Fighting in the dark against terrorism in Punjab — by Meher Bokhari
Last year alone, innumerable incidents made a mockery of the Punjab government and its denial. The truth is, there is no dearth of facts. The tragedy is, there is no visible action being taken to address the evil, which now resides within
“What world am I bringing my child into?” I didn’t have the answer to my four-month pregnant friend’s panicked question, but it is still ringing at the back of my mind. Friday night was possibly the most terrifying and confusing night for the citizens of Lahore. Alarm and bewilderment rushed through the veins of the city as blast upon blast had the entire state machinery and media caught in a frenzy. As I climbed into an ambulance in order to reach the fifth possible blast site, only one thought kept raging through my mind — for how long will this continue? We are a nation too used to cosmetic treatments and band-aid solutions; for far too long personal mandates have taken priority over public interest, short-term policies have outlived any possible long-term commitments; we are a nation which is perfectly at ease living in denial.
One would think that a country, declared as the hotbed of militancy in the world, with a rich history of preparing and supporting militants who have spent the better half of their lives waging jihad against the enemy troops in the Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, or fighting alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the1980s, would at the very least not be in denial. The transition from abetting Islamic militants to combating the same has had grim repercussions for Pakistan. We are now looking at splinter groups, renamed, reorganised and highly motivated, deriving their strength from the logistic and financial support of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al Qaeda and the mysterious ‘foreign hand’.
Just on Sunday, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, while addressing a gathering of young students from Ahl-e-Sunnat’s biggest madrassa Jamia Naeemia, in his signature assertive style went on to highlight the ruling party’s inability to address issues of poverty and unemployment — the root causes of terrorism. Whereas he is not wrong in his assertion, it is ironic that his own government in Punjab has, much like a pigeon, shut its eyes to the threat looming within its own territory. Whether it is the dismaying electoral politics his government indulged in to win the provincial assembly seat in Jhang by wooing the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its head Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, or the complete denial they trot out when questioned on the extremist elements present in Punjab, the Punjab government seems to be in no mood to tackle the imminent threat: from militants consolidating their ranks in southern Punjab.
The SSP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), all these four militant outfits have their base in central and southern Punjab. The area is now called a nursery, critical for planning and recruiting for terrorist attacks all over the country. It is hard to understand what it is that the Punjab government fails to comprehend. Is it the leadership and activities of these banned groups who have historically supported the Afghan Taliban and militants from FATA? Or are they unaware of facts such as the physical support the Punjabi militants extended to a group of the Pakhtun Taliban led by Maulvi Nazir to cleanse Waziristan of Uzbeks and Chechen fighters a few years ago? According to Iftikhar Hussain, information minister NWFP, the growing radicalisation of Punjab and the close collaboration between Punjab’s militants and the TTP is a well-established fact. Hussain says whereas it is easier to distinguish militants in his area owing to their beards and dress (“NWFP ka talib pehchaana jata hai — pagri aur daarhi aur hulya ki waja say”) it is much more difficult pointing them out in Punjab, as the militant there is comparatively more educated and can cover up well (“Punjab mein taalib parhaa likhaa hai, bazahir mushqil hai nishaan dayhi karna”). He adds there are close to 10,000 or more Punjabi militants fighting in Afghanistan and Waziristan.
Last year alone, innumerable incidents made a mockery of the Punjab government and its denial. The discovery of huge amounts of weaponry, suicide jackets, rockets, etc, from the house of a local teacher Riaz Kamboh, which blew up in Mian Channu, Khanewal district, or the arrest of Zubair alias Naik Muhammad believed to be behind the attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and found to be a member of the Punjabi Taliban, an offshoot of LeJ with strong links to al Qaeda, or the arrest of two Seraiki-speaking men linked to the suicide attack at the Johar Ali Imambargah in DG Khan are some of the many examples.
The truth is, there is no dearth of facts. The tragedy is, there is no visible action being taken to address the evil, which now resides within. Essentially, this is a war of ideology fuelled by religious zeal and grounded in hard-hitting realities of poverty, unemployment and ignorance. A war of ideas, philosophy, principles and thoughts can only be fought when you are equipped with the same. For instance, in Saudi Arabia the government has taken the initiative to ‘deprogramme’ Islamic extremists (teenage to middle-aged men who have grown up listening to the heroic tales of freedom fighters of Afghanistan, of jihad, of the pure hoors which await them in heaven). Where are our rehabilitation centres? What effort is our state making to create social programmes aimed at explaining the principle of jihad while discouraging people from actually taking up arms? Are we in any way reaching out to the vulnerable sections of society and addressing their emotional, psychological needs and/or theological perceptions and convictions? Coupled with this, the state must strive to nip the evil in the bud by investing in education, development and greater opportunities for impoverished and disillusioned sections of society. We cannot afford another vacuum in places where the army has just completed its job, such as Swat. The government must rush in before the militants resurface, as has been the case in the past.
As for Punjab, a little sneak-peak into its budget expenditure will answer whatever questions might be arising in our minds. Punjab’s development expenditure is heavily concentrated on Lahore at Rs 7,000 per capita. Compared to this, the most poverty-stricken and thus vulnerable areas of south Punjab are allotted less than Rs 400 per capita.
Unless we fully comprehend the gravity of the situation at hand and reprioritise, I am afraid my friend will be giving birth in a very unsafe world indeed.
Meher Bokhari is a journalist, hosting and producing a daily live current affairs programme, News Beat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Daily Times