Muted protests won’t do

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PAKISTANIS have perfected the art of protest. Karachi has posters plastered on the walls calling on people to demonstrate their solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza.

In 2007 Musharraf’s coup against the judiciary brought lawyers on to the roads until ‘democracy’ returned to this country. But why are the voices of protest so muted when it comes to Swat? To protest against such tragedies is a duty. And Swat is a tragedy that will ultimately shape the future of Pakistan.

Is there something more to the situation in Swat than meets the eye? True, the events there have been overshadowed by the larger picture of the war against terror in Fata and Afghanistan. But that doesn’t mean Swat has little to mourn about. It is not just the slaughter that has left the people speechless. It is the accompanying brutality and ruthlessness that make one’s blood curdle. Obviously, the idea is to spread terror. Some snippets from the press make chilling reading:

• The figure for civilian casualties runs into hundreds.

• 200,000 of Swat’s 1.7 million population have fled their homes.

• The government’s effective writ has receded from the state’s 5,337 sq km to 36 sq km around Mingora.

• To terrorise the people, militants resort to a public show of barbarity and instances have been reported of men’s throats being slit and their corpses being left hanging from poles with a warning that they should not be removed.

• Women have been ordered to stay home and those defying the ban have been proclaimed prostitutes and slain.

• Girls’ schools — the number varies from 170 to 200 — have been torched or bombed and female education prohibited.

• Men resisting the Taliban have been declared informers and accomplices of the government and shot dead or have had their property destroyed.

• The militants dominate the airwaves and Maulana Fazlullah’s FM radio continues to pour out its retrogressive messages of violence.

• Swat today has a visible presence of foreigners from Central Asia. What are they doing there?

• People speak of terrorists/training camps operating in the area.

• Tourism the mainstay of Swat’s economy is at a standstill.

These atrocities are shocking and you wonder why people are silent. And then one voice is raised on the Internet. It is Shaheen Sardar Ali’s, a native of that region who teaches law at the Warwick University. In a poignant piece titled “Will the gula-i-nargis bloom this spring in the Swat valley?” she asks: “How long before we will say: enough is enough and rise, speak and act? How much more suffering before we declare emphatically that we refuse to be harassed and silenced any longer and demand answers for the wrongdoings meted out to us? How many more humans will have to be slaughtered, before we stand up and say NO.”

There is method in the madness that has engulfed Swat. This is not simply a battle between two civilisations — one seeking to impose by force its own brand of the Sharia on the people and the other resisting this imposition. If it was just a struggle of this kind, the army with its superior firepower and commitment to defend the writ of the state could easily have checked the insurgency and brought peace to this idyllic valley.

The Taliban by and large do not enjoy the support of the population, we are told, and so this is not a classical case of guerrilla conflict which defies conventional strategies of law enforcement. If Swat continues to be in flames even six months after Operation Rah-i-Haq was launched, there is something sinister going on up there. Has the old game of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds returned to the agenda of the defenders of this land? While the army claims it is waging a war against the Taliban, strangely enough the enemy seems to be thriving as it expands its operations.

At stake is the credibility of the army which has not been helped by the contradiction between words and deeds that is striking. This is not something we are not familiar with. In his exhaustive study of the Pakistan Army, Crossed Swords, Shuja Nawaz speaks of “local militant groups with shadowy links, past or present, to the ISI”, which was, along with other agencies, “allowed to keep open ties to Islamic groups”. Even in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks we have the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, speaking last week of delinking the Inter Services Intelligence from terrorist groups in Pakistan. We do not know how deep and in which direction these links run.

The United States itself is not above all suspicion either. It was known to be engaging the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1997 when Washington was interested in procuring an oil and gas pipeline project for Unocal in that country. Now it wants them decimated.

And what about our political parties that now feign to be so powerless in Swat? They have all contributed in one way or another to facilitating the rise of Islamic militancy. Just read what Dr Fazal-ur-Rahim Marwat of the University of Peshawar recounts in his book Talibanisation of Pakistan. According to him, it was in June 1989 that the elders of Malakand convened a meeting of the representatives of all political parties that included the ANP, PPP and PML-N as well as an assortment of religious groups to set up the Tehrik-i-Nifaaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TSNM) which chose Maulana Sufi Mohammad of the JI as its leader. The TNSM began gathering strength in 1994 when the PPP was in office in Islamabad and Naseerullah Babar was busy organising the Taliban in Afghanistan.Not to be left behind, it was the PML-N government in its second stint which extended formal recognition to the Taliban regime in Kabul in 1997, clearly indicating its leanings. Today, the ANP presides over the tragedy in Swat.

It is difficult to define the changing equations between the numerous stakeholders. Now when the genie is out of the bottle, who will take the blame? The common people of Swat will have to bear the brunt and for many of them the gula-i-nargis will never bloom again, though the crisis is not of their making.