Punjab minister asks for mercy from Taliban, earns woman’s scorn

March 17, 2010

After the chief minister of Pakistan’s biggest province reportedly asked the Taliban to spare his region from attacks, he kicked off an uproar and earned the scorn of a woman member of a provincial parliament, who sarcastically offered him her scarf and said “the women of the frontier province” would protect him.

Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab province, on Sunday said he didn’t understand why the Taliban were targeting the Punjab when his party — the PML-N — and militants alike opposed the policies of former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, who allied with the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Gen. Musharraf planned a bloodbath of innocent Muslims at the behest of others only to prolong his rule, but we in the PML-N opposed his policies and rejected dictation from abroad,” the daily Dawn quoted him as saying. “If the Taliban are also fighting for the same cause then they should not carry out acts of terror in Punjab.” (Where the PML-N rules.)

Shahbaz’s reported remark at an Islamic seminary in the provincial capital of Lahore on Sunday was widely seen as an attempt to appease Taliban militants who have unleashed a wave of bombs and suicide attacks across the country. Just two days before, militants killed 45 people in twin suicide bombings in a high-security zone in Lahore.

Because of such attacks, Pakistanis have generally been supportive of the military campaign against militant enclaves in the volatile border regions in the northwest, although the U.S.-led war on al Qaeda militants and their allies is highly unpopular in Pakistan.

But Shahbaz’s remarks were too much for one Nighat Orakzai, the woman who on Monday accused the chief minister of cowardice.

“The statement shows the chief minister of Punjab is afraid of the Taliban. I offer my dupatta (scarf) to him. He should wear this and sit in the chief minister’s house. The women of the frontier province are ready to protect him,” she said as she threw her scarf on the floor of the North West Frontier Provincial Assembly.

On Monday, Shahbaz issued a clarification, saying that he was quoted “out of context” but that wasn’t enough for Orakzai.

On Wednesday, she expanded on her remarks to Reuters: “I am living in the NWFP where we see bombings and suicide attacks every day,” she said. “If he is so scared of the Taliban, then we Pashtun sisters and brothers can come and protect him.”   

Shahbaz’s reported remark is dominating Pakistani media, with television channels hosting talk shows and newspapers brimming with critical editorials.

“The absurdity of these comments cannot be overstated. Not only is this statement a foolish one, it is a highly insensitive one,” the liberal newspaper Daily Times said in its editorial. “The suspicion against PML-N that it has been harbouring ties with banned militant outfits has now been all but proved,” the Daily Times said.

“Essentially, Mr. (Shahbaz) Sharif has argued that his party, the PML-N, shares a common cause with the Taliban,” Dawn newspaper said in editorial titled “Sharif and the Taliban”.   

The PML-N is led by Shahbaz’s elder brother, Nawaz Sharif. It is a major political party of Pakistan but its power base lies in Punjab, the most populous and politically important province of the country.

Shahbaz’s comments also laid bare ethnic and provincial tensions that have been inflamed by the campaign of violence by the mainly Pashtun Taliban. Though most of the Taliban violence has been focused in the mainly ethnic Pashtun North West Frontier Province on the Afghan border, the militants have carried out several high profile attacks in Punjab in recent years.

Some Punjabis consider the Taliban a Pashtun problem and not a problem for all of Pakistan — or for them. Indeed, political opponents accused Shahbaz of promoting “parochial politics”. Questions have also been raised about the stance of his elder brother and PML-N chief, Nawaz Sharif.

Nawaz Sharif is out of the country and has not commented, but Shahbaz’s remark could prove embarrassing to his brother, particularly because newspapers recently published pictures of the Punjab law minister loyal to the Sharif brothers campaigning in a by-election with leaders of an outlawed Islamic militant group.

Critics have long accused the elder Sharif of being sympathetic to Islamists. He had close links with conservative religious groups during his rule in the 1990s.

Even Nawaz’s old foe, Musharraf, has gotten in on the act.

“Nawaz Sharif is a closet Taliban. … He will cause major devastation for Pakistan,” he told the Urdu language service of the Voice of America. Musharraf toppled Sharif in a military coup in 1999.


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