pakistan has something in common with Bhindranwale’s rise in Punjab. A religious preacher, he sought to purge Sikhism of modern evils and return to pristine Sikhism. He was outraged by reformist Sikhs like the Nirankaris, and his followers killed many Nirankaris including the Nirankari Baba.

Religion and violence make a very dangerous mix. Yet both Indira and the Akali Dal, Punjab’s Sikh party, sought to use Bhindranwale rather than jail him. Indira supported his candidates against official Akali ones in the 1979 gurdwara elections. And the Akalis sought to use his inflammatory Sikh rhetoric–including a demand for an independent Khalistan–to garner votes in state elections.

The Akalis let him set up a terrorist fortress within the Golden Temple. This ended only when the Army overran the Temple and killed Bhindranwale. But this attack enraged many Sikhs, creating ever more militant groups.

No politician or analyst initially viewed the Bhindranwale challenge as a law-and-order one, to be put down with a firm hand. viewed All felt that Sikh sensibilities had to be assuaged with political compromises. My editor at the time thought peace could be bought by giving Chandigarh and more river water to Punjab. Alas, the terrorists dismissed such peace offerings with contempt.

Rajiv Gandhi struck a peace accord with the Akali Dal, enabling it to win the 1985 state election. Yet his attempt to use the Akalis to curb extremism failed–it only emboldened the militants, whom the Akalis had no will to control. Rajiv also struck a deal with Bhindranwale’s nephew, Jaswant Singh Rode, and made him Akal Takht Chief. But militancy only increased.

He then tried Army rule, but that too failed. The militants became ever stronger, and soon constituted a quasi-state. They sent out hukumnamas (religious commands) ordering the closure of meat shops and cinema halls, and a terrorised populace obeyed. Policemen who tried to tackle terrorism were initially thwarted by politicians of the Congress and Akali Dal. Later, militants assassinated several police officers and their relatives.

In sum, all compromises with religious terror failed. So did Army rule. What finally succeeded was democracy with an iron fist. Fresh state elections in 1992 were boycotted by the Akalis, in line with terrorist warnings. Beant Singh, the new Congress Chief Minister, gave his police chief KPS Gill a free hand to crush terrorism. Gill unleashed state terror to counter Sikh terror, replicating tactics that the militants themselves used. In barely one year, he crushed a decade-old problem.

Only when Sikh policemen took on Sikh militants, with no interference from central or state politicians, was terrorism curbed. Earlier attempts at a Punjab-Delhi compromise or Hindu-Sikh compromise failed. The solution lay in reformulating the issue as one pitting Sikh liberals against Sikh fundamentalists.

This has lessons for Pakistan. Attempts by Islamabad to placate or strike deals with extremists will fail, emboldening militants and lowering the state’s stature.

In elections, Pakistanis have repeatedly voted for liberal Muslim parties, not Islamic ones. Yet these liberal parties–including the Awami National Party, which won the state election in the North West Frontier Province–have no stomach to take on the Taliban. Islamabad has sought compromises with militant Baitullah Mehsud in the tribal areas, but only succeeded in strengthening Mehsud. The new compromise in Swat will surely fail too.

To succeed, Pakistan needs a Beant Singh. Muslim liberals will have to take Muslim extremists head on. The task has to be done by a state government using police skills, not the Army. Terrorists cannot be subdued by US planes or troops.

This is a battle for Pakistan’s soul. It must be fought by Pakistani liberals against Pakistani extremists, without regard to Indian or US interests or urgings. Once Pakistani liberals grasp this hard reality, as Beant Singh did in Punjab, they will find that victory over extremism can be surprisingly quick and complete.

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