The scourge of terror and disease of extremism

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A binary predicament

 

 

It has unfortunately become a norm in this country to remain in a state of denial and inaction until another profound atrocity takes place and all that is left is a sense of despair. While the people try to wrap their heads around the brutality of such incidents, our government runs around like a headless chicken, trying to come up with the usual rhetoric to hide behind.

What happened on Sunday was vicious, horrendous and cowardly but sadly enough, familiar. As many as 74 innocent lives were taken, mostly women and children, by a suicide bomber who targeted a highly crowded park in Lahore. Hundreds more remain injured while some children have either been orphaned or displaced after their parents died in the blast while their next of kin are being traced.

A TTP breakaway faction, Jamat-ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the attack, also stating that they were waiting for Easter Sunday to execute the attack. Their spokesperson, Ehsanullah Ehsan, ended his claim by threatening the government by saying they had arrived in Punjab and would carry out similar attacks in the immediate future.

Two days since the attacks it seems that two parallel operations have been launched. Gen Raheel Sharif almost immediately announced an intelligence based operation across Punjab. The operation, to be conducted by army units, Rangers, ISI and MI personnel, will be personally overseen by the COAS himself. He also stressed that this will be in no way a joint operation with the police, rather an independent military-only endeavour.

On the other side, the Punjab government, through its tainted ‘Law’ Minister Rana Sanaullah, has announced their intelligence-based operation that is to be jointly conducted by civil and military agencies. He further clarified that Punjab does not consist of any ‘no-go areas’ and that there are no safe havens for terrorists. Hence he deems the army or Rangers unnecessary, only to be called upon as and when needed.

The haste with which these operations have been announced and implemented is all too familiar. Prior to Zarb-e-Azb being launched, there were failed attempts at dead end dialogues with the animals to the North West. Chaudhry Nisar was particularly perturbed with the demise of Hakimullah Mehsud back in 2013 terming it a ‘murder of peace’. Even after the army force-fed Zarb-e-Azb to the government, there was little change in the narrative. It took a national tragedy like APS in 2014 for the government to fully get behind the military operation and the subsequent NAP (National Action Plan).

Yet, here we are again. More children killed in cold blood. The PM’s address to the nation after the attack consisted of the same sloganeering of ‘breaking the enemies’ back’ and ‘we won’t rest until…’. What was required was a delivery of hope through words, not empty promises. We wanted to see a leader of the nation speak, not just another politician reading off the same old script.

The approach has so far been to go full force against all provinces other than Punjab. Punjab, being an extension of the centre, seems like a holy cow. The fact that over 2,000 people who are on the fourth schedule of the counter terrorism act have been roaming freely in major cities of Punjab is appalling to say the least.

This incident is a major intelligence and security lapse. It highlights a preferred form of counter terrorism in Punjab that has been allowed to prevail for too long where selective sporadic operations are conducted. Incidents such as the one on Sunday lead to an immediate acceleration in efforts that soon die down until the next gruesome episode.

While the scourge of terrorism reared its ugly head yet again on Sunday, the disease of extremism metastasised to the capital on the same day. Since the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, small sit-ins were always going to take place around the country. Relatively docile street agitation had started before the hanging; the frequency of the incidents increased after the hanging and on Sunday last, 28 days later, the situation became violent.

The Punjab government may not have formally allowed the soon to be protestors to hold a chehlum for Mumtaz Qadri at Liaquat Bagh on Sunday, but they did not raise any objection to the event either. Various groups belonging to the Barelvi school of thought gathered at Liaquat Bagh under the combined banner of ‘Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah’ only to march towards D-Chowk later.

During their advance towards D-Chowk, damage was done to public property as violence broke out and the security agencies were more or less clueless about what to do. Lack of preparedness was evident whereby the situation could not be contained and the Interior Minister himself was absent to take charge of the situation. These protestors soon overran D-Chowk.

The three days that ensued, a clearly disturbed Ch Nisar put the primary blame on the Punjab government for allowing the chehlum to take place in the first place and subsequently not controlling the massive gathering when it got out of hand. After absolving himself of most of the responsibility, if not all, for what had transpired, the customary ‘talks’ began followed by several warnings to ‘disperse or else’. The religious zealots did not budge and kept calling all the bluffs.

Certain clerics were engaged in the negotiations and eventually the finishers arrived. Ishaq Dar and Khwaja Saad Rafique took the helm late Wednesday night to end the standoff. The protesters dropped most of their idiotic demands and apart from getting assurances that no amendment to the blasphemy law would be made, all they got was the release of peaceful protestors that were arrested, re-assessment of the inclusion of certain clerics on the fourth schedule (one of whom led the protests in question) and re-assessment of cases against certain ulema.

The result of this episode is a win-loss, the loser being the government and the public. It is a Pyrrhic victory for the protestors. All they have managed to do is get hollow assurances and re-assessment deals while saving face due to the governments avoidance of use of force. The people of Islamabad had to endure traffic jams along with suspension of mobile network services, disruptions that invariably cause unnecessary anger amongst the public and a loss of revenue to businesses.

The fact of the matter is that these protestors should not have reached D-Chowk in the first place. They could have been stopped to do so if a competent enough system of governance had been in place. This is not the first procession towards D-Chowk. The government should have learned from the PTI stage-in in 2014 rather than just saying ‘good riddance’.

The handling of the sit-in has set an unacceptable and unfortunate precedent: gather a mob, march towards a sensitive location, cause damage along the way, sit-in, present a set of demands, recede, dance all the way home unscathed and more empowered. Both the Punjab government and the federal government could and should have done better.

The war against terrorism requires a consistent effort of equal intensity across the board. Punjab cannot be a ‘no-go’ area in terms of an operation while there is evidence of terrorist inclinations present. The Islamabad drama was unfortunate and mishandled. How can one expect the growing extremist narrative to change when the people in power need a lot of convincing to do so?

3 COMMENTS

  1. PML N has administered anesthesia to the people with a high doze. Only our Lawyers did not take it and came out to protest for a cause.

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