ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI, 13 January — An olive branch in one hand and a sword in the other, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf cracked down yesterday on militants and told India it was time to talk, but said his troops were ready to fight to the last drop of their blood.
Eager not to appear to be bowing to Indian demands yet still trying to defuse tensions, Musharraf banned five militant groups in an address to the nation, saying they were stirring sectarian hatred at home. The banned groups included the two pro-Kashmiri organizations accused by India of the attack last month on its parliament.
With a million men poised for war on both sides of the Pakistan-India border, he said that India must not dare to cross the line and his people must not interfere in the business of other countries.
"Pakistan’s armed forces are fully deployed and prepared to face every challenge. We will shed the last drop of our blood for the defense of the country," he said in a speech laced with a mix of saber rattling and peace-making.
"Do not attempt to cross the border in any area because we will retaliate with full force," the military ruler said. "Let there be no misunderstanding."
There was no immediate comment from Indian officials. The United States was quick to welcome Musharraf’s speech that outlined a vision for a modern Islamic Pakistan, with a State Department official saying the strategy provided "a basis for both sides to ratchet down the tension".
Police were ordered to seal all the offices in Sindh province of the five religious and sectarian groups. "A ban is after all a ban and police have been asked to seal all their offices ... if they are still operative," Sindh’s Home Secretary Brig. Mukhtar Sheikh told AFP. The law would take its course if someone tried to resist or violate the ban, he said. "The writ of the government would be enforced and no one would be allowed to break the law as laid down by the president," he said.
Newly-banned group Lashkar-e-Taiba was one of the first to express defiance, vowing its jihad, or holy war, would continue in Indian-administered Kashmir. "The government of Pakistan has no right to ban us as we are a Kashmir-based group fighting against the Indian forces and we will continue our jihad (holy war)," Lashkar spokesman Abdullah Sayyaf said.
India’s political establishment gave a cautious welcome to the speech. But the Indian government said it would react officially today after it had studied the text of the address "very closely". The Hindu extremist party, which leads the ruling coalition in Delhi, said it would welcome steps to curb militancy announced by Pakistan only if they halted "Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir and the rest of India."
The Bharatiya Janata Party said it wanted more than words from the Pakistani leader. "That will be the benchmark. He has to be judged by his actions," BJP spokesman Vijay Kumar Malhotra told reporters. The US State Department official said Musharraf’s speech "marks a clear break with the violence of the past in Kashmir and Pakistani society as a whole."
Musharraf stressed that the issue of disputed Kashmir that has soured ties with India ever since independence in 1947 must be solved through negotiation, words unlikely to find favor with India that claims the whole Himalayan region as its own. "Kashmir runs in our blood. No Pakistani can break links with Kashmir. The whole world knows this, all Pakistanis know this," he said, but said the dispute should not be used as a pretext by extremists.
"No organization will be permitted to engage in terrorism under cover of Kashmir cause," he said in measured remarks unlikely to assuage Indian anger but likely to find favor in the international community.
Musharraf’s speech came at the end of a day that saw the arrests of about 250 activists detained in police raids on religious schools, or madrassas, belonging to radical groups in the volatile southern port city of Karachi.
He told his people he was banning Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, two of the groups of militants battling security forces in Indian-ruled Kashmir that are at the root of the military standoff between the nuclear neighbors that has brought them to the brink of the fourth war.
"Militancy, intolerance, extremism ... are to be brought to an end," he said without linking the ban to Indian demands. He said he was ready to talk to India in the spirit of New Delhi’s own requests and sent a message to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. "I would like to quote what you yourself said only a few days ago, and I quote: ‘Mindsets will have to be altered, and historical baggage will have to be jettisoned’. I take you up on this offer. Let us start talking in this very spirit."
His speech clearly took into account that Kashmir, divided when Pakistan and Indian gained independence in 1947 and the cause of two of their three wars, is an extremely emotive issue among Musharraf’s 140 million people. "If Pakistan and India are to normalize their relations and create harmony then they will have to find a solution to the Kashmir dispute through dialogue and in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmir people," Musharraf said.
He cloaked his olive branch to India, which had demanded the bans on the two groups it blames for the attack last month on the heart of its power in New Delhi, under the cover of banning extremists and lifting his people out of a life of fear. "Pakistan’s image the world all over has suffered," he said of sectarian and religious extremism. "A common man is scared, he fears for his life going to a mosque... What a shame."
"I appeal to my Pakistani nation to arise, banish intolerance and hatred ... and establish a climate of equality, of brotherhood."
Musharraf is under pressure not only from India, whose army chief said on Friday his forces were ready for nuclear war, but also from the international community, concerned that tension between India and Pakistan is diverting attention from the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
Referring to a list of 20 alleged militants that India wants handed over, he said there was no question of extraditing Pakistanis and they would be put on trial in Pakistan if evidence were found against them. "There is no question of handing over any Pakistani. If we have any evidence against them we will try them under our own law," Musharraf said. But he did not rule out handing over foreigners. The list names at least 11 people who are believed not to be Pakistani.
"So far as non-Pakistanis are concerned, we have not given them any asylum. If they are found here we will take suitable action against them," he said. Hundreds of activists have been detained the last few days including the radical leaders of the two banned pro-Kashmiri groups.
Musharraf, who has been cracking down on violent sectarian militants since early last year, also banned the radical Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba and its rival, the Shiite Tehrik-e-Jafria. The Sipah-e-Sahaba and Tehrik-e-Jafria have been blamed for a wave of sectarian bombings and shootings across Pakistan.
He hit out at the religious schools, or madrassas, saying new schools must register with the authorities and any school involved in militant activity will be closed down. "No new madrassa can be opened without registration. Any madrassa found indulging in militant activity will be closed down," he said. The thousands of madrassas in Pakistan have long been seen as breeding grounds for militants, and gave birth to the fundamentalist Taleban militia that took power in Afghanistan in 1996 but collapsed late last year under US attack.
Sipah-e-Sahaba and the TJP have been blamed for waves of sectarian bombings and shootings. In the past year alone sectarian violence had killed 400 people, Musharraf said. Shafiqur Rahman, information secretary for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, said its members were patriotic Pakistanis who were not involved in terrorism. "It’s the biggest tragedy in Pakistan’s history," he said. "By pushing us against the wall and putting our central leadership in jail we could lose control over our members... They may take their own course of action."
Tehrik-e-Jafria said the ban was unjust and the group was working to promote Islam. Musharraf said organizations and individuals would face strict punitive measures if found inciting violence, either inside or outside Pakistan. "We have the power to face external dangers but the dangers before us is the internal danger," he said.
He said nothing about the activities of Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, but stressed no groups would be permitted to carry out "terrorism" under the pretext of the Kashmir issue. "No organization will be allowed to call itself Lashkar, Sipah or Jaish. So the government bans Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad," Musharraf said. All three words mean "army" in Urdu, Persian and Arabic, respectively.
While Musharraf said Pakistan would maintain its traditional diplomatic and moral support for the Kashmiri separatist cause, a senior Jaish official said the ban was unjust. India has long complained of what it calls Islamabad-sponsored "cross-border terrorism" with Pakistan-based militants infiltrating into Indian-controlled Kashmir. "They don’t have any evidence," Mufti Ahmad Hassan of Jaish told reporters. "It will hurt the people of Kashmir."
TJP leader Sajid Naqvi said the ban was unjustified. "We will go court against this decision of Gen. Pervez Musharraf and prove that his action is utter injustice ... and an insult to tens of millions of Shiite people," he said in a statement. TNSM, the fifth group banned and which wants Pakistan to adopt strict Islamic rule based on the Taleban, was accused by Musharraf of causing the deaths of Pakistani tribesmen who went to fight in Afghanistan in support of the Taleban.
But a TNSM spokesman breathed defiance, saying: "Musharraf is a toy in the hands of America. He does whatever America wants him to do. We will continue our movement until our last breath."
Earlier yesterday, police made hundreds of arrests of alleged extremist leaders throughout the country and police were ordered to guard mosques and other religious places ahead of the speech.
Jairam Ramesh, a senior leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, said the speech marked a step forward in relations between India and Pakistan. "The way Musharraf has spoken, the way he has packaged his speech shows that he is the master of public relations. Now we come to the substance of his speech: it rejects jihad (holy war), religious extremism, jihadi culture and outlines the actions he has said he will take against it. It is a step forward.
"He has said the right things but we have to look at the ground situation and see how the situation develops."
Nilodpal Basu of the Communist Party of India also welcomed the address. "Musharraf’s speech and the topics chosen — his promise to clamp down on terrorists, the reform of madrassas, one cannot object to any of these statements," he said.