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Crossing the Rubicon: Many Pakistani nationals have paid a heavy price for exposing army and jihadi connect

File photo of JeM chief Masood Azhar. Photograph:( AFP )

Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, India Mar 04, 2019, 10.26 AM (IST) Written By: Rajesh Singh

After India successfully conducted air strikes on terror camps operated by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) inside Pakistan, experts observed that New Delhi had ‘crossed the Rubicon’ this time around. It’s a good time to recall that, within Pakistan too, the Rubicon had been crossed in different ways on a few occasions in the recent past by intrepid people, but the outcome had been less than fortunate for the initiators. The Pakistani deep state had prevailed. 

Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad had dared to explore the complex links between religiously fanatic elements within the Pakistan army and outside. He relied on inside information to report on the continuing infiltration of extremists into the Army and the Jihadi connect. But when he put out a story on the Mehran naval base attack in 2011, saying that it had been an insider job, he had crossed the line as far as the deep state was concerned. In the last week of May, Shahzad was kidnapped, tortured and killed, and his body was left in a drain as a grim reminder to anyone who may have harboured thoughts challenging the status quo.  

The heavily protected Mehran naval base, situated near Karachi, had been attacked by a handful of Pakistani Jihadists, and several names complicit in the incident, including retired defence personnel, came to light. The audacious attempt was eventually contained, but not before severe damage was done to some of the navy's expensive assets and the Pakistani defence force’s image. Predictably, in the hysteria that erupted, two things happened. First, denial. And second, approving blame to the US, India and Israel. The second was not bought by the world community, and the first had no leg to stand on after the Pakistani establishment led by General Pervez Musharraf had to crack down on the local perpetrators and weed out radical elements from within the ranks of its Armed Forces. 

Shahzad’s Mehran report was the last major one that he would file. He not only wrote that the Mehran attack was an insider job, but also reported that a purge had been in progress which had divided security personnel as well as the rogue elements outside along ethnic and religious lines. But he was not the only journalist to be punished thus. There was the American Daniel Pearl, who too had crossed the Rubicon almost a decade before Shahzad did. 

Pearl, who was primarily based in Mumbai while reporting on the south Asian region for The Wall Street Journal, had visited Pakistan as part of an investigative report he was working on, with a view to unravel links involving the Al Qaeda and a British citizen, better known as the ‘Shoe Bomber’. In February 2002, he was kidnapped, tortured and executed by his captors. His decomposed body and the severed head were discovered a few months later. He had entered dangerous territory, one that could expose the complicity of the deep state. 

The group that claimed ‘credit’ for the kidnapping and subsequent action was the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. This outfit accused Pearl of being an American spy. It demanded the release of all Pakistani terror detainees as well as lifting of the embargo on the US shipment of F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan, as some of the conditions for Pearl’s release. It is inconceivable that an outfit could so brazenly function right inside Pakistan without some sort of official ‘turning the blind eye’ at the least. 

It’s not only journalists in Pakistan, whether Pakistani or otherwise, who have paid with their lives for crossing the Rubicon. Even high-profile politicians who summoned the courage to challenge extremist elements, either inside or out of the system, fell to radical elements while the official establishment remained inactive — or implicitly supportive of the fanatics. Salman Taseer is a case in point. A liberal politician associated with the Pakistan Peoples Party of Benazir Bhutto, he was assassinated in January 2011 in Islamabad by his bodyguard, who shot him with an assault rifle 27 times hear his home. Taseer’s crime was that he had vehemently and publicly opposed his country’s blasphemy law, which had the backing of not just extremist groups but also influential sections of the Pakistani Deep State. A show of state mourning was thereafter organised but it deceived none.  

Radical elements, both outside the political system and within, had been enraged by his public pronouncements in support of one Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death by a court of law for having ‘blasphemed’ Islam. After the assassination, hundreds of prominent Pakistan clerics had lent support to the assassin and urged the people to boycott Taseer’s funeral.  

The connect between extremist elements and the Pakistani state has been often commented upon by one of the country’s most prominent former envoy, Husain Haqqani, in his books and public discourses. Haqqani is now located outside Pakistan and has many times quipped that terrorists are more secure in Pakistan than he would be if he were to return to his country. He too crossed the Rubicon many times, but fortunately, he remains safe for now. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)

Rajesh Singh

The writer is an author, senior political commentator and public affairs analyst

Story highlights

Many Pakistani journalists and politicians have dared to explore the complex links between religiously fanatic elements within the Pakistan army and outside