This cancer is in Punjab

Fear that thrives off the sectarian swamp in southern Punjab

Asad Rahim Khan March 28, 2016
The writer is a barrister and columnist. He is an Advocate of the High Court, and tweets @AsadRahim

In his younger, angrier days, Iqbal wrote: “Justice is an inestimable treasure; but we must guard it against the thief of mercy.” Some hundred years later, justice is long dead; courtesy the kind of mercy that flows from fear.

Fear that thrives off the sectarian swamp in southern Punjab. There’s no other way of putting this and — let’s be honest — everyone’s been saying it for years. In columns and cable television, in academic theses and wall-chalkings: this cancer is in Punjab.

There are two parties here: the mutants in the south, and their apologists in the centre. Takht-e-Lahore has militancy down to a science: listen to bomb blasts in the distance, buckle down, and look away. If it’s not here, it’s not anywhere.

Sure, Hazaras are cleansed from Quetta, and college kids are shot at in Charsadda, and there is sectarian violence in Abbas Town, and bad things happen in badlands far and away.

But Punjab, to quote another insipid right-winger, is a shining city on a hill — the ‘roshan’ in Roshan Pakistan. If it happens in Karachi, punch them in the face. If it happens in Fata, whack them back to Nuristan. But if there are tremors in Punjab, kick it under the carpet.

Forget the south, the Muslim League wasn’t even taking on the north. The year 2013 was proof of as much: talk to the Taliban. Dilly-dally on North Waziristan. Watch them blow up the district courts in Islamabad. Professor Ibrahim may yet cut us a deal.

But Waziristan happened. Zarb-e-Azb happened. And as the operation concludes in Shawwal, it’s time we held on again.

By mid-2013, there were three flashpoints: Karachi, Fata, and southern Punjab. The fact we’ve gone so hard in the first two, and left the third untouched, sums up the centre in a single sentence.

On Easter Sunday, Gulshan-e-Iqbal became a nightmare. Those who’ve seen the rides, who’ve seen kids run in the grass; who’ve breathed the air of Gulshan-e-Iqbal; lack the faculty to say more. What kind of sick idea is this meant to achieve — to murder children on swing sets?

“Contemplation without action is death,” Iqbal once said. There can be no more hemming and hawing. The suspected bomber reportedly hails from Muzaffargarh, where sectarian hate finds fertile ground. It’s time to flush out militancy from Punjab. And at the risk of repetition, it’s now or never.

That’s for the short run. In the long run, when you let your backyard become a violent snake pit, it tends to explode out front. What we now have is three provinces outsourced to the military and Rangers, and the state refusing to take the brunt in Punjab or Islamabad either.

So, while an operation in Punjab needed to happen yesterday, the civilian project is even more vital: madrassas, with all kinds of cruel and unusual curricula, operate with impunity. The nexus between charity drives and banned outfits has been entrenched for decades.

Education, welfare, volunteerism; this kind of extremist ingress can’t be fought with strikes and strafing. Ideas are fought with ideas: national action plans, press campaigns, economic incentives. Instead, we have mass deprivation on our hands.

And it wasn’t always this way. According to the Institute of Public Policy (IPP), “Multan and Rahim Yar Khan were ranked 4th and 6th in Punjab” around the 1970s. According to the IPP report, “southern parts of the province were massively neglected later on in the provision of economic infrastructure and public service delivery, resulting in the steep decline in their development ranking”.

Today, of Punjab’s 36 districts, it’s the South that shows up dead last in development indicators. The budget remains a fraction of what’s actually spent on Lahori white elephants, and what’s allotted isn’t used — for an effective disbursement of funds to happen (i.e., the kind that makes for grassroots improvement) you need an effective local government. Without the second, you can’t get the first.

Yes, the jury’s still out on whether poverty is a cause or correlation of militancy. But it’s not as if the state’s set about disproving it: southern Punjab remains one of the hottest, poorest, angriest places in the land.

This is a long-haul project: it requires army operations, and subsequently, civilian surgery. To pretend otherwise is what we’ve done since 2009, Punjab Police style: hammer a ringleader or two, filter the second-tier guys, and talk to anyone that’s reasonable.

But that’s too little, too late: without cutting out the cancer in the south, everything else is window-dressing.

Meanwhile, the real deal-breaker was, is, and always has been the police. The current counter-terror strategy relies on ‘special units’: elite forces; a crew of James Bonds fully-equipped to take on terror. But that’s not the answer — it’s the humdrum of regular police work: investigation; evidence collection; forensics; case building; that needs upgrading.

And from proper evidence collection flows proper prosecution, which may mean our courts actually convict terrorists than acquit them on sight.

The justice system; service delivery; sectarian groups; policing — when it comes to southern Punjab, where to start?

Perhaps there’s no place to look but the beginning. We celebrated March 23 with enthusiasm. But let’s remember what actually happened on March 23, 1940: Mr Jinnah declaring “full religious liberty, i.e., liberty of belief, worship and observance” to all communities, and protection of minorities’ “religious, cultural, [and] economic’ rights” in Lahore.

What we call Pakistan Day, is the anniversary of the Quaid painting our green banners white. A week from then, we watched as sick-hearted men ostensibly targeting Christian women and children — and all Lahore came out, giving their blood, shedding their tears: Muslim, Christian, Hindu.

And while gardens named for Iqbal are bombed, ideas cannot be undone. “The message of love,” he wrote, “when I can no longer keep it to myself, I come and tell it to your shining stars.”

The heart of this country is good. And it will be reclaimed.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2016.

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Rex Minor | 5 years ago | Reply The heart of this country is good. And it will be reclaimed. currently This is very true Sir, but this is precisely the reason why two opposing forces are struggling for. Your solutionss are extreme and have so far not worked and will never work in the future as well. If the Sharifs were to follow what they did in the rest of the country, it will be the exit from politics for all those Punjabis who are in power today? Masada has never been the specialty of muslim folks. Rex Minor
Adnan | 5 years ago | Reply Unless Pakistan has an equal representation from states other than Punjab, there will always be fingers pointed. The military high-command is dominated by Punjabis and most of the development budget is reserved for Punjab. This bias has to be addressed.
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