Is a paradigm shift in the offing?

Originally published in Daily Times on Monday July 11, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

The heaven that Swat once was for tourists, once again opened itself to an assortment of national and international scholars, analysts, media persons, civil society representatives and politicians from all over Pakistan. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) organised a three-day long national seminar on de-radicalisation attended by the Governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and the prime minister alongside other noted personalities.

The event seemed to be more than just a seminar in many ways. The selection of panellists and participants was odd, keeping in view the usual audience of such seminars in the past. Many faces could be seen on the presidium, podium and on the front seats that had been previously declared either anti-state or as playing against the national interest by previous martial laws and pro-establishment regimes. Some of the panellists spoke quite candidly about the military’s role in instigating and stimulating religion and ideology-based radicalism in the last six decades.

The seminar was divided into three distinct parts; one: tracing the roots of radicalism in Pakistan and tracking the contemporary models of de-radicalisation; two: narrating the Swat story, counting the successes after the military operation and recommending the future course; three: analysing Pakistan’s de-radicalisation programmes and recommending a de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation strategy for Pakistan.

Listening to the comprehensive presentations by the national and international experts could not have been richer without a direct interaction with the people of Swat on the sidelines of the seminar. We entered Swat on Sunday (July 3) under very high security. So intense was the environment that shops were all closed down and one could see no other vehicle on the roads but the ones carrying the participants. The impression that this high security regime was a part of Swat’s daily life was dispelled by talking to the locals who said that the special security arrangements were in apprehension of a possible threat to the high profile event.

It was heartrending to see that the life and times under the Taliban still haunted people’s memories. Khooni Chowk (bloody crossing), the main crossing in the city that had been used by the Taliban for public hangings and exhibiting slaughtered bodies still reminds them of the horrors of the terror times. Despite being highly critical of dance and music by women, Hazrat Bilal, a local vendor, painfully narrated the story of a very popular Swati dancing girl, Saima, who was brutally killed by the Taliban for her art, which they thought was un-Islamic.

Saima Anwer, the only woman lawyer of Malakand Division, told how upset and helpless she and her family felt when the Taliban banned female education. She was in the final year of her legal education when the conflict was at its peak and students feared wastage of their academic year at the hands of continuing terror. It was the Nizam-e-Adl deal between the government and the terrorists along with the subsequent military operation due to which we were able to take the examinations and thus our academic year was saved, said Saima. She was the first and the only female student of law among three others who chose to start their practice. She is now an apprentice lawyer in the chamber of a senior advocate.

The successes recounted during the seminar and those related by the local people, however, should be seen in their right perspective. It must be remembered that a regiment of soldiers, however professional they might be, could not have produced results without political backing and public support. All the political parties, parliament and the people were on one page for Operation Rah-e-Rast in 2009, save the Jamaat-e-Islami and its affiliates. For the military too, the situation in Swat had proved to be an unnecessary distraction from the main battlefield between the US-sponsored war on terror and the ‘friendly’ Taliban housed comfortably in Waziristan.

The new found Frankensteinian outgrowth that was the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) had been given a free hand for many years to consolidate their political and militant power in Malakand. Even the widely listened to FM radio channel of Mullah Fazlullah was allowed to continue, only to spread venom and religion-based radicalism among the scantily literate people of Malakand. This criminal negligence could simply be incompetence or may be the complicity of the powers that be. The uncomfortable reality is, the military operation that should have been the last resort was carried out as the first offensive against militants who had been challenging the writ of the state for quite some time.

Previously, similar space was shamelessly given to the Ghazi brothers of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), right under the nose of our premier spy agency whose headquarters are situated literally at an arm’s distance from the insurgents’ safe house — what the people knew as Lal Masjid. The operation against them was delayed to the unbearable extent of allowing them to attack common citizens and take over the social space by imposing their own moral order. The media that has the stigma of unequivocally protecting the interests of either the militants or the establishment, came to the rescue of the Lal Masjid militants and developed an environment where common citizens were automated to hate the military action. Anyone who spoke against the “innocent students” who were “martyred” by the Pakistan’s armed forces was termed a villain. When soldiers and officers become the fodder of this cosmetic war on militancy and those who kill our soldiers become ‘martyrs’ in the public eye, it should surely make a serious point to ponder for the military leadership.

All this is recounted just to remind the establishment that whatever success has been achieved in Swat was a shared success between the soldiers who made it possible in active collaboration with the civilians — the people of Swat, the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the political parties. Moreover, the seminar has made one loud point, that there exists a pressing need for terrorism-specific legislation that may help the judiciary to indict terrorists who have been looming large in the absence of the required legal framework. Not only the laws but also the local police needs to be capacitated in terms of technical know-how as well as technological back-up for collecting and analysing circumstantial and other evidence in order to make a strong case against the militants, leaving little space for their acquittal.

Lastly, expensive face-lifting exercises like this seminar would only be helpful if the possible ‘paradigm shift’ that we heard during three days in Swat is replicated in all the battlefields including Waziristan and Balochistan. Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in his speech reminded that similar seminars and discussions used to be held during the Zia years when the Afghan Jihad was planned to be instituted in Pakistan’s national consciousness, which radicalised society so deeply that we landed in the present mess. And now, around three decades later, we are once again being made to think to counter that radicalisation. If it is a real paradigm shift in the ages old psyche of the establishment, it is a welcome move.

However, due attention needs to be paid to the question of a Swati woman who stood for more than three hours to get the opportunity to talk to General Kayani after the concluding session of the seminar. Her question was: sir, if Swat is a success story, will you kindly care to do the same in Waziristan and Balochistan? Whereas both are simply incomparable, but pose different kinds of challenges to the state and the military, who need to think beyond their noses. If the state cannot make out who is killing Hazara Shias in Balochistan and prevent the targeted violence there, it does not deserve Balochistan. If the military cannot restore peace and drag all the foreigners out of Waziristan whose presence is a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, it surely does not qualify for people’s trust and respect. Cosmetics can no more be relied on to hide the blemishes. People want answers, not mutilated dead bodies. The sooner this is understood, the better.