Controlling violence to establish order has been the central concern of human society over the last 10,000 years. The literature of New Political Economy shows that establishing order for the functioning of both society and economy requires institutions as well as organisations. Institutions, in this context, are rules and norms for controlling violence. Organisations such as the police, intelligence agencies, paramilitary and military forces are required to be large enough and under sufficient control of executive civil authority to enforce these rules. In Pakistan today, uncontrolled and widespread violence threatens the normal functioning of economy, society and the state.
There are three important features of Pakistan’s violence problem: (1) Armed militant groups have emerged as centres of power rivalling the state within its geographic domain. As Max Weber has argued, the defining feature of a sovereign state is that it has a monopoly over violence. So, unless Pakistan takes swift and effective action against these rival centres of power, the state can lose its sovereignty. (2) The timing of state action to counter violence is strategically important. This is because the operations of the armed militant groups to establish power are spreading from the isolated valleys of Fata to large urban centres. Evidence of this fact is provided, in recent years, by the tragic assassination of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, the terrorist attacks mounted against the General Headquarters of the military in Rawalpindi, the Federal Investigation Agency building in Lahore and the Criminal Investigation Department building in Karachi. The demonstrated capacity of armed militant groups to operate in dense urban areas shows that they can disrupt the economy, paralyse public services and constrain counter-insurgency operations. (3) The aim of extremists is nothing less than the capture of state power. Therefore, essential to their enterprise are the following objectives: Undermining public morale; winning the ideological space to influence the decisions of government and politicians through fear; motivating individuals in society to undertake violence at their behest in order to achieve widespread breakdown of law and order; penetrating the state apparatus to weaken its internal command and control.
That each of these objectives is being systematically pursued has been illustrated by the tragic assassination of Mr Salmaan Taseer, and its aftermath. First, assassinating Taseer served to undermine confidence in the ability of the state to defend its leaders, let alone ordinary citizens. Second, the objective of spreading fear was, to some extent, achieved as leaders in government failed to even make an outright condemnation of his assassination, much less enforce the law against those who continued to instigate violence against the critics of the blasphemy law. There was a similar failure to stand up against the ideological onslaught of the extremists by some of the icons of the lawyers’ movement and erstwhile flag bearers of the ‘rule of law’. Third, the Fatwas that preceded and followed Taseer’s assassination were an attempt to capture the ideological space and create an extra-legal authority to identify and kill individuals on ideological grounds. The current campaign to declare Sherry Rehman a ‘non-Muslim’ and instigate violence against her is further evidence of this tendency. Fourth, the fact that the assassin was a member of the Elite Force and that his colleagues in the unit assigned to protect Salmaan Taseer, did nothing to stop him, shows that the state apparatus has been penetrated by extremists.
The deafening silence following the assassination was broken however, by small groups of intrepid citizens who held vigils and demonstrations in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad to protest against Taseer’s assassination and the underlying wave of intolerance, bigotry and violence.
At this historic turning point, can the state, political parties and civil society wrest the initiative from the extremists and begin building a democratic polity based on the values of love, enlightenment and justice?
Published in The Express Tribune, January 17th, 2011.