"I am not representing those who talk of fighting. I am representing those who want to resolve issues through dialogue."
With this statement, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Leader of Opposition in the Pakistan National Assembly and chief of his own faction of the Islamist fundamentalist party Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam (JuI) became the latest entrant into the India-Pakistan 'peace constituency' during his visit to India last week. While it is in the interests of the sub-continent that the space for peace be enlarged, a question that needs equal attention is whether this space is a bandwagon that can be opened up to include those who have openly sponsored and supported virulent acts of international terrorism over the past decades, and whose recent and current activities - as opposed to immediate pronouncements - give no reason to believe that they have altered their fundamental ideology or agenda?
In India at the invitation of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, Rehman was accompanied by JuI vice-president Hafiz Hussain Ahmed and fellow parliamentarians Gul Naseeb and Qazi Hameedullah. The Maulana was also briefly a candidate for the Premiership of Pakistan after the October 2002 election, but lost the battle to Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali.
Fazlur Rehman is widely considered to be one of the primary backers of the Taliban, is known to have played a vital role in its creation, and remained intimately linked with both Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden throughout the period of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
After Benazir Bhutto won the 1993 national elections, Fazlur Rehman was appointed Chairman of the National Assembly's Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, a position he reportedly used to lobby for the Taliban. The Pakistani Frontier Constabulary Corps reportedly trained the first batches of Taliban militia from seminaries run by the Maulana and the Sibi Scouts in training camps near the Baluch border with Afghanistan. He is also allegedly the mentor of the proscribed terrorist organization, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM, earlier called Harkat-ul-Ansar), and is reportedly closely linked with the activities of the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-e-Islami (HuJI), and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).
When the US and allied forces commenced bombing Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan, he led large anti-US, anti-Musharraf, and pro-Taliban rallies in Pakistan's major cities. While denouncing Presidents Bush and Musharraf, he also threatened to launch a Jehad against the US if the bombings continued. In October 2001, President Musharraf placed Fazlur Rehman under house arrest. He was charged with sedition for inciting the people against the armed forces and for attempting to overthrow the Government. He was, however, set free in March 2002 and all cases against him were withdrawn.
The Maulana's affection for the Taliban has never been in doubt. He said in Dera Ismail Khan on October 23, 2001:
"Those talking of a broad-based government in Afghanistan have failed in the past…The Taliban brought peace, law and order in Afghanistan and banned poppy cultivation. They established good governance in more than 95 per cent of the country… Many Pakistanis are already taking part in Jihad and several others are ready to go to Afghanistan."
According to the acclaimed Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid:
"The Taliban's closest links were with Pakistan where many of them had grown up and studied in madrassas [seminaries] run by the mercurial Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, a fundamentalist party which had considerable support amongst the Pashtuns in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). " Rehman now denies these charges and claims he has "nothing to do with the Taliban," maintaining, however, that "the Taliban were those who brought peace to Afghanistan…"
Rehman, who is also secretary-general of the six party Islamist fundamentalist alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), indicated that the objective of the visit was to create a 'congenial atmosphere' between India and Pakistan and to force the 'rulers' of both countries to resolve their disputes peacefully. The hollowness of his stance was clear in his complete disregard of his past position, as he now claims: "Only talks can find solutions to disputes. We have always supported this route." While opposing any third-party mediation between India and Pakistan, he added, for good measure, during a press conference in Delhi that the Kashmir issue should be resolved through dialogue as envisaged under the Shimla Agreement of 1972. He also emphasized that, "there was no room for terrorism in Islam."
The compulsions of this dramatic turnaround are still unclear, but there should be no doubt that the raison d' etre of the various Jehadi mobilisers in Pakistan - including Rehman - remains unchanged. Asked about a solution to the Kashmir issue, he said, "Let me clarify that, on this point, I am with the Pakistan government. What you call cross-border terrorism is a freedom movement in our eyes. The people of Kashmir and the mujahideen who are fighting want their right to live."
There is speculation that the Government has initiated a 'Track II' diplomatic process that seeks to use the 'good offices' of people like Fazlur Rehman to take the peace process forward. Some analysts interpret sanction for his visit as New Delhi's way of exerting pressure on President Pervez Musharraf by seeking a rapport with domestic political forces in Pakistan, howsoever inimical these may be to India.
The idea of initiating such unprincipled liaisons and 'peace processes' is fraught with grave danger. The idea that diplomacy is an absolute virtue, and that a 'peace process', irrespective of the character of its participants, or the morality of its content, is an end in itself, merely emboldens the unscrupulous adversary.
Rehman's extremist organizational infrastructure in Pakistan remains intact; the various terrorist groups associated with him remain committed to their murderous agenda; the political formations he is associated with remain steadfast in a fundamentalist, pan-Islamist, and deeply violent worldview.
Contacts with individuals like Rehman, and the groups they represent, confer legitimacy and create increasing public ambivalence towards their identity and activities. Permitting Rehman to visit India at this crucial juncture can only weaken India's case for firm and consistent international action against terrorists and their state and non-state sponsors.
Kanchan Lakshman is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.