It may seem as an outlandish tale today when I say that just a few years ago we lived in a Pakistan that afforded the existence of many militant organizations. Some of them were of a more generic outfit, customized and tailored by the Pak Army to fight a proxy war, a policy which was revealed to be flawed only few decades later. Yet others had more specific agendas, sponsored and aided and often accepted within the mainstream polity. These included those who’d hunt down and kill anyone of a different faction and did so as a religious obligation.
I said that today it seems like an absurdity because today most of us shy away from admitting this past and tend to be more tolerant and progressive. Today we pretend to look from the existences, albeit underground, of these very organizations which were once a stark reality and well operational throughout the nation. It particularly appalls me when Punjab government blatantly utters that such organizations no longer exist while the fact is that the other day, I came across a regional representative of Sipah-e-Sahaba who’s a well known celebrity among the Shia-haters locally and enjoys a profound repute in inducing hate-oratory towards them. “He can compel you to kill a Shia within ten minutes” is what an impressed fan tells me.
What bothers me is not that these organizations still exist. It is quite obvious that an ideology that has been fed and supported by certain powerful stakeholders would not diminish within a few years of policy change. What does bother me is that whether the policy change has even occurred? And if so, has it been implemented or stays, just like many other policy announcements, mere rhetoric? For despite the fact that such organizations are banned officially, they exist and recruit personnel openly and have madressahs under their control which act as their centers.
South Punjab is particularly ripe for them where factors like economic disparity, low literacy rate and remoteness from provincial command act as facilitators in providing ground to such militant factions. The performance of the Punjab government suggests that its intelligence is poor in the region. Another worrisome possibility is that the government officials are not willing to take a go at these extremists. This doesn’t come as a surprise since we have seen similar instances in the case of notorious dacoits who could well blackmail government personnel to retreat from testifying against them. Years of intense grass-root work and faith-based funding has lent these organizations immense power, in terms of resources and knowledge about local culture and terrain, if not in terms of manpower.
From the way Punjab government is handling the situation, and from the past record of CM’s statements, it becomes obvious that PML-N prefers sustaining a vote bank to the battle against extremism. It has long pretended the inexistence of any such elements but those statements have come to bite it back as more substantial proofs come forth about the role of ‘Punjabi Taliban’ in the recent saga of manslaughter at Lahore. This denial on the part of provincial command has truly complicated the entire situation. Had they accepted this fact and moved on with a counter-strategy to thwart these elements from their safe havens and take effective steps in containing their terrorist assaults, it would have been smooth sailing, at least relatively. Now, however, military solutions are being proposed which are certainly not the ideal way to address the situation.
Talking of the possibility of a military solution for the Punjabi Taliban, one must not forget that any sort of military assault in these regions may severely disrupt normal life throughout Punjab. Also, a singularly military solution shall stir other sleeping dragons, the yesterday’s proxy guys whom we dumped after using well for years and who surely keep a grudge against the army. And that shall leave Lahore most vulnerable, with the recent incident vividly depicting the reach of these elements well within the heart of Punjab.
If I look at all this, I tend to believe that the very first step that we need now is to admit the presence of such radicals within our ranks. And by ‘us’, I mean the society more so than the government for the masses at large put a finger on CIA and RAW more often than Taliban in the aftermath of any terrorist attack. Media, an effective tool in shaping public mindset and orienting the commonplace social discussions, has been playing a rather poor role. It needs to realize the gravity of the affairs before it’s too late. It can be a great aide in rooting out the support these militant factions enjoy among the local masses. Once this is done, or even in parallel, a low-level counter-terrorism strategy may be implemented through law-enforcement agencies rather than the army. It will be slow, and slow it shall be, for what we sowed and backed for decades will take years to erode out, and that too only when we truly try.