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  Confrontation over cleric  
  Importance of being Hafiz Saeed  
   
  HE is noticeably short; his figure is as flabby as his apparel and, to go by folklore, his beard is dyed with henna. Bespectacled, he bows his capped head as he walks, looking straight ahead only when addressing a large congregation.

Fifty-nine-year-old Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is no arresting personality, but few doubt the mass appeal of the radical cleric and his rhetoric in Pakistan.

And Lahore-based Hafiz looms large in the South Asian limelight today. He stands at the center of an India-Pakistan confrontation that no sane observer wants to get out of control.

In the immediate context, the controversy is over Hafiz's role in the horrendous Mumbai terrorist strike of November 2008. The Government of India calls him the "mastermind" behind the massacre, while Pakistan's rulers won't be convinced unless they have "evidence" enough.

The standoff, however, also illustrates a continuing stalemate over that most intractable of South Asian issues: Kashmir.

For weeks now, the nuclear-armed rivals are engaged in a war of nerves over Hafiz, who is making news, ironically, because nothing is happening to him. Not a day passes without New Delhi stridently demanding action against him and without Islamabad virtually dismissing the call. The latest of these exchanges took place in New York on September 27 in a meeting of India's External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session.

Qureshi asked India not to make action against Hafiz "a condition" for resumption of a five-year-old India-Pakistan "composite dialogue" suspended after Mumbai. Krishna reiterated India's rejection of the dialogue without action against its most wanted man. Islamabad has been insisting that India had given it only "leads" and no "evidence" that could stand in a court. New Delhi's counter is that it could provide only pointers to the Hafiz role and that stronger "evidence" was available only on "Pakistani soil."

Earlier this month, it was reported that the Pakistani authorities had placed Hafiz under house arrest. Two versions of the story have been circulating since then. Pakistan's public is being told that he has only been placed under stronger security. Others are being assured no more than that his "movements are being watched."

Official India's hope proved similarly illusory after the report of September 18 that the Pakistani police filed two charge-sheets (better known in this part of the world as "first information reports" or FIRs) against Hafiz. The move, it turned out, had nothing to do with Mumbai. Hafiz had been charged only under a provision of an anti-terrorism Act pertaining to organizations proscribed under it. The Hafiz-headed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), loosely the Congregation of Missionaries, has not really been banned.

All this, says a resentful New Delhi, is a repeat of the past. In December 2008, soon after Mumbai, Hafiz was reportedly placed under house arrest. The action, however, was taken only under the Maintenance of Public Order law, which allows temporary detention of persons deemed likely to create disorder. In early June 2009, he was released when the Lahore High Court found his confinement unlawful.

Hafiz was already then a veteran of house arrests. He was placed under one on December 21, 2001, after India alleged his involvement in the attack on Indian Parliament eight days before. He was released on March 31, 2002. Yet another house arrest followed on October 31, 2002. Similarly, after the Mumbai train bombings of July 11, 2006, he was put under house arrest on August 9 and released on a court order on August 28.

The cat-and-mouse game over Hafiz, thus, has continued for years before its culmination in the current confrontation. And it is the Kashmir connection that explains the stubbornness on both sides.

After Mumbai, New Delhi made a formal request to the United Nations Security Council to add the JuD and Hafiz to the UN list of individuals and organizations associated with terrorism. The plea was backed with the claim that the JuD was a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba or LeT (Army of the Pure), fighting since 1993 for Kashmir's separation from India. Hafiz has denied any links between either him or the JuD and the LeT -- but without convincing observers in both India and Pakistan.

Islamabad-based journalist M. Ilyas Khan wrote in June 2009, "Lashkar-e-Taiba was an offshoot of Jamaat-ud-Dawa wal-Irshad, a preaching, publishing and propaganda network set up by Hafiz Saeed for jihad (holy war) in Afghanistan in 1985.... Saeed raised Lashkar as the militant wing of the organisation in the early 1990s, when many militant groups started shifting from Afghanistan to Kashmir after the Soviet Union had pulled out of Afghanistan."

Khan added, "After 9/11, the group came under increasing international pressure, principally because of its involvement in some high-profile attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir and cities in India." The pressure moved then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to demonstrate action against the group.

"Days before Lashkar was proscribed by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in January 2002," noted the article, "Hafiz Saeed revived the group's parent organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa wal-Irshad, and amended its name (to JuD)."

"But there was no significant change in the nature of its activities," according to Khan. "Their offices continued to recruit fighters for militant training camps occupied by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistani-administered Kashmir." The JuD, however, has also functioned as a "charity" organization. "The presence of militants in those camps made it possible for them to start early rescue missions in the aftermath of the earthquake that hit the Kashmir region in October 2005."

Musharraf, like other leaders of Pakistan, had to reckon with the pressure of domestic opinion as well. There can be no question about the large constituency in the country for solidarity with the LeT. India's "terrorists" of Kashmir are Pakistan's "freedom fighters," at least for the majority of its people.

Hafiz comes of a family which migrated from India's Shimla to Lahore during the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 in India -- and lost 36 of its members in the Hindu-Muslim violence. He articulates a hatred of India that harks back to those times. Pakistan has many, many other families -- as India, too, has -- with similarly blood-soaked memories, and they empathize with him. Religious-communal politics, of course, keeps bitter revanchism alive in both countries.

Hardly does Hafiz confine his anti-India rhetoric to Kashmir. Former Indian diplomat G. Parthasarathy quotes the cleric as "thundering" at a Lahore congregation on November 3, 2000: "Jihad is not about Kashmir only. About 15 years ago people might have found it ridiculous if someone had told them about the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Today, I announce the break-up of India, Inshallah (God willing). We will not rest till the whole of India is dissolved into Pakistan."

On August 31, 2008, the Pakistani newspaper The Nation carried a report on Hafiz telling a rally in Rawalpindi that "Kashmir is part and parcel of Pakistan and the sacrifices rendered by Kashmiris for freedom will not go waste. Founder of the PPP (Pakistan People's Party and former premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was determined about a war for the freedom of Kashmir whereas his son-in-law and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari wants to shake hands with India."

Another Pakistani journalist, Zahid Hussain, in a recent article, wrote, "Even in 2000 ... Hafiz ... told me that he saw the struggle in Kashmir as 'the gateway to the liberation of Indian Muslims.' He went on, "'We believe in a clash of civilizations and our jihad will continue until Islam becomes the dominant religion.'"

If such statements bring grist to the mill of India's militarists, its moderates, too, cannot ignore Hafiz as harmless. As for Islamabad, his utterances make it hard to act against him without seeming, to many Pakistanis, as succumbing to the big neighbor's pressure.

Pakistan's rulers point to their military action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda militants as proof that they are not pro-terrorism. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of being selective in its anti-terrorism, citing the inaction against Hafiz and JuD. Reports, meanwhile, suggest that more than lack of hostility mars Hafiz-government relations.

Pakistan's peace activist Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote (when Musharraf was still at the helm), "As part of the trade-off (with the regime), terrorist leaders who are officially under house arrest -- like ... Hafiz Saeed -- remain able to open offices, address rallies, and preach jihad freely." Since then, the deal is said to have acquired a military dimension as well

In Khan's words, "Lashkar has remained more loyal to Islamabad's policies than other militant groups, and has remained comparatively more focused on India. For this reason, the group has become unpopular with militant factions fighting the Pakistani army in ... the tribal region."

According to him, "Many also suspect Mr Saeed and other Dawa leaders of having played a role in the 2002 arrest of some top al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. These operatives, including a top al-Qaeda leader, Abu Zubaydah, were arrested from a Lashkar safe house in the city of Faisalabad."

From the confrontation over the cleric, two conclusions can be drawn. For one thing, Hafiz will be a hard nut to crack so long as Kashmir remains an intractable issue, so long as propaganda keeps the people in both countries unprepared for any advance on it.

More importantly, the entire episode exposes again the glaring irony of the "war on global terror" in the South Asian theater. In 2002, after the neighbors came to the brink of a conflict in Kashmir, I wrote: "By becoming 'allies' in the US-led war on terrorism, India and Pakistan have actually become more implacable adversaries than ever before, with each hoping to turn the situation to its own decisive and deadly advantage."

The Hafiz story shows no change in either the strange "alliance" or the resultant state of regional insecurity. (Courtesy: Truthout)
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A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.
 
  By  J. Sri Raman  
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